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Photo by Cheryl Mann, courtesy of WTTW11

Last year, the Joffrey Ballet premiered a brand-new Nutcracker, retiring Robert Joffrey's original production. It was a big deal—it cost $4 million to create, and celebrated choreographer Christopher Wheeldon was at the helm. Now, a year later—and just in time for the holidays, so you can get your Nutcracker fix from in front of your laptop—WTTW, Chicago's public-media organization, has debuted a documentary about the making of the ballet.

This is seriously fascinating stuff, all packed into an hour—we highly recommend you watch. Here are five of our favorite moments from the documentary:

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Dance for Life Chicago, an annual benefit concert for HIV/AIDS and other critical health issues, celebrates its 25th anniversary at Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theatre on August 20. Chicago dance companies, including Joffrey Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Giordano Dance Chicago, will perform.

“The really beautiful thing about Dance for Life is that it draws the whole Chicago dance community together,” says Diane Rawlinson, dance teacher at Wheeling High School who has co-directed the “Next Generation” student-produced concert for 22 years. “It really is something to witness.”

Dance for Life has presented 32 Chicago dance companies during the past 24 years.

Photo by Julia Nash Photography, courtesy of Dance for Life Chicago

Don't miss a single issue of Dance Teacher.

In our June issue’s History: Lesson Plan, we learn about Robert Joffrey, American choreographer and founder of the Joffrey Ballet. Rather than relying on established company models—showcasing the work of one choreographer or solely the classics—he instead built a diverse repertory of commissions from up-and-coming choreographers and revivals of master works.

Watch the Joffrey Ballet in The Green Table. Joffrey revived this 1932 antiwar masterpiece by German choreographer Kurt Jooss in 1967, giving it new relevance and popularity in light of the Vietnam War. Joffrey commissioned Jooss to set the work on the company himself, shortly before his retirement.

Photo by Herbert Migdoll, courtesy of the Joffrey Ballet

For more on Joffrey, subscribe to Dance Teacher and receive the June issue.

Yesterday, Joffrey Ballet live-streamed three hours of Swan Lake rehearsal with Christopher Wheeldon. And lucky for us, the whole session is now posted on the company’s YouTube channel.

You’d think this would be a chance to get a sneak peak of the performance—and it is—but the most interesting parts happen between the dancing moments. It’s fascinating to watch Wheeldon polish details with the performers. During the first two hour-long segments, he works with the corps, creating uniform lines and port de bras in the Act I waltz and among the swans of Act II. He offers tips like letting the arm movements originate at the center of the back to make them more wing-like.

If you have limited time, skip to the two-hour mark. You’ll see artistic director Ashley Wheater chat with Wheeldon and Jason Fowler about the staging process. Fowler had the hardest job, says Wheeldon, because he actually learned the ballet from videos and set large portions of it on the dancers himself. Wheeldon only recently arrived to clarify the movement.

In the final hour, Wheeldon rehearses the principals—Victoria Jaiani as Odette/Odile and Dylan Gutierrez as Prince Siegfried—on the moment of their first encounter. He focuses on the motivations and intentions behind the pantomime. “First you see his eyes, then you see the bow, and that’s what frightens you,” he tells Jaiani. He works with the pair on creating real characters and a believable interaction. Debriefing afterward with Wheater, he says, “It can’t just be steps, where we think, 'Oh she’s flapping her arms so she’s a swan, and he’s running around with a princely bow so he’s the prince.' They have to actually embody those characters and believe in them for us to believe them.”

I only wish there had been time to watch them work on the pas de deux. I’m sure Wheeldon has great tips on partnering.

Joffrey Ballet premieres Wheeldon’s Swan Lake on October 15.

Christina Rocas, like any young ballerina, started out trying to dance like her teacher. Before joining the Joffrey Ballet in 2005, Rocas was part of Ballet Manila in the Philippines, where she tried to imitate the way her teacher, Lisa Macuja-Elizalde, moved. After Macuja-Elizalde helped her find a place with the Joffrey, Rocas began to develop her own artistic style with the help of the Joffrey's Graca Sales.

"At Ballet Manila, I didn't understand a lot about myself, but I thought Lisa was an amazing dancer, so my tendency was to copy her. At Joffrey, I was tempted--I was only 19 when I arrived--to do the same thing and copy people. But I realized that copying people isn't very honest. Graca helped me find out what kind of dancer I really am. I think she had a vision of what I could become."

Rocas will dance the female lead during part of the Joffrey Ballet's Romeo and Juliet at Roosevelt University, May 2-11.

Photo by Cheryl Mann, courtesy of the Joffrey Ballet


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