A Journey to Joffrey: Alum Jainil Mehta discovers beauty in bread

April 16, 2024

USC Kaufman alumni Jainil Mehta at the Joffrey Academy of Dance | Photo by Carolyn McCabe

Sixteen bodies are wrapped in yellow. Slices of bread are passed from hand to hand; a metaphor for the complexities of human greed. A sound score washes over the stage, as we witness dancers that are–at once–both moving and meditative. This is the story of Burning Bread(s)

A debuting choreographer at the 14th Annual Winning Works, USC Kaufman alum Jainil Mehta has perfected the art of storytelling. Having found critical acclaim while still a student, Mehta continues to push boundaries even today, seamlessly marrying movement with symbolism. Inviting audiences to reflect on themes surrounding the human condition, his latest work—commissioned by the Joffrey Academy of DanceBurning Bread(s) is a story of desire and temptation.

Students from the Joffrey Academy of Dance performing Burning Bread(s) by Jainil Mehta | Photo by KT Miller

So, where did this journey begin? In the summer of 2023, Mehta had resolved to shift gears. Beckoned to the world of creation and choreography, he sought out opportunities that could inform his artistic practice. At a similar time, a friend sent him the call from the Joffrey Academy, urging him to apply. In the moment, Mehta recalls thinking “I am not going to get into this. I don’t know if it will happen.” And so, in time, he forgot all about it. That was, until a fateful day in October. 

“When I got the email, I probably read it three times over.” He remembers, “I couldn’t believe it was true.” 

It all started then and there. As soon as he accepted the offer, the wheels were set in motion. “It is such an established company that there is a great deal of organization. They have set steps in place that one must go through.” In the same breath, he heaped praise upon them. Despite their meticulous planning and structure, there was an undercurrent in the company of embracing change, a kind of flexibility that allowed for creative exploration. 

Jainil Mehta at the opening night of Burning Bread(s) at the Edlis Neeson Theater in the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

With each step of the process, Mehta found himself immersed in preparation. “I had to find music, so that we could purchase the required license in time. This was a new and interesting process for me,” he recollects. However, that was just the beginning. After acquiring the score, he had to expand the mere 2-minute composition into a comprehensive 11-minute piece. Therefore, along with the license, they “also purchased the different arrangements of the music—both instrumentation and vocals separately.” In time, he integrated these disparate elements into one cohesive whole and began choreographing.

At last, it was time for his touch down in Chicago. On day one, in the blithering cold, he “observed the ballet classes in the morning, taught a movement workshop in the afternoon” and then, walked into his first rehearsal with hands full of bread. The rest is history. 

“The work has been titled Burning Bread(s). It speaks to an innate feeling of unfulfillment, of never enough. It is the desire of wanting more. Bread is a mere metaphor for our lifelong achievements, successes and other similarly materialistic things.”

Jainil Mehta teaching an elective course at Anant National University in Ahmedabad, India | Photo by Hemang Ganguli

While Mehta praised the incredible facilities and spaces at Joffrey, it was the people who made a world of difference. The dancers, he added, “have an incredible drive and fire within themselves. They want to learn. Even the involvement of contemporary language in their repertoire surprised me. For them, having to extend to my movement style was challenging, but they also appeared comfortable in their skin.” 

When talking of beginnings, he shares, “I did not want to walk into a space and just set a piece. Instead, I wanted to create a holistic experience.” Drawing on sensations of classical and folk movement, Mehta’s rehearsals involved a lot of workshopping and experimentation with the dancers in the room. He aptly emphasizes process over product. “Everything was one day at a time. I never stepped in with a rigid structure in mind. All I knew going in was the story’s arc.” 

Then how did it all come together? With a chuckle, he recalls, “Come to think of it, this was the first time I have ever had a paper and pencil in hand to help build and exact my vision. That being said, I never put pressure on myself to create something out of the ordinary. I was just being myself.” 

Jainil Mehta at Anant National University in Ahmedabad, India | Photo by Hemang Ganguli

As for what is next for Jainil Mehta? Simply put, the world is his stage. With endless possibilities for the future, Mehta is taking time to reflect on the past. Having recently taught an elective course “Dancing Through the Lens” at Anant National University in Ahmedabad, India, he is one step closer to his childhood dream: bringing dance degree programs to Indian collegiate education. 

And so, when asked what is the one thing he would tell that younger self with a dream, Mehta pauses for a moment. Pondering over the question, he smiles. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he responds: “Your choices affect the way you feel. So, always choose happiness. No opportunity or experience is ever too big or too small–what matters is what you make of it. Be authentic to you. Choose to place yourself in spaces that are open to change. And lastly, make sure you wake up each day and accept who you are.” 

Burning Bread(s) debuted at the Edlis Neeson Theater in the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago on March 8-10 and 15-17, 2024. 

By Arjun Kochhar (BFA ’25)