Yumelia Garcia dances the lead in 'Cinderella.' Photo courtesy Joffrey Ballet.
When ballerina Yumelia Garcia completed auditions for the Joffrey Ballet's "Cinderella," she did not expect to land the title role. Not only is Garcia in her first season at the Chicago-based ballet company, but the Joffrey adheres to an unusual system in the world of ballet in terms of ranking its dancers -- one that, in fact, declines to rank its company members at all. There's no room for complacency, there are no guarantees; roles are dished out according to the dancers' current abilities. "We don't have ranks," explains Garcia, before adding, "There are no distinct categories that the dancers are placed into, so this means it's a more competitive environment. However, the level of the company is the highest I've worked in. You pretty much always have to prove yourself. That's why it was so rewarding to get the role of Cinderella."
Venezuelan-born Garcia joined the National Ballet of Caracas at age 15, before coming to the U.S. to dance first for Ohio Ballet, then as a principal at Milwaukee Ballet for 10 years. "The Midwest has pretty much been home for me," she notes. While she has danced the part of Cinderella before, she says this time around it's an entirely different experience, mostly because the Joffrey is performing the original 1948 production with choreography by former Royal Ballet artistic director Frederick Ashton. Former Royal Ballet principal dancer Wendy Ellis Somes was called in to stage Ashton's choreography on the Joffrey's dancers. Comments Garcia, "(Somes) was Cinderella herself at the Royal Ballet. She has so much to pass on...Working with her, I feel like I am in London working at the Royal Ballet. Ashton's choreography is so particular; his style is very Royal Ballet School. When you have been training here in the U.S., you have to re-train yourself to do this kind of thing...For example, the port de bras (arm movements) are very precise, very English. Everything has to be in the right place at the right time."
Generally, the Joffrey is known more for its innovative contemporary pieces than for classical works revivals, yet the company's founding co-artistic director, the late Robert Joffrey (along with Gerald Arpino), held a special interest in Ashton's works. The Joffrey became the first American dance company to receive the rights to Ashton's "Cinderella," and at one point had amassed the largest Ashton repertoire outside the Royal Ballet. Ashley C. Wheater, himself a former Royal Ballet dancer, became the Joffrey's new artistic director in 2007. "The challenge has definitely been to be able to adopt the Ashton style and make it look natural," says Garcia. "I have to get used to this whole new way of moving, but not forget that I'm Cinderella. I have to try to touch everyone in the audience. I love becoming a character in full-length ballets; there is something special about it. But when you do more contemporary works, you have more freedom. It's like when you go home and you take all your winter clothes off and put on your pajamas. You have more freedom to interpret."
"Cinderella" features 50 dancers, elaborate costumes and sets, and even a working coach acquired from the Dutch National Ballet. Remaining true to Ashton's vision, the parts of Cinderella's evil stepsisters will be played by men in drag. The rags-to-riches story, explains Garcia, is "one that everybody can relate to," including herself: "I honestly cannot believe I am dancing with the Joffrey, so I feel a little like Cinderella. My dream has come true."
January 28, 29 and 30- 7:30 PM/January 30 and 31- 2:00 PM
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
135 N. Grand