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By Hedy Weiss
Last summer, when the Joffrey Ballet performed on the vast outdoor stage of the Ravinia Festival near Chicago, April Daly had her moment. Until then she was one of the many skilled, attractive dancers in the company, capable of moving easily from the ritualistic, turned-in moves of Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring to the high-flying demands of Paul Taylor’s Cloven Kingdom.
But on this particular evening, dressed in a simple red leotard and rehearsal-style skirt, her long auburn ponytail flying in the breeze, the leggy dancer performed a segment of Lar Lubovitch’s Smile With My Heart, partnered by Fabrice Calmels. A suite of dances to the melodies of Richard Rodgers, the piece was a high point in Robert Altman’s movie The Company, filmed at the Joffrey. And suddenly, this willowy beauty with the Audrey Hepburn air worked her spell on the audience. She owned the stage with the sweet sophistication of her interpretation—a mix of guilelessness and gentle confidence.
“That was an amazing experience,” says Daly, who also performed the work when the Joffrey went to the Hollywood Bowl. “It was a new kind of movement for me, outside my comfort zone, and there was no holding back. I realized I wanted to let go more in my dancing and feel freer.”
Further confirmation of Daly’s emergence came in the Joffrey’s winter program at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, where her lovely dancing in a section of Gerald Arpino’s fiendishly difficult Kettentanz suggested her technique had caught up with her charm.
“It’s been a very exciting year,” Daly admitted recently. “I feel like I’m really inside the dancing.” What clicked? “Just having the opportunity to do difficult roles, and realizing that I can do them, is a big part of it. The more you get out onstage and do them, the more comfortable you become.”
Pushing her into the spotlight has been Ashley Wheater, who became the Joffrey’s artistic director in 2007. “I’ve always felt happy at the Joffrey, but Ashley saw something in me, and his confidence made me more confident,” says Daly. “He said: ‘Now is your time, not in a couple of years.’ And with his faith in me, I stepped up to the challenge.”
Daly, 27, was born in Rockford, Illinois, about 90 miles from Chicago. She began taking gymnastics at the age of 3, and by 11—when there was talk of possibly training for Olympic competition—she felt burnt out and decided she wanted a normal childhood.
“I first started taking ballet classes for gymnastics and hated them, although I loved my jazz dance classes,” Daly says. “Then, after I stopped gymnastics, I went back to ballet and this time it clicked.”
As a teenager, Daly attended the summertime Joffrey Midwest program in Flint, Michigan. While in high school, she performed with the Rockford Dance Company, which was associated with her ballet school. From there she headed to New York, enrolling in the New School University’s BFA program, which at that time was associated with New York’s Joffrey Ballet School. But after two years she decided she wanted to be a working dancer and joined the Washington Ballet as an apprentice from 2001 through 2003.
In search of a larger company, and with the Joffrey always her dream, she asked to take company class, flew out to Chicago, and was offered a contract. Though she got cast in some featured roles, her opportunities since Wheater arrived have been more frequent.
“April has a lot of wonderful qualities—a sense of fun, a very American, uncomplicated quality free of mannerisms,” Wheater says. “She’s very refreshing onstage. Her face is open, and she has a great way of communicating with the audience. I know Lar Lubovitch really enjoyed working with her on Smile.”
Having Fabrice Calmels as her partner was a help. “No matter how far I would go, I knew he had me,” says Daly. “Until then I had done very few pas de deux, so getting used to that—that letting go and knowing someone else would get me—was new.”
As for Calmels, he admires Daly’s fearlessness. “She takes risks onstage,” he says. “April goes for the movement, plus she shows her heart. And she’s athletic, so she can really jump into a lift, which helps you as a partner.”
Having those early years as a gymnast pay off has been an unexpected bonus. “There was a lot from my gymnastics training that I had to unlearn,” says Daly. “But the training made me strong and I can jump. Still I’ve had to learn to bring softness to that strength.”
When not dancing, Daly enjoys reading and spending time with friends, especially her boyfriend of five years who’s an actor. Meanwhile, during the Joffrey’s spring season, Daly made a beguiling debut as the Julie Jordan character in Carousel (A Dance), Christopher Wheeldon’s riff on the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
“Christopher said, ‘You meet this bad boy, and you’re not sure about him, and you think you should just run home and eat apple pie. But there’s something about him that pulls you in.’ ” Her lyrical performance made audiences feel Julie’s growing attraction.
For Daly, the opportunities keep coming.
Hedy Weiss is dance critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Photo by Herbert Migdoll, Courtesy the Joffrey