It’s graduation time, the annual rite of passage that brings to mind Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” march, caps and gowns and diplomas. Now picture tutus and toe shoes, try a little music by Delibes, and instead of diplomas, contracts with a world-famous ballet company, and you’ve got a graduation of a different sort for several young members of the Joffrey Academy Studio Company, three of whom have just been invited to become members of The Joffrey Ballet.
The Joffrey Academy of Dance spring production of the ballet “Coppélia,” which took place at Joffrey Tower May 16-19, was the culminating event that also launched 16 other Studio Company and Trainee dancers in professional careers with ballet companies across the U.S. and abroad, including West Australian Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Charlotte Ballet, Dresden Ballet, Kansas City Ballet, Milwaukee Ballet, Alabama Ballet, Royal Swedish Ballet and Atlanta Ballet.
“Coppélia,” choreographed by Arthur Saint-Léon, premiered in Paris in 1870 to an original score by Léo Delibes, with a libretto by Charles-Louis-Étienne Nuitter. Raymond Rodriguez, who heads the Joffrey Academy’s Studio Company and Trainee Program, put the story together, compressing the production from its original three acts into a two-act ballet by omitting the Act 3 wedding scene. He and Karin Ellis-Wentz, head of the Academy’s pre-professional programs, adapted some of the original choreography to the capabilities of the younger students and staged it with plenty of fun and story clarity.
Rodriguez was influenced by many different productions of "Coppelia," reconstructing much of the choreography from memory and video archives. Fredrick Franklin in turn was influenced by Marius Petipa’s version for the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg, Russia. Rodriguez also credits Lew Christensen, George Balanchine and Enriqué Martinez whose adaptations also inspired this production. Ellis-Wentz, who helped coach the Academy dancers in the elaborate mime the ballet required, danced the role of Lead Mazurka in “Coppélia” while she was a dancer with American Ballet Theatre.
The two began teaching the Swanhilda variations and the pas de deux to all the Trainees and Studio Company dancers in December. Rehearsals began with the rest of the cast in January, with the whole production coming together over only four days before the first performance.
A last-minute substitution required Rodriguez to jump into the role of Dr. Coppélius, the diabolical doll-maker, filling in for a Studio Company dancer who left the program to join the Charlotte Ballet.
The palpable delight Rodriguez took in performing the character role added to the fun for both audience and dancers, but the highlight for him was “seeing how cohesively everyone was able to achieve such a high level of storytelling,” he said in an interview. The three Studio Company dancers about to join the Joffrey’s ranks are Miu Tanaka, 20, who danced the lead role of Swanhilda, José Pablo "JP" Castro Cuevas, 17, in the role of her fiancé, Franz, and Jonathan Dole, 20, one of Franz’s four friends.
Tanaka, with the Studio Company for only one year, proved her mettle with endearing charm and consummate skill in the ballerina’s dream role of Swanhilda, knocking off top-grade fouetté turns, devilish petit allegro, and unsupported en pointe posé attitude balances. Cuevas as Franz brought boyish abandon and carefree ease to his double tours, brisées volés and tours à la secondes. Together they demonstrated confidence and infectious rapport in their partnering. And Dole showed maturity and impressive technical polish. As all three head into the Joffrey Ballet, their performances in “Coppélia” are a fitting career launch that have given them and their classmates a taste of what to expect as professional company members.
Tanaka came to the Joffrey Academy from the John Cranko School in Stuttgart, Germany. She was accepted as a Trainee but was quickly promoted to the Studio Company. She has enjoyed performing lead roles in Joffrey Academy productions, but one of her favorite moments was when she had the opportunity to perform in the Joffrey Ballet’s “Swan Lake” in 2018. “Along with learning and dancing my own spot, I unexpectedly had to jump into another girl’s role in less than four hours prior to the show," she said in an interview. "It taught me how to be prepared for anything in a professional environment.” Auditioning for contemporary work was challenging for her. “I had not done much contemporary work in the past, but I was inspired by other dancers and grew from this amazing experience.” She is looking forward to working with “people I look up to and aspire to be like, and I am also excited to perform new repertory,” she said.
Joffrey artistic director Ashley Wheater first saw Cuevas while serving on the jury for the Youth America Grand Prix competitions in Mexico in 2016. Wheater offered him a scholarship to Joffrey’s summer intensive. Once in Chicago, Cuevas auditioned for the school and was offered a full scholarship for level VI. The following year he joined the Conservatory Program, and was admitted to the Studio Company the year after that. He has loved being able to take class with Joffrey Ballet company members. “The most special thing for me has been being able to perform with them in Christopher Wheeldon’s 'Nutcracker,'" he said. Cuevas says the most challenging aspect of training at The Joffrey Academy has been “trying to balance my academic workload and the demanding schedule of the Studio Company.” He couldn’t be more excited to start work “in such an amazing company.”
Dole was accepted into the Academy Trainee program in 2016 and has been in the Studio Company this past year.
The Joffrey Academy’s production of the ballet “Coppélia,” featured nine Joffrey Studio Company dancers in all the major roles, with 30 Trainees and students in levels IIA through VI performing variations. The importance placed on the storytelling was evidenced in clarity of expression in the dancing and mime sequences, which made the story crystal clear for the packed studio theatre audience. Robert Sims’ projections of the narrative text reinforced the tale, adapted from E.T.A. Hoffman’s original, “The Girl With The Enamel Eyes.” Julie Ballard’s subtle lighting, gorgeous costuming by Gabriel Brandon-Hanson and Luis Razo, and dancing throughout that was both exacting and expressive, all combined to elevate this Academy production to a level of spit and polish that represents the integrity of the entire Joffrey organization.