Pushing the boundaries of classical ballet is no simple feat. Yet, with each new production, The Joffrey Ballet manages to circumvent the limits of ballet with ease, inviting audiences to fall in love with the expressive potential of the art form.
In an interview with The Daily Californian, Jeraldine Mendoza and Dylan Gutierrez, two company artists in The Joffrey Ballet and romantic partners outside of it, exalt the pathos of dance. In addition to showcasing artistic excellence, the dancers note the importance of relaying a relatable narrative through movement as it resonates with a broad audience.
“We don’t shy away from trying to tell a story in everything we dance,” Mendoza said.
Mendoza has danced with the Company since 2011, performing lead roles in performances such as Yuri Possokhov’s “Don Quixote,” Robert Joffrey’s “The Nutcracker” and Jerome Robbins’ “In the Night.” At the age of five, she began training at City Ballet School of San Francisco and later the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow before dancing with The Joffrey.
Gutierrez, in turn, trained at the Los Angeles Ballet Academy under the direction of his mother before he was granted a full scholarship to The Royal Ballet School in London. He then served as an apprentice with the San Francisco Ballet before attending The Joffrey in 2009.
Though the couple spent a considerable amount of time in the Bay Area, their paths did not cross until Mendoza began dancing with the Company.
“I was wearing a shirt with the Notorious B.I.G. on it, and she walked past me and did a Notorious B.I.G. impression,” Gutierrez recounted fondly. “I was in love from then on.”
The couple has become a dynamic pair in the Company, performing intricate choreography in pieces such as “The Times Are Racing,” “Year of the Rabbit” and “Giselle.”
The two continue to perform complex pas de deux with The Joffrey Ballet, telling stories that speak to the current social climate. Made up of five unique pieces, the Company’s latest program explores the intersection between classic ballet and contemporary social issues.
One of the program’s more formal pieces, Gerald Arpino’s “Birthday Variations,” premiered in the 1980s, yet The Joffrey’s reimagining brims with innovation as the discipline of technique enhances the piece’s storytelling.
“It’s really incredible to watch the current dancers do (“Birthday Variations”) because they are so good, so classically beautiful and well trained, but then they also still have that Joffrey spirit of moving,” Gutierrez explained. “They move beyond the confines of what classical movement is.”
The program also includes Nicolas Blanc’s “Under the Trees’ Voices,” a piece crafted and rehearsed in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Composed of multiple couples, including Gutierrez and Mendoza, the choreography speaks to a pandemic stricken world, touching on themes of isolation and community.
“(Under the Trees’ Voices) is about community, connection and our relationship with the earth. I think that the way Nicolas choreographed it and the way the piece intertwines, it’s like branches,” Gutierrez remarked. “It’s a quintessential Joffrey Ballet piece — it doesn’t have one standalone pas de deux in the middle — things move in and out and it’s really effective.”
The piece first debuted in a digital program during the pandemic, so the process of adapting it for the stage initiated new challenges and anxieties that the dancers had not experienced before.
“Getting back onstage has been a process — it’s really not that easy. There are these weird anxieties that you get that you didn’t use to have,” Gutierrez said. “But The Joffrey did really everything they could to get us back whole and safe and in the best position possible to succeed.”
Mendoza confirmed these anxieties. “We were pretty anxious having it be our first time back onstage after two years,” she noted. “But, it felt so rewarding and freeing. We forgot what it felt like to really dance with that much space and it felt amazing.”
The pandemic detrimentally affected dancers by halting the experience of witnessing live art. Yet, The Joffrey Ballet persevered, creating gorgeous choreographed pieces that allowed their dancers to keep their jobs and anticipate their next opportunity to perform.
“As horrible as it was to be locked down and restricted for so much of our daily lives, there were still so many beautiful moments that came out of the pandemic and ‘Under the Trees’ Voices’ is one of them,” Mendoza said.
Other pieces in the program such as “Boléro” and “Swing Low” further speak to the experiences of modern audiences. Ballet is breaking from the past, shifting to reflect the triumphs and turmoil of contemporary society.
“I think the new pieces that we do are led with a lot more compassion to people’s experiences,” Gutierrez said. “They speak more to a collective experience, and I think that reaches across cultures better and brings more people in than it used to.”
With new productions on the horizon including “Of Mice and Men” and “Don Quixote,” The Joffrey Ballet continues to challenge the boundaries of classical ballet, working with talented dancers such as Mendoza and Gutierrez to relay significant, expressive stories.
The Joffrey Ballet is performing in Zellerbach Hall March 4-6.