Dance

Choreographer Talks ‘Boléro,’ Joffrey Ballet’s First Covid-Era Performance

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With masks, isolation and added sanitation rituals, this pandemic has been viewed by many as burdensome and even downright tragic. But Yoshihisa Arai’s choreography to “Boléro” is inspired by a humanistic outlook of the pandemic.

Arai’s 16-minute work has been pre-recorded for a free, one-time only broadcast. Friday’s world premiere of “Boléro,” named after the acclaimed orchestral piece by composer Maurice Ravel, was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra. 

“Boléro” will be the company’s first performance since their winter program, “The Times Are Racing,” which opened at the Auditorium Theatre nearly one year ago on Feb. 12. 

“This is the Joffrey’s first studio series’ digital performance so what I create is going to affect the company,” Arai said. “So I had more responsibility on my shoulders, more than being a dancer.”

Arai, who normally dances for the company, choreographed an abridged version of “Boléro” for Joffrey’s academy. When rehearsal director and coach Nicolas Blanc saw the piece, he tasked Arai with choreographing the second piece he’s created in his eight years with the company.

Arai started choreographing to the full score in March 2020. Two weeks later, they had to stop because of the pandemic and couldn’t restart rehearsals until September.

According to Arai, the original piece was completely different because of the new regulations and restrictions. He had to re-choreograph everything to make it more suitable for the pandemic. 

“Boléro” is an ensemble of eight male and seven female company artists. Throughout the piece, filmed at Joffrey’s Gerald Arpino Black Box Theatre, there is social distancing and no contact between the dancers.

Arai envisioned Bueno, the featured performer, as a muse. Her persona evokes an abstract but humanistic quality to the overall feeling of the piece as she leads her “disciples” through a serene world of light and shadows, according to Arai. 

Professional-grade stage lighting is used to enhance Arai’s vision and create feelings of a live and personable experience. The camera editing will also allow viewers to see things they normally might miss from their position in the theatre, Arai said.

Ashley Wheater, Joffrey Ballet’s artistic director, emphasized how the theme of intimacy can be felt not just by the Chicago community, but those streaming worldwide who otherwise wouldn’t have access to in-person viewership.

“Through ‘Boléro,’ Yoshihisa beautifully emulates a feeling of reconnecting with our humanity in a world where we can’t touch or hold each other right now,” Wheater said. “The process has been cathartic for everyone involved, and while we yearn for the stage, this thoughtfully filmed performance will allow viewers, near and far, to experience the Joffrey in an intimate way that they haven’t before.”

According to Arai, his artistic vision for the piece was heavily influenced by the Spanish-flavored, orchestral music.

“To me, the most fascinating quality of the music is that the rhythm remains the same throughout the piece,” Arai said. “Yet, as the instruments change from snare drum to flute, trombone to woodwinds, and so on, an array of emotions are unleashed. This inspires me most of all.”

Arai’s other major inspiration for “Boléro” was elements in nature, particularly the circle of life.

“Once you feel like everything has finished, there is always new life coming out of it,” Arai said. “After we get through this, we’ll be able to have a new life and a new way of living. If there’s an end, there’s a beginning. That circle never stops.”

Production was enhanced by costume designer Temur Suluashvili, who is also a veteran Company artist. Suluashvili focused on a minimal and classic Japanese dance look, according to the press email. The men wear Kabuki pants alongside women in floating skirts over nude leotards, with large black pearls adorning their necks. The costumes include face masks, adding to the theatrical look.

“Boléro’s” performance is part of the company’s newest studio series, which will include additional free and prerecorded showings and rehearsals. The subsequent performance is currently in production.

“Boléro” will stream for free Friday, Feb. 26 at 7 p.m. on Joffrey’s Facebook page and via their website.

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