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After 25 years, ballet returns to Blossom

Looking at old concert programs is like rummaging through the attic. If you look at Blossom Music Center programs from, say 1979, you'll find a lot of acts besides the Cleveland Orchestra that have weathered the years well — from Pete Seeger to Joni Mitchell to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. You'll find others, like Shaun Cassidy, who seem as dated as the cut and color of old clothes.

You'll also find evidence of other guests long absent from the Blossom stage, even though their talent and reputation have never gone out of style. Take the Joffrey Ballet, which last performed with the Cleveland Orchestra at their summer home in '79. Three decades later and 25 years after any major ballet company has performed there, the Joffrey is returning to Blossom.

As big a deal as that is artistically, it's at least as remarkable economically. At a time when — as Clevelanders well know — ballet companies are buckling under financial pressures, few dance companies can afford to perform with live music at all. Yet, here's one teaming up with one of the world's greatest orchestras.

But finances weren't always as tight as they are now, and ballet at Blossom wasn't always so unusual. Ever since Blossom's 1968 opening, the Cleveland Orchestra invited major international dance companies to perform during annual "ballet weeks." The Vienna State Opera Ballet performed in 1971 as part of its first U.S. tour. The New York City Ballet, the National Ballet of Washington, the Pennsylvania Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet and the Houston Ballet all took the stage with the Cleveland Orchestra in the pit. The tradition ended in 1984, the year Christoph von Dohnányi became music director.

"It has been some time," says the orchestra's general manager Gary Ginstling. "But that history also shows that these kinds of endeavors are in the DNA of the institution. As the orchestra has been plotting its future, we've been increasingly looking to things like residencies in Miami, Vienna and Lucerne, and high-profile projects like producing staged opera in Severance Hall."

Performing with ballet companies is another way to expand both its artistic range and its audience. The orchestra enlisted DanceCleveland as a partner in the presentation — mostly, says Dance Cleveland executive director Pam Young, because of the company's expertise and relationships with major dance companies.

The Blossom Festival program isn't planned as far ahead as Severance Hall's, but the Joffrey appearance came together with unusual speed.

Ginstling says the performance was catalyzed by a one-night benefit performance with the Miami City Ballet during the Orchestra's Miami residency this year. The $1,000-a-seat event launched a three-year partnership between the institutions, including plans to commission new work and an invitation to the ballet to perform at Blossom. The Blossom visit didn't work out this year, though Ginstling says the orchestra would still like to see that happen. But, on very short notice, they were able to book the Joffrey. Not a bad fallback.

Launched as a small touring company by Robert Joffrey in 1956, the Joffrey has been based in New York, Los Angeles and, currently, Chicago. Ashley Wheater — a former dancer recruited to the company by Joffrey and choreographer Gerald Arpino — took over from Arpino as artistic director in 2007.

They'll bring to Cleveland works that sample a range of the company's repertoire. They include Arpino's "Kettentanz," with music by Johann Strauss and Johann Mayer; Tomm Ruud's "Mobile," which has music by Aram Khachaturian; Paul Taylor's "Cloven Kingdom," featuring music by Arcangelo Corelli, Henry Cowell and Malloy Miller; Arpino's "Round of Angels," with music by Gustav Mahler; and Christopher Wheeldon's "Carousel (a Dance)," based on the Richard Rodgers musical score. The orchestra's assistant conductor Tito Muñoz will conduct.

Ginstling says the orchestra is exploring possibilities for more such programming in the future.

"We've had discussions with a number of companies that are taking note and are interested, but nothing specific yet," he says. "We're really interested in putting on the kind of season that attracts the broadest possible audience. We want to bring an audience that has an affinity for ballet."

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