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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.

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