Joffrey Ballet merges classic and modern dance

March 8, 2012
STL Today
Calvin Wilson

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The Joffrey Ballet is internationally known for its performances of classical dance. But the Chicago-based company also has a reputation for lending its talents to modern repertoire and for working with forward-thinking choreographers.

"I do believe that new work is vital to the company, whether it's newly created on the company, or established repertoire," says Ashley Wheater, who became artistic director in 2007 of the company founded by Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino. "The Joffrey has a huge heritage, but I don't think you live off that heritage. You find a balance with it."

This weekend, the Joffrey will appear in a program emphasizing its edgier side and presented by Dance St. Louis. Of particular interest is the much-lauded "Age of Innocence," set on the company by rising young choreographer Edwaard Liang.

But the program also will include works by modern-dance masters Christopher Wheeldon ("After the Rain") and William Forsythe ("In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated").

In 2006, Dance Magazine cited Liang on its annual "25 to Watch" list of dancers, choreographers, companies and trends.

"I have known Ed for many years," Wheater says. "And I've watched him grow, and mature, and really discover his own voice as a choreographer."

He also was impressed with Liang's "nurturing way with people."

"The company had not had a lot of new work for a long time," Wheater says. "And in order to have a healthy, productive working relationship, you need both sides of the room to come together. You need the dancers to interact with the choreographer, and vice versa."

By that standard, Liang was "definitely the right man to start the creative flow."

Wheater is a former dancer, but not a choreographer, which gives him an unusual perspective on leading a dance company.

"I teach the company, I coach the company, and I do all the artistic planning," he says. "But there are people who are great teachers, and there are people who are great choreographers. And I think it's hard to do both."

Wheater succeeded Arpino as artistic director. Arpino died of prostate cancer in 2008. The transition in leadership proved to be successful, and the Joffrey remains on point, Wheater says.

"It's been a great progression," he says. "The company is really invested in the art form, as am I."