Credit: David Allen

Ballet is an art form steeped in discipline and tradition—a stereotypically tall and slender ballerina floats across the stage in pointe shoes, dancing through a fairy tale accompanied by a classical score. Yet when Robert Joffrey started the Joffrey Ballet in 1956 with cofounder Gerald Arpino, he set out to build a new type of ballet company that broke free of convention. Joffrey opted for dancers of different body types rather than filling his company with cookie-cutter performers. He commissioned original works and brought contemporary choreographers and styles to the stage. Joffrey championed dance in multiple forms, a legacy Joffrey Ballet artistic director Ashley Wheater hopes to continue carrying forward as he celebrates his tenth year in the role.

“[My vision for the company is] a new direction, and yet it’s kind of going back to the roots of what Robert Joffrey envisioned, which was to have a company that was always unafraid to experiment and take that message across the country,” Wheater says. “He just opened up my whole world.”

The Joffrey Ballet that Wheater says he aims to build—financially stable, artistically diverse—requires testing new waters. Robert Joffrey fully embraced the world of dance, running from Lincoln Center to the East Village and all across New York City hungry to see what was happening, and Wheater intends to be equally searching and innovative. Right now the Joffrey is performing its first-ever collaboration with Lyric Opera of Chicago: Orphée et Eurydice, coproduced by the Los Angeles Opera and running until October 15. (The Joffrey takes the show to LA in March 2018.) And in late September it was announced that the Joffrey will move its residency from the Auditorium Theatre, where it’s been since 1998, to the newly renamed Lyric Opera House (formerly the Civic Opera House) in fall 2020.

Following the Lyric Opera collaboration, the Joffrey’s current season begins with new choreographers and pieces juxtaposed with full-length works informed by classical ballet. It opens October 18 with Giselle, adapted by former San Francisco Ballet associate director Lola de Ávila. The season closes with another retelling of a classic—33-year-old Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman recasts A Midsummer Night’s Dream as an ode to the year’s longest day. In between are more modern works such as Jerome Robbins’s Glass Pieces, featuring music by Philip Glass.

Since joining the Joffrey as artistic director in 2007, Wheater has worked to revitalize a company recovering from near financial ruin. During the past decade, Wheater has expanded Joffrey’s repertoire, opened up performance opportunities for dancers in and outside of the company, and focused on setting the groundwork for sustaining the Joffrey’s success for years to come.

Wheater in rehearsal
Wheater in rehearsalCredit: Cheryl Mann

Born in Scotland outside of Edinburgh and raised in Leicestershire, England, Wheater, now 58, left his parents and three sisters behind at ten years old to study at London’s Royal Ballet School, where he worked with ballet masters like Frederick Ashton. Within a couple of years, Wheater had an inkling of what his future held.

“When I was 12 or 13 and I had come home from the Royal Ballet School, [my mother] remembers me saying to her, ‘You know, Mom, one day I really want to have my own ballet company,’ ” he says.

Wheater danced with the London Festival Ballet, the Australian Ballet, the Joffrey, and the San Francisco Ballet before suffering a career-ending neck injury in 1996. In 1997 he retired from dancing and was appointed SFB’s ballet master and, later, assistant to the artistic director. When he rejoined the Joffrey as artistic director in 2007, he had mixed feelings about returning to the company.

“It was a homecoming for sure,” he says. “There was excitement, there was all of that emotion, and at the same time, it was a very different company.”

In the time since Wheater had left the ensemble in 1989, Robert Joffrey had passed away, the company had moved from New York City to Chicago, and Arpino, who first encouraged Wheater to join the Joffrey in 1985, had vacated his role.

Furthermore, the company was emerging from more than a decade of financial turmoil. In 1995 the Joffrey had accumulated nearly $2 million in debt while working on a $5 million operating budget. The year before it had canceled a 14-show cross-country tour. To avert financial ruin, the company moved to Chicago, removing itself from the competition it faced in New York alongside the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. But costs continued to rise. By 2001, the Joffrey was still $3 million in debt.

With no real subscriber base or donor support, the Joffrey hired Jon Teeuwissen as executive director. Teeuwissen secured a contract for performance space at the Auditorium Theatre, allowing the company to solicit season subscribers. By June 2007, just months before Wheater’s hiring, Teeuwissen had raised corporate donation by 73 percent and foundation donations by 88 percent. The Joffrey was finally reaching solid financial ground. Wheater was tasked with keeping this momentum going and bringing some stability to the company.

When he became artistic director, Wheater says, it appeared the company was just going through the motions.

“When I took over, [the company] prepared performances and they danced performances,” he says. “[But] when we go to the theater, we want to engage with the people we’re watching.”

He saw two groups of dancers emerge: those working diligently toward improvement, and those coasting.

“It’s not enough anymore to just think you can show up and do your bit in the corps de ballet,” he says. “I think our art form is very, very beautiful and very valid if it’s really good . . . [but] complacency can be a crippling factor.'”

He abolished the hierarchy that ballet companies typically use, where plum roles only go to principal dancers. Under Wheater, any company member can audition for any spot in upcoming works regardless of previous roles.

The new style of leadership didn’t sit well with all of the dancers, and some parted ways with the Joffrey. Lead ballerina Maia Wilkins and her husband, Michael Levine, were told their contracts wouldn’t be renewed after the 2007-2008 season. Seven dancers left the following year. Wheater had a message for the remaining company members. “I said to them, ‘It is hard to be a really good dancer. To be a really good company is hard, and we have to make a decision whether we want to work that hard or whether it’s above us.’ ”

Next, Wheater began staging repertoire that was exciting for both Joffrey audiences and dancers. He contacted the Jerome Robbins trust, asking for permission to produce In the Night, a six-person piece created in 1970 for the New York City Ballet. When the company performed the work in October 2008, Tribune critic Sid Smith called it “a glorious addition to the repertoire.” Soon Joffrey dancers were performing more contemporary material like Carousel (April 2009), by famed choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, and . . . Smile With My Heart (May 2008), a new American classic by Chicago’s own Lar Lubovitch.

“For very classically ballet-trained dancers, that’s a stretch,” says Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun-Times dance critic since 1984. “I think it really opened them up to their own potential to do things outside the mainstream.”

Wheater has continued improving the company’s output by attracting some of contemporary dance’s most sought-after choreographers for repeat engagements with the Joffrey—including Alexander Ekman and Justin Peck—and providing a platform for diverse voices in the field, such as Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. He tapped Wheeldon for a Nutcracker reboot, the first since 1987, hoping to shift people’s view of ballet from tutus and pink pointe shoes to modern garb and dynamic storytelling. Each year these contemporary pieces and reimagined classics fall into the Joffrey season alongside traditional story ballets like Ashton’s Cinderella (May 2016). Wheater says the resulting mix of familiar and new works provides a vibrancy and variety intriguing to both ballet aficionados and Chicago’s newer dance fans.

“[We needed someone] to help put the company back on the map, and he’s done that above and beyond,” says April Daly, a Joffrey dancer for 15 years.

Under Wheater, Joffrey ticket sales rose steadily. According to executive director Greg Cameron, in Wheater’s first season the company sold more than 61,000 tickets; last season sales exceeded 95,000.

Wheater looks on as <i>Nutcracker</i> choreographer Christopher Wheeldon (center) helps fit Joffrey Ballet dancer Anais Bueno.
Wheater looks on as Nutcracker choreographer Christopher Wheeldon (center) helps fit Joffrey Ballet dancer Anais Bueno.Credit: Chloe Hamilton

While Chicago criticism of Wheater’s choices skews positive—Lauren Warnecke wrote for the Tribune that he has a “keen curatorial eye”—reviews aren’t always favorable. New York critics treated him harshly when Joffrey Ballet returned to New York City in 2017 for the first time since its 1995 departure. The Times‘s Gia Kourlas called the pieces selected by Wheater subpar, opining that “this is a company in need of an identity.” Kourlas denounced Wheater’s choice of all-male choreographers and suggested the Joffrey remains removed from its original place in ballet as a champion of new and important works, despite Wheater’s efforts to reclaim that title.

Weiss, however, says testing choreographers and new pieces helps the Joffrey maintain its identity as a troupe with diverse dancers and repertoire—”not a cookie-cutter company,” she says—even if they sometimes fall flat.

“You don’t always get a masterpiece, but you get variety,” she points out. “I think Wheater’s willing to experiment to expand the taste of both the dancers and the audience.”

The Joffrey continues to provide artistic opportunities for diverse performers and choreographers throughout Chicago and the country, with initiatives like the Winning Works Choreographer Competition. The program, established eight years ago, selects African, Latino, Asian, Arab, and Native American choreographers to stage original works with the Joffrey Studio Company and Joffrey Academy students.

While introducing these new dance talents to the city, Wheater focuses on bringing Chicago creative ways to appreciate the art form, whether through community programming or collaborations with other arts groups. Outside of Chicago, the company has a nine-year relationship with the Cleveland Orchestra, recently staging Yuri Possokhov’s Miraculous Mandarin at Cleveland’s Severance Hall.

Moving forward, Wheater plans to continue strengthening these relationships, like the company’s five-year partnership with Cal Performances in Berkeley, California, which allows the Joffrey to workshop and premiere new material. The Joffrey’s seven-year lease at Lyric Opera Center opens the door to further collaborations with the opera company. And while remaining tight-lipped, Wheater said talks are under way with Chicago theater troupes and dance companies regarding other potential collaborations. He says he’d love to work with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or Hubbard Street Dance Chicago as well as explore different performance venues, such as Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Belmont Armory. He’ll of course keep looking for the latest choreographic talent.

“I think people are very interested to see there are a lot of fresh faces out there doing some really interesting work,” Wheater says. “Chicago is a city that embraces new and different ideas.”

For now, he’ll continue working on his mission with the company while reaching back to the legacy Joffrey left behind, hoping to create a solid foundation to pass on to the next artistic leader when the time comes.

“I think we’re all really proud of what [we have] achieved and that people put aside their egos for the greater good of the art form,” Wheater says. “As long as I can give them what they need and it’s on the right track, I’m very happy here, but I’m also very realistic that to do a good job is not forever. . . . There will come a day that I will have to hand the reins over.”  v