Since its creation in 1956, The Joffrey Ballet has only known two artistic directors: its co-founders Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino. But now a new hand is at the helm of the company that made Chicago its home in 1995, enriching the city's dance community with its breathtaking ballets ever since. In July 2007 Arpino became artistic director emeritus of The Joffrey Ballet and, last month, Ashley Wheater was named the new artistic director of the company. Wheater had been the longtime ballet master of San Francisco Ballet and was, himself, a Joffrey dancer from 1985 to 1989.
Born in Scotland and raised in England, Wheater, 48, was trained at the Royal Ballet School. As a young dancer he was cast in numerous productions at the Royal Opera House, including The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, Romeo and Juliet, Anastasia and Rudolf Nureyev's Nutcracker. At the age of 13, he worked with Sir Frederick Ashton on the world premiere of Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice, a production in which Wheater performed throughout England and Europe.
Wheater began his professional career with The Royal Ballet and joined London Festival Ballet, on the advice of Nureyev, and after two years he was promoted to principal dancer. In 1982 he joined The Australian Ballet, under the direction of Marilyn Rowe, and danced a multitude of roles in both classical and contemporary works. It was in Australia in 1984, while Arpino was staging Suite Saint-Saens for The Joffrey Ballet there, that he saw Wheater dance and invited him to join the company, which Wheater did the following year.
In 1989, Wheater joined San Francisco Ballet, dancing lead roles in nearly all of the company's full-length productions. After a long and successful career as a principal dancer, Wheater assumed the role of ballet master with San Francisco Ballet in 1996 and was named assistant to the artistic director in 2002.
After working with such large and prestigious ballet companies all across the world, the transition to artistic director of The Joffrey seems like a natural progression for Wheater. Last August, for the inaugural performance of the American Dancing Festival, Wheater brought five dancers from San Francisco Ballet to participate in the program. That visit to Chicago finally gave Wheater the chance to see the current Joffrey ensemble, teach the company ballet class and get re-introduced to the group and the organization that he had once known so well. 'There was a really amazing response from the company,' Wheater says. 'My instinct was so strong about the possibilities that were here… It just seemed that the more time I spent here the more I was sure that this was really the right thing.'
The Joffrey certainly has a busy season ahead of itself. The company is currently in the midst of its performance of the legendary ghost story Giselle, which runs through Sun., Oct. 28, at the Auditorium Theatre. Former Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancer Frederick Franklin has been coaching the dancers for this production. At 93, Franklin is one of the last dancers of an extraordinary era in dance. 'It's been great having Freddy Franklin here,' Wheater said of the preparation of Giselle. 'He understands the ballet so well. It's quite refreshing. Over the years so many people have done different things with Giselle, so he came in and said that this was a production that he learned in the 1930s and he hasn't made any changes. It's wonderful.'
After its performances in the spring of 2008, The Joffrey will be ready to launch into its next season—which is already in the planning stages—and Wheater is anxious to jump in as a creative force and put his touches on the company and the repertory. Wheater comments on the future and his plan for the company: 'The company definitely is ready to move forward. It needs a lot more new work created on the company, and there is a wealth of [ choreographic ] talent out there. There is a lot of repertoire, both existing and new repertoire, that should be seen in Chicago.'
As opposed to some younger ballet companies that maintain a purely contemporary ballet aesthetic, The Joffrey has always possessed a repertory balanced between classic and contemporary work. Wheater understands the value of that balance and agrees that it has been the key to the company's success and growth over the years. Though he is eager to see some more contemporary works, he is also interested in the classics, especially some of the late 20th-century ballets, which could range from the work of Nijinski and Balanchine to Jerome Robins and more. 'Robert Joffrey was a great director and he had great balance. Many people have looked to what Robert Joffrey did and have followed that guideline,' Wheater explained. 'For me, we need those classics. They are challenging for any dancer in any stage in their career. It's all about finding a balance between those classical ballets, or even the neo-classical ballets, and the contemporary repertoire. … I just feel that whether it's dancing Ashton's Cinderella or a Tudor ballet or Giselle, if they're danced really well, at the highest possible level, and the production values are also at a high level, I know that there is a young audience out there interested in ballet. In the long run we have to maintain the integrity of what a ballet company is about.'
Wheater has been familiar with Chicago for a long time, whether it's been through performing or visiting friends here, and he seems genuinely excited to make Chicago his home. 'I think that Chicago is such a cultured city and the people of Chicago really want their art to thrive. They have shown me such support already in such a short span of time,' he said. However, he admitted that he will have to get used to the weather and everyone has told him that he needs to buy a really big winter coat.
Always being a part of large ballet companies has prepared Wheater to not be intimidated by what would seem a daunting task of leading The Joffrey Ballet. In contemplating the new role of artistic director, Wheater drew a very intriguing analogy: 'Years ago when I was in Australia I got my certificate as captain of a boat. I love sailing. I think the best thing about being captain of a boat is that if you understand where the winds are coming from, and the current, you can turn your boat into the wind and everything will work the right way.' Wheater certainly brings the experience and insight to see the winds and currents of the dance world.