Joffrey Ballet's Wheater Weighs In
An Interview with Artistic Director Ashley Wheater
by Dean Speer
The time of Ashley Wheater’s tenure as the successor Artistic Director of the much-beloved and storied Joffrey Ballet has already quickly flown by and we were fortunate to have been able to caught up with him amidst his busy schedule. Here is that interesting interview.
What have been some of the things you’ve expected and what have been some of the surprises along the way as you have settled into your role as AD over the last 5 years?
Having worked as dancer, ballet master and ultimately assistant to the artistic director with Helgi Tomasson at San Francisco Ballet, I was able to watch and learn from one of the best. I think I was relatively well-prepared for my role as artistic director. Having said that, there have been surprises, good and bad. I arrived at the Joffrey Ballet in September 2007, and the country dived into recession in 2008. We had to find creative ways to do more with less, to advance our artistic goals while monitoring the bottom line. And in the midst of these challenges, we found renewed support from our community. Chicago embraced the Joffrey Ballet. Through the years, the Joffrey has had many homes. For the first time, Chicago provided us with a permanent home. We were able to open our Academy of Dance, and expand our Community Engagement program. We own an amazing building with studios, administrative offices, academy and outreach under one roof.
You must have a sense of deep legacy…
I am proud to be associated with the Joffrey Ballet. I danced for Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino in the 1980’s, and was aware even then how significant and unique their contribution was to the world of dance. While it is challenging to build on a legacy, it might be even more of a challenge to direct a company without a sense of history. Robert Joffrey was an amazing teacher and coach. He was passionate and voracious about experiencing dance of all stripes. He felt a responsibility to advance the art form by exploring its possibilities, while at the same time possessing a curator’s eye for the best works created in the past. This model works brilliantly today. As a result, we have an amazing heritage and repertoire. These are our artistic assets.
The current season’s programming seems very creative/innovative. How did the ideas for this come about? What’s the backstory?
Programming is like three-dimensional chess. I formulate ideas three to five years in advance, but the world does not always cooperate. Newly-created work is the life blood of any arts organization, and I consciously look for artists with craft and something valuable to say. I review hours of video footage, and I attend as many performances as possible. I solicit and receive samples of work from around the world. I am familiar with our archives, and I have a pretty thorough knowledge of work done by some of history’s greatest choreographers. I consider my dancers and my audience. What skills do we have and which ones should we develop? What is the next challenge?
And from this complicated broth, I try to distill programs which showcase the best of what is happening in the art form. Though the selections may not spring from a single idea, they often share a thread. I hope we can explore the human condition, stretch our understanding of the art form, and touch the heart.
The Joffrey Ballet is many things to many people. What does your artistic vision look like for the future, say five/ten years down the road?
The Joffrey has always been an eclectic company with a maverick streak. This is a part of our identity, and offers great richness, flexibility and diversity. Robert Joffrey wanted an all-star, no-star company, providing opportunity based on appropriate skills and artistry, rather than ranking or “type”. While some companies appear to be cut from the same cloth, the Joffrey consists of dancers and a repertoire as complex as the city and country of which we are a part. I want to maintain this dynamism. Our goal is excellence, across a very broad spectrum.
You probably get inundated with hopeful choreographers looking to have either something commissioned or one of their works mounted. What are some of the things you look for in choosing a ballet? How do your own tastes run? How do you balance this with the demands that Marketing/Communications make in promoting, branding, and imaging the Company?
One of the joys of my job is discovering new creative voices. I devote much time to reviewing work from all sources. My personal tastes are broad, though I am impatient of work without craft or work attempting to be “timely” or sensational. I am convinced that quality work resonates with audiences, and that people sense when they are being pandered. Yet, I am also convinced that different work speaks to different people. We provide diverse programming, in the hope that across the season, everyone will find something to like, and that every program will offer food for thought.
What does your day look like? How hands-on do you like to be? Do you give Company class, for example? Do you still coach/rehearse ballets?
I was a dancer, and I am at home in the studio. I teach company class and coach in rehearsal as often as my schedule will allow. I am not a choreographer, and would not have time to create new work. Administrative duties would occupy most of my time, if allowed. Ours is a collaborative effort, and I depend on my staff to provide me the time I need for the studio.
Is there anything in particular you’d like to say or to have us know?
The dance world is wonderfully diverse. No two companies are exactly alike, and need not be. It is important to strive for excellence and find the individual voice. The Joffrey is proud to offer diverse dancers, diverse repertoire, diverse visions of the art form. There is something uniquely American about this hybrid.
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