A veteran Chicago dancer, teacher and choreographer, Stephanie Martinez has plenty of experience creating works for companies such as Luna Negra Dance Theater and Elements Contemporary Ballet. But her latest project, Bliss!, marks at least two firsts.
It is her first commission for Joffrey Ballet’s main company. In 2014, she received Joffrey’s Winning Works: Choreographers of Color award, which led to her crafting a work the next year for the company’s studio company. In addition, it is the first time her choreography will be performed with musicians playing alongside onstage.
The Joffrey Ballet is making its Symphony Center debut May 30-31 and June 1 as it joins the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in two works, one a world premiere, and both set to the music of Igor Stravinsky: Martinez’s world premiere Bliss! (Dumbarton Oaks Concerto) and Christopher Wheeldon’s Commedia© (Suite from Pulcinella).
“I’m really excited,” Martinez said. “This is my hometown. I live here. I grew up dancing here. So having the opportunity to work with these dancers and see my vision come into fruition and having it be in the repertoire and go on tour — it’s pretty incredible.”
Dance collaborations are not new for the CSO, which has worked with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago on several occasions between 2004 and 2011. And such cross-genre ventures happen elsewhere as well. In 2008, for example, the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet presented works by David Parsons and Jorma Elo at the Aspen Music Festival with the Aspen Concert Orchestra onstage.
For most Joffrey performances, the musicians perform largely unseen in the pit. Martinez is thrilled with the idea of the dancers occupying the same stage as CSO members. “Having their energy and presence and seeing them onstage, it’s about them, too,” she said of the musicians. “It’s not just about the choreography or the dancers. They are part of this collaboration. So I was really excited about that.”
But sharing a stage means that the dancers will have less room than usual, and they cannot enter and exit from the wings as they would in a traditional theater. The exact size of the available space has been carefully delineated with masking tape on the floor of the studio where the dancers have been rehearsing. Martinez admits that such restrictions are limiting, but it’s her job to overcome them. “This is the way it is, so how are you going to make this work?” she said.
To accommodate the smaller space, Bliss! will feature just five men and two women. She was going to limit the work to only men at first but then changed her mind. “I love the women here,” she said. “They are so beautiful. But I just couldn’t choose just one, so this is the number I came up with.”
Unlike most of Martinez’s choreographic projects in which she chooses the music, the music for this CSO commission was a given from the start: Stravinsky’s Concerto in E-Flat, Dumbarton Oaks. One of the composer’s two chamber concertos, this 1937-38 work was commissioned by American benefactors Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss for their 30th wedding anniversary. The concerto’s name comes from a Georgetown estate owned by the couple. Martinez’s title for the ballet — Bliss! — comes from the couple’s last name and also refers to the exuberance and joyousness of the concerto’s first movement.
Inspired by J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, Dumbarton Oaks was the last piece Stravinsky wrote in Europe before emigrating to the United States in September 1939, and it came at unhappy time for the composer. He was in the hospital with tuberculosis, so he was unable to lead the American premiere, in May 1938. That task fell to French conductor and teacher Nadia Boulanger, who had arranged the commission. Stravinsky’s daughter died later that year of tuberculosis and the disease took the life of his wife three months later in March 1939.
Martinez was not familiar with the concerto, so she started listening to and reflecting on it. “What does this evoke in me?” she said. “How do I feel when I’m listening to this? It’s complex in structure and design, and each movement has its own personality. And if you know anything about Stravinsky, you’re going one way, and then you’re going another way.”
Although the resulting non-narrative work is solidly rooted in classical ballet, it also reflects some of the other influences on her as a dancer. These included companies where she was a member, such as Luna Negra, which celebrates the richness of Latino culture, and River North Dance Chicago, which focuses on jazz and modern dance. In addition, Martinez created a hip-hop work before beginning Bliss! and some of that stylistic sensibility has seeped into this new creation.
“There is no hip-hop but there’s an essence of urbanness, a little ‘bro’ dude, hey, hey, hey, what’s going on?’ kind of fun situation happening — how guys are. The first section is all men, so it’s how they are when they are together, and they are just having fun onstage.”