Boléro at Joffrey Ballet
Boléro at Joffrey Ballet Credit: Courtesy Joffrey Ballet

Winter in a pandemic. The roads obstructed with snow. The sight of the same street outside the same window inside the unchanging footprint of the apartment whose every corner and contour is saturated with a sickening familiarity. The scent of your own breath exhaled back through your mask, fogging windows frozen shut. A year, every day of which brings the same emergency home again. Vaccine. Variants. 

“Don’t you think that has an insistent quality? I’m going to try to repeat it a number of times without any development,” said Maurice Ravel on discovering the theme for his 1928 Boléro. Its parameters were simple and simply described by its composer: “a theme lasting less than a minute, but which I’ll repeat for up to 18 minutes.” Initially commissioned by the ballerina Ida Rubinstein, the score premiered to acclaim at the Paris Opéra with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska. And though Ravel dismissed the work as “consisting wholly of ‘orchestral tissue without music'” in a 1931 interview with the Daily Telegraph, the work has never ceased its popularity. 

Its sinuous repetitions have famously inspired one of Maurice Béjart‘s signature works, as well as choreography by Serge Lifar, Michel Fokine, Thierry Malandain, among ballet choreographers alone. Ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean won the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo with their mesmerizing rendition, a performance so iconic they repeated it as an exhibition piece at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer. George Lucas included it in the score for Star Wars before hiring John Williams.

“It’s said . . . every 15 minutes, somewhere in the world, a performance [of Boléro] begins,” reported France Musique in 2017. Even in a pandemic, this may be true: in April of last year, over a hundred students and alumni of Juilliard alone collaborated remotely to produce an epic, playful, and immaculately coordinated rendition directed and choreographed by Larry Keigwin with associate Nicole Wolcott.

At the Joffrey Ballet, a new Boléro by company artist Yoshihisa Arai, intended for the company’s spring gala, had just begun the creation process two weeks before the city entered lockdown. After a remote spring, the company returned to its studios in September. Now Arai’s piece, his second for the company (after a 2018 gala piece for men titled Afternoon Watch), will be its first performance in over a year’s time when it premieres online on February 26. 

“It’s been a year since we’ve been shut down,” says Joffrey artistic director Ashley Wheater. “It’s been challenging. We have been committed to keeping the company whole and honoring the dancers’ workweek under their union. We’re still in there every day rehearsing and creating. The company has been really careful about not touching each other, wearing a mask, and social distancing. I think living by sensible rules has carried us through.” 

“We came back to the studio knowing we couldn’t have outside guests in the building or fly anyone across the world,” he continues, noting that the company has also been working remotely with choreographer Cathy Marston on Of Mice and Men, originally scheduled to premiere this month. “Yoshi suddenly had a lot more time to focus on his work. That’s a luxury in any art form to have that time.”

The year has also given the Joffrey time to reflect on equity and inclusion. “I have been in weekly conversations with Dance USA and William Forsythe and the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance [at the University of Southern California] about addressing systemic racism in the arts,” says Wheater. “It’s given us time to look at questions such as, what are the values the audiences want? Where are we as an organization? What does it look like when we come back and move forward? It’s rare that you have this kind of time in an arts organization to just have thoughtful, mindful time about what the future of dance looks like.” 

Originally created in a shortened form for the Joffrey Academy Studio Company, Arai’s Boléro for the Joffrey uses the full score as rendered by the London Symphony Orchestra. While the pandemic has allowed for a protracted process, it has also posed constraints that have served to shape the piece for 15 dancers—the maximum capacity of the studio under distancing guidelines—who wear masks, maintain a six-foot distance, and do not touch. To Arai, the process has been one of joy, community, and gratitude. “It’s been absolutely rewarding and wonderful,” he says. “I’ve danced with my colleagues for many years. Building a piece together really touches me. Especially during this time, I think this piece has to have humanity. All of the dancers, including me, are so lucky that we are still creating art and still dancing during this time. It’s a very special piece for me now.”

“It’s such a famous piece of music,” he says of Ravel’s score. “I didn’t want to compete with it too much. The music itself is so powerful, I just wanted to follow. I have one main girl dancing solo the entire piece. I told her, this finishes at the end with big notes, but I don’t want her to think this is the end. It is the end, but it is also the beginning of your life. The universe never stops; it is always circling around, like the big bang in the universe.”  v