Preview: Joffrey Ballet to Premiere New Work Adapted from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men

The Joffrey Ballet’s spring program will combine an iconic John Steinbeck story transformed into a modern ballet with Serenade, a classic George Balanchine ballet first performed in the 1930s. The program will premiere Wednesday, April 27, and run for 10 performances at the Joffrey’s new home, the Lyric Opera House. 

Choreographer Cathy Marston has created a dramatic new ballet from Steinbeck’s 1937 novella, Of Mice and Men, her first original work for the Joffrey. She is known for adapting classic literature to classic ballet. Her new work is a tragic story of two migrants named George and Lennie, who are looking for farm work in Depression-era California. George, performed by Xavier Nuñez, is a friend and helper for Lennie (Dylan Gutierrez). Throughout the dance story, the two men face difficult choices that test their friendship.

We were able to see a rehearsal of Marston’s Of Mice and Men at Joffrey Tower this week.

The cast is primarily male with a single woman dancer, who plays Curley’s Wife (she has no name in the Steinbeck story, serving as a symbol or foil to the men). Curley is the Boss’s son, a pugnacious character who takes a dislike to Lennie.  

Dancers Xavier Núñez and Dylan Gutierrez. © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2021

It was interesting to see six male dancers perform what appeared to be farm work routines, using a set of wooden benches as multipurpose props. Choreographer Marston directed and occasionally stopped to give notes to the dancers along with rehearsal director Adam Blyde.

The score for Of Mice and Men is by Thomas Newman, who has received Oscar nominations for his film scores for Skyfall, 1917 and The Shawshank Redemption. This is his first ballet score. Music for both Serenade and Of Mice and Men will be performed live by the Lyric Opera Orchestra, conducted by Scott Speck, the Joffrey’s music director. 

Choreographer Marston, who created Jane Eyre (staged by Joffrey in 2019) and is now working on a production of Mrs. Robinson for the San Francisco Ballet, was asked in an interview how she came to choose the Steinbeck story as a ballet project. “I studied it in school. I remember being incredibly moved by it and remain so to this day. It’s always been a story that I’ve loved and feel affected by. As I became a choreographer and continue to draw inspiration from literature, it’s been in my mind as a piece, but it requires a specific cast. It was only when talking to [Joffrey Artistic Director] Ashley [Wheater] about the pieces I’d like to make, he immediately said, ‘Well, make it for Joffrey.’”

Her approach, she said, “centers on the characters—developing vocabulary and then setting up the scenes, working from inside out.” Marston says of her choreographic process, “It’s always looking to the heart of the person in front of me and then working with the physical material they generate later.”

The program will open with the Joffrey premiere of Serenade, set to the score by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Serenade was Balanchine’s first ballet created in America in 1934 and originated as a lesson in stage technique; Balanchine would incorporate unexpected events from rehearsals into the choreography. Serenade features four movements based on Tchaikovsky’s score: Sonatina, Waltz, Russian Dance and Elegy. 

If you have not read Of Mice and Men since school days, you might want to read the book (or at least a summary) to appreciate the choreography of the Joffrey production. The novella is only 107 pages.

I vividly remember a Steppenwolf Theatre production of Of Mice and Men in 1981 in a black box theater at the Jane Adams Center then on Broadway in Lakeview. Gary Sinise directed and played George with John Malkovich as Lennie. The script was adapted for film by Horton Foote and released in 1992 with both Sinise and Malkovich featured and Sinise directing. Sinise was nominated for the Palme d’Or for best direction of a feature film at the Cannes film festival that year.

The Joffrey’s spring program will be presented from Wednesday, April 27, through Sunday, May 8, at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr. Tickets are $35-$199. Buy them online or at the Joffrey’s official box office located in the lobby of Joffrey Tower, 10 E. Randolph St. Running time is one hour and 50 minutes. For more information on this and other productions, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.