It’s a new era for the Joffrey Ballet. For the first time in their history, the reigns have been handed to someone other than a founder of the company. Ashley Wheater has some big shoes to fill, but having been a dancer his whole life, he knows how to slip into them—and release their full potential.
Robert Joffrey originally started his own dance company in the ’50s, when the
art form he loved seemed to be growing too comfortable performing stagnant
classics that, although beautiful, failed to provide both the performing artists
and their audiences the nervous vibrancy that comes with trying something new.
Since its inception, the Joffrey Ballet has been renowned for its innovation,
experimentation, and dedication to breathtaking dance. So in 2007, when the
Ballet was searching for a new artistic director—only the third in their
history, after co-founders Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino—they needed to find
someone who would push the company out of its comfort zone, and maintain that
euphoric spirit of reinvention.
“Robert Joffrey was a great visionary. I think that he built his company on a
blueprint of nurturing some of the greatest 19th and 20th century works, but
also really pushing forward new creative work for the company,” says Ashley
Wheater, the new artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet. “I want to do this for
what Joffrey and Arpino started. They were truly mavericks of dance in America,
and I feel there’s a responsibility that goes with having this position.”
It’s a responsibility he’s prepared for his entire life. Ashley has been
dancing from the age of 6. Coming from a very musical family, it was initially
the music that drew him to dance. “My sisters all took ballet. I used to go with
my mother to pick them up,” Ashley recalls. “I clearly remember thinking, ‘How
amazing that you can have music all day.’ The music came first and the dancing
came afterward.” He was accepted to the Royal Ballet School in London when he
was 10 years old, and, in the years that followed, he studied and danced all
over the world, even as a company member of the Joffrey for four years. Ashley
left the company to accept a position as a principal dancer with the San
Francisco Ballet after Robert Joffrey’s death in 1988. “When I was in the
Joffrey, it was one of the best companies in America. They had extraordinarily
talented dancers and a great repertoire of new and created works,” says Ashley.
“Joffrey was a stickler for having it right. He taught me so much.”
Having learned from the master is serving Ashley very well. As the artistic
director himself now, his responsibilities include programming the repertoire
each year, hiring and coaching the dancers, and finding lighting designers,
costume designers, and set designers for each show. Ashley has made a decision
regarding everything you see from the moment the curtain rises.
One of his early decisions was to add more diversity to the company—it’s
all-too-easy with most companies to attend a ballet and see a stage full of the
trimmest Caucasians you ever laid eyes on. Ashley brought the same eclectic eye
he uses for repertoire to the practice of hiring dancers, eschewing uniformity
and a specific body-type, focusing instead on dancers with charisma and
undeniable talent. Women need to have beautiful, articulated pointe work and
line control. Men need to be strong, reliable partners and big jumpers. Everyone
needs to have had years of training and a mastery of all the technical
And, where better to learn the techniques and control necessary to end up
center stage than from leaders in the field? The Academy of Dance is the
official school of the Joffrey Ballet and they have upwards of 600 students
enrolled at any given time. Dedicated students also have the chance to appear on
the main stage alongside the company dancers. “Dance is such a broad spectrum.
We have so many different programs,” says Ashley. “Whether they’re into ballet,
hip-hop, or jazz, dancers in the company choreograph for them. They’ll do
something that’s completely within their boundaries, and it’s always a lot of
fun. When you watch them dance, their commitment and passion for understanding
the discipline of an art form are simply amazing.”
The commitment and passion apparent on the stage of the Auditorium Theater
during the Joffrey’s programming year is infectious: Seeing a show isn’t just
about a cultural evening out. When you see the Joffrey in action, you witness
unfathomable athletic ability and control. People right in front of your eyes
demonstrate the supreme beauty and grace that the human body is capable of when
it is trained to precision. And with their imaginative show selections, you’re
not just seeing a ballet as people have seen it for generations, you’re
experiencing something that no one has ever seen before.
The lineup Ashley put together for this year holds true to the standards
under which Robert Joffrey himself once founded the company. It’s an eclectic
mix of the treasured old and the unexplored new. The fall season begins with the
All Stars program celebrating the work of three iconic New York choreographers:
George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and Christopher Wheeldon. The holiday season
wouldn’t be complete without revisiting Robert Joffrey’s seminal interpretation
of The Nutcracker, which has been a Chicago treasure for many years. In
February, the Joffrey performs the Midwest premiere of Ronald Hynd’s The
Merry Widow, a tale of comedic intrigue in three acts backed by a beautiful
score by Franz Lehár. And they’ll finish out the season in the spring with two
world premieres, by Edwaard Liang and Yuri Possokhov, and a company premiere by
Julia Adam, a former soloist for the New York City Ballet. This season will once
again feature live orchestral accompaniment by the Chicago Sinfonietta and it’s
sure to be unforgettable.
“When I think of what the company needs, I also think of what the audience
needs,” says Ashley. “The company is re-energized. I think that if you asked the
dancers, they would say it has gotten harder. The classes are hard, the
repertoire is more demanding, there’s a lot more new material.”
For more information on the Joffrey Ballet or to obtain passes to their
new season, visit joffrey.org.
NOTE FROM THE JOFFREY: VISIT THE ORIGINAL STORY ABOVE FOR EXCERPTS OF THE INTERVIEW AND CLIPS OF HIM TEACHING A COMPANY DANCE CLASS.
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