The Joffrey's Swedish Import

Giant LED screens will show candid moments of Joffrey dancers talking about who they are and what they do. These documentary bits will be woven into an actual dance performance. It's the U.S. debut by acclaimed Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman. It's a revealing multimedia work about dance and dancers. Chicago Tonight visited the Auditorium Theatre for the first rehearsal of Unique Voices, running from Feb. 11-22.

Read an interview with Joffrey Ballet dancer, Dylan Gutierrez, 25, who performs in Maninyas and Tulle in Unique Voices.

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Dylan GutierrezHow would you describe Unique Voices?

The title is pretty self-explanatory. It has three choreographers who each have a unique voice in the ballet world and dance world, and that’s definitely expressed in the three pieces. The dancing by them in the program is definitely something to come and see because you have so many different factors.

Maninyas is a neo-classical contemporary-type piece. The moves and choreography are fast and athletic. The choreographer, Stanton Welch, has a good ear for musicality and it comes through in Maninyas.

The Man in Black piece is danced in cowboy boots—it’s pretty much all line dancing. It’s different to the Joffrey because it’s all ballet dancers doing line dancing to Johnny Cash music, who’s singing covers of other songs. The choreographer, James Kudelka, has a unique voice and eye and taste. This is probably the most out-there piece because there’s no ballet shoes.

Tulle by choreographer Alexander Ekman is pretty much a showcase of classical ballet. It sort of shows the form and the idea of ballet, and what goes on behind [the stage] and what goes into [ballet]. It’s like holding up a mirror to classical ballet and saying to the audience, “this is what we do.” It’s not all fantasy. There’s a lot of talking and there’s noises being made. Things you don’t see us do and [have] never seen us do in a full-length classical ballet, but we do offstage—whether it’s holding our knees, or talking about how things went, and there’s also dialogue. A lot of people dance to dialogue and it explains the history of classical ballet…. It’s an inside look at what classical ballet is. There’s a lot of great funny moments and imagination from Ekman, who’s on the forefront of choreography now.

What are some of those funny or imaginative moments?

There’s a whole section with all women. After the men clear the stage, the women in tutus stay and do this—it’s kind of reminiscent of Swan Lake—[where] four lines of five girls in each line do synchronized steps. And it sounds like their feet and voices are miked because the track is the feet and voices of another group doing that part, and the girls have to stay with it. They start making noises and start breathing, and at one point they stop and stare at the audience, and then begin banging their shoes on the floor like how dancers do to break in their shoes. They’re crazy and wild-banging their shoes in sync, and then they’re breathing and coughing. It’s funny because it’s making fun of itself. It’s like you’re breathing in and then you get something caught in your throat and you have to cough.

Ekman interviewed dancers for the multimedia component. What was the interview like?

We didn’t do the interviews. They came from Sweden. They were [conducted in Sweden with Swedish dancers], but you can tell the interviews were pretty candid because at one point the girl who’s speaking chuckles at something she said and trips over her words. It’s just very real. She’s just sitting there and talking and hanging out. You can imagine she was pretty relaxed.

[Ekman] is very particular, but in a different way. He’s not like, “no, this needs to be perfect, say it like this.” It seems like [the speaker] is a non-native English speaker. She has a different rhythm to her speech than Americans. It’s interesting. It’s like music itself.

What’s it like to be dancing to someone speaking? 

The part that they use her voice is a duet between the women. When you’re dancing and something doesn’t have a count, you’d base your movement off a certain word. The dancers would get a cue. When the big group comes in during the speaking moment, they wait for a word. [The speaker says,] “you’ve developed certain skills.” When we hear “skills,” we all pause, and then [the speaker says] “you’re doing all these beautiful movements,” and they start doing these movements. For the two girls in the duet, I imagine they have voice cues and look at each other and decide when each other go.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

This production is great for young audiences. You get to see three different things the Joffrey can do—all kinds of different spectrums of classical ballet. It’s entertaining. A full-length classical ballet takes an acquired taste to understand the flow. With these pieces, you’ll get a buffet of what the Joffrey can do, and it’s all equally great.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

Watch a preview of Ekman's tongue-in-cheek tribute to the art of ballet, "Tulle."

Watch a preview of Unique Voices.

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