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ASHLEY WHEATER: DREAMING BIG AT JOFFREY BALLET

The excitement you feel these days in Joffrey Tower is kinetic energy. It has been steadily pulsing for ten years, since the company moved into their new home, under the artistic direction of Ashley Wheater, who took over the role held only by Robert Joffrey and co-founder Gerald Arpino before him. If that was a pivotal moment in the evolving story of the Joffrey Ballet – a seismic shift of sorts that rumbled across the performing arts world - then the announcement a few weeks ago that the Joffrey Ballet was forming a partnership with Lyric Opera was a bolt of lightning.

Back in 2007, there was a sense things were about to change. Growth and expansion for the performing arts is difficult even in good times, and the economic picture everywhere was bleak.  

None of that seemed to deter or dissuade Wheater from enthusiastically pressing forward, engaging and inspiring many of the world’s most innovative choreographers, writers and directors to create partnerships with the Joffrey. With the establishment of the Joffrey Academy of Dance, a new generation of dancers have begun to emerge. As the administrative operations stabilized and sponsorship expanded under the leadership of Executive Director Greg Cameron, productions like the ten-year development process of last season’s The Nutcracker and scores of other new works are now firmly in the pipeline. And then comes the collaboration with Lyric Opera and the announcement of a new creative partnership for the 2020 season.

On October 9th, as Ashley Wheater was returning from a weekend with the Cleveland Symphony, preparing for the PBS filming of Orphée et Eurydice and the opening production of Giselle at the Auditorium Theater next week, he reflected on a professional career elevated by Joffrey, Arpino, Rudolph Nureyev, John Field and Helgi Tomasson, to name a few. Along the way, we discussed his 1996 career-ending injury, surgery and the aggressive physical therapy that followed and has allowed him to continue to produce some of the most innovative new works of our time.  PODCAST

Groundbreaking partnership with Lyric Opera … “Right now we are in performances with the Lyric Opera’s Orphée et Eurydice. It has been choreographed, directed, scenically designed, costume designed and lighting designed by one man - John Neumeier.  It is our first collaboration with the Lyric Opera. Going by the performances that we have done so far, it has been a fantastic success. Everyone at the Lyric has made us feel so at home there. We are proud of what we have done and we are very, very excited about 2020 when we will become the resident company at the Lyric Opera House.”

Advantages of the partnership … “the stage and the backstage facilities, the technical capability within theatre. ... It has such an advanced hanging rig for scenery. It has amazing lighting capabilities.  For us to be in one house together will be just fantastic for the Joffrey … there are productions that I have wanted to bring to Chicago, At the Lyric Opera House, we can dream big.”

Giselle Returns … “Giselle was the first ballet presented when I became artistic director. And, coming back to it ten years later - which is actually a long time for a ballet company to present such an iconic work - I am thrilled to present a version which has been staged and coached by Lola de Ávila. For us, it is a production that has integrity, the tradition of Giselle, but it has a freshness about how we want to dance today. … to have someone who has worked on Giselle for many, many years, to give the new generation of dancers at the Joffrey Ballet the opportunity to understand the work, to get the maximum out of a work … it has been a fantastic rehearsal and development process.”

Ten years of accomplishments and the ongoing mission … “First and foremost, I am most proud of the company. Everyone has worked incredibly hard. They all came along on the journey. They have grown as a company, matured as a company, both in their thinking and their dancing.  Administratively, the Joffrey has never been in such a great place. We have stability here … a beautiful building.  Our Academy has grown. Our community engagement programs have grown and have become more important and reached deeper into the community … and our audiences have grown. And, speaking for our fantastic Executive Director Greg Cameron, our job is to make sure that we are stewards for this beautiful art form and this really important American company.”

The Joffrey Ballet_The Nutcracker_Photo by Cheryl Mann_cropped.jpg

On The Nutcracker set during the 1893 Columbian Exposition“after opening last year and telling a different story of an iconic classical ballet, we engaged children, parents and grandparents in a different way of thinking about The Nutcracker. It is a story about family. It is about love. These are riches that you cannot pay for with money. Something that we hold within us. More and more we have to embrace our humanity and look out for each other. The Nutcracker tells a beautiful story that way. It is a huge show. It is a Broadway show with fantastic choreography by Christopher Wheeldon. Chris also directed. It embraces dance and theater, an incredible score by Tchaikovsky … a magical journey not about gifts. It is about us.  America is a country made up of immigrants. We have all come from somewhere. Many immigrants came to Chicago to build the world’s fair. Making our Nutcracker about immigrants and those hardworking people seems to me to tell a story that is incredibly relevant for today and will remain relevant for decades.”

Entering the Royal Ballet School at ten years old … when I auditioned for the Royal Ballet School, because of where my birthday falls in the year, I was too young and had to wait a year. What it allowed me to do was to push myself as a very young dancer. I had a fantastic teacher, Mary Hockney, and she really gave me the best of herself in every way. My parents were incredibly supportive. Waiting a year was not a bad thing. … I would not have gone to the ballet school if I had not had the support of my local council.  My parents were not financially in a position to pay for me to go to a very expensive boarding school for five years to pursue a dream of becoming a dancer. So, I am forever grateful to the people who gave me that opportunity. It is so important to me that we look after our kids today and tomorrow to make sure they have opportunities that people like myself were given.”

Recognizing talent … “Every child that comes to our Academy, or comes to our community programs that may want to be a professional dancer, they already have a drive, a passion. But, being able to show them where that discipline and passion can take them is really important. In our company today, over a quarter of our dancers are from the Academy. The Academy has been going for eight years, a very impactful amount of time for the amount of talent that has come into the company. People see that, yes, coming to the Academy is a step to going into the company. For people coming to the Academy and maybe don’t want to be a professional dancer, we have other programs that they can stay involved in,  there are so many positions in the arts that they can fulfill, so having a dance background and that discipline and comradery of working together are life skills that will put anybody on the right track.”

Comments have been edited for length and clarity. Images courtesy of Joffrey Ballet & The Silverman Group, Inc. 

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For more information visit: Orphée et Eurydice at Lyric Opera

The 2017-18 Joffrey Ballet season opens with Giselle Wednesday, October 18th for 10 performances through October 28th at the Auditorium Theater of Roosevelt University, 50 East Congress Parkway. For the full schedule or to order tickets, call 312.386.8905 or visit Joffrey.org.

DE USURIS

Ashley Wheater joins the conversation this week to talk about his ten years at the Joffrey Ballet, the recently announced partnership with Lyric Opera and the upcoming opening of Giselle. Our PIcksInSix recommendations include FUN HOME, the world premiere of QUIXOTE: On the Quest for Self at Writers Theater, A View from the Bridge, Fun Home and Five Guys Named Moe. Last days for Court Theatre's Five Guys Named Moe and two great shows at Theater Wit: Bonnie & Clyde and The Heavens are Hung in Black.

This Week: HARD TIMES at Lookingglass and Porchlight's Billy Elliot at The Ruth Page Center.  Lots of music around including brunch with Elaine Dame, Paul Marinaro at Winter's and Jeannie Tanner in Evanston. Petterino's Monday Night Live is the place to be this fall. Denise McGowan Tracy and Beckie Menzie are celebrating their 10th Anniversary and 11th Season with cast members from FUN HOME.

Check out our PicksInSix this week ... Like us on Facebook, Follow on Twitter and subscribe to our podcasts on iTunes, Libsyn and Stitcher. Cheers!
 

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The week that was included the opening of the not-to-be-missed Chicago premiere of FUN HOME at Victory Gardens, an all-woman cast in Barbara Gaines re-imagined The Taming of the Shrew at Chicago Shakes, Five Guys Named Moe at Court Theatre and the gripping production of A View From the Bridge at Goodman Theatre. And this is just the beginning!

Coming up is BILLY ELLIOT The Musical, Porchlight Theatre's 2017 season opening production directed by Brenda Didier. Our conversation is all about her early training, an award-winning career as a choreographer and director in full swing, the big move to The Ruth Page Center and working with the largest cast ever at Porchlight.  
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It is a big cabaret week in Chicago with Hooray for Love at the Park West and Monday Night Live at Petterino's celebrating there 10th Anniversary through October. Join co-hosts Denise McGowan Tracy and Beckie Menzie with casts from Billy Elliot(10/2), Rock of Ages(10/9) and Fun Home(10/16). Read Howard Reich's feature in the Chicago Tribune.

Danni Smith as Alison Bechdal in FUN HOME at Victory Gardens

Danni Smith as Alison Bechdal in FUN HOME at Victory Gardens

PICKSINSIX(sm) Six words. Six comments. All you need to know. This week: FUN HOME, A View From the Bridge and Five Guys Named Moe are featured. Check out all of our recommendations at PICKSINSIX(sm).

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COMING UP

Lookingglass - Hard Times Previews October 4th
Porchlight - Billy Elliot Previews October 6th
Firebrand Theatre debut Den Theatre LIZZIE November 11th
Auditorium Theatre - Ella & Lena: The Ladies and Their Music November 17th

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BRENDA DIDIER - PORCHLIGHT'S BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL

For Brenda Didier, directing Porchlight Music Theatre's production of Billy Elliot The Musical is like coming home again. The show opens the company's 23rd season in their new digs at the Ruth Page Center in Chicago a place that is very familiar to Didier. She has vivid memories as a young dance student. And perhaps most helpful, particularly to the story of Bill Elliot, is rekindling the excitement she experienced realizing her own dream that began when she was eight years old. It all started somewhat by accident, as the best stories always do, and is turning out to be the journey of a lifetime.

Billy Elliot the musical - Lincoln Seymour and Shanésia Davis Photo: Michael Courier

Billy Elliot the musical - Lincoln Seymour and Shanésia Davis Photo: Michael Courier

Brenda and Ed.jpg
Billy Elliot the musical - Jacob Kaiser and Shanésia DavisPhoto: Michael Courier

Billy Elliot the musical - Jacob Kaiser and Shanésia DavisPhoto: Michael Courier

That journey is a successful career as a professional dancer, choreographer, director and, along the way, owner of the Lincolnshire Academy of Dance, now in its 20th season. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards including two dozen Jeff award nominations, for which she has received an even split of six each for her choreography and directing in theaters throughout Chicago. The secret to this success, she admits freely, is that this collaborative art form is really all about communication and respect. The best idea in the room always wins she says.  And when you are working with the most creative and talented performers that Chicago has to offer, you can bet that there are lots of ideas flying around.

All of that enthusiasm, collaboration and goodwill have seeded a long-standing relationship and string of critically acclaimed projects with Porchlight Music Theatre including Ain't Misbehavin', Forum, In the Heights and the 2016 hit Dreamgirls.

On September 7th, as rehearsals were just getting underway, we spoke with Didier about the move to the Ruth Page, inspiring students to follow their passion and what it is like to work with the largest cast ever assembled in Porchlight's history.

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On the cast of Billy Elliot-The Musical… “There are 18 adults in the ensemble and 17 children and they are from all walks of life. When I look at the cast, I don’t think about actors in musical theatre, children, they look like people in a town, community, village outside of London. They look like real people, they act like real people and that’s what is going to resonate. … The talent that came out was incredible.”

Porchlight's 23rd Season opens October 6th at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts

Porchlight's 23rd Season opens October 6th at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts

The story … “It takes place in a north England town, a small town. It is fiction, but the 1984 miner’s strike is very prevalent … so, it is a community of people, they are on strike, they are poor, they are blue collar, they go through a lot of loss as a town. Billy has lost his mother and is dealing with a grieving father and an angry older brother, a senile grandmother. He stumbles upon a ballet class by accident when he is supposed to be boxing and he finds out that he has a love of dance, by chance. There is a dance teacher and she takes an interest in him. It is about getting behind children in the arts and supporting their dreams no matter what.”

The early days … “I did gymnastics … I actually hated dance. My best friend across the street, Karen, took ballet. Mom wanted me to go with her one day. So I went. I couldn’t stand it. I felt trapped. I liked gymnastics because I could do all the tumbling … I did a lot of kick boxing … played baseball. So, I went to ballet by chance. Hated the whole year but I didn’t quit. Then the recital happened and Ms. Campbell looked at all the eight year-old girls and said ‘Who want to be up front?’ and all the other girls were afraid and I said I would. So, the recital day comes around, I put on the tutu and the curtain rolls open and all of a sudden, that was it! The applause. You couldn’t get me off stage. At that moment, it would all change. I wanted to be on stage and everything else went away.”   

On the move to Ruth Page … “It is very exciting. It is very challenging. It is a big step … to take this company to the next level and introduce a new area of Chicago to Porchlight.”

En Pointe … “there is something beautiful about just losing yourself in classical music through ballet en pointe.”

BRENDA DIDIER WEBSITE

PORCHLIGHT MUSIC THEATRE
BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL
October 6th through November 19th
The Ruth Page Center for the Arts
1016 N Dearborn, Chicago
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773-777-9884
LINCOLNSHIRE ACADEMY OF DANCE

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