When Gerald Arpino, co-founder of The Joffrey Ballet, retired as artistic director in 2007, that beloved dance company entered the latest phase of its eventful history. A fixture in New York for decades, the resident ballet company of the Los Angles Music Center from 1982 to 1992, and happily at home in Chicago since 1995, the Joffrey is now under the direction of Ashley Wheater. Mr. Wheater, who began his career at The Royal Ballet and danced with the Joffrey in the 1980s, spoke to Thomas Connors about assuming the reins of one of America's greatest dance companies.
You danced with the Joffrey for four years, but the bulk of your career here has been with the San Francisco Ballet.
Yes, I came to America in 1984 and joined the Joffrey as a leading dancer in 1985. After Mr. Joffrey died in 1988, I was invited to San Francisco Ballet by its artistic director, Helgi Tomasson. I went there as principal dancer and when I retired I became ballet master. After that, I was assistant to the artistic director. So I'd been there 19 years.
It must have been difficult to leave.
When I was approached by the Joffrey, I was really honored, but I needed to think about it because what I had at San Francisco Ballet was huge. Then I was here last year for the Chicago Dancing Festival, which Lar Lubovitch co-hosted and he said to me, "Ashley, you have everything that this company needs. I really think you should think about it." He really gave me the push.
Is it at all intimidating to step into the shoes of Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino?
I'm not intimidated at all. This is an incredible dream for me. And I'm extremely proud to be given this opportunity.
Has the company changed much since you danced with it?
The company has definitely changed over the years. So many people worked with this company when I was in it‹Mark Morris, William Forsythe, James Kudelka. I don't think that's happened in a long time.
Can it happen again?
Oh definitely. For me, Robert Joffrey was probably one of the greatest artistic directors in American dance. He wasn't like George Balanchine, who had his own school, his own company for his own work. And he wasn't like Lucia Chase who started American Ballet Theatre, which became the grand classical company of America. He looked at the whole of dance. So what happened was you had dancers that were incredibly versatile. Helgi has, in a way, taken Robert Joffrey's blueprint. The San Francisco Ballet probably has more new works than any other company. I think the Joffrey needs that so badly.
What choreographers would you like to sign up?
Definitely Christopher Wheeldon. He is a friend of mine and I've worked a lot with him. He's a huge talent. And a man named Wayne MacGregor. He's does some wonderful work. He's really out there. But I also think the company has had such a strong relationship with John Cranko and there are some more Cranko ballets I would love to do. I'd love to have Onegin. The company already has Romeo and Juliet, it already has The Taming of the Shrew, it has Jeu des Cartes. So it would be great to have Onegin. Or even The Lady and the Fool, which is a really wonderful piece.
So, how do you find Chicago?
I love Chicago. I've always loved Chicago. When I first came to America I had friends here so I used to come here. And I was a guest artist for many years with the Ruth Page Nutcracker at the Arie Crown Theater. So I was always here for the whole month of December. And I built many good friends over that period of time who are still here.
What about the cultural landscape?
It's one thing to have a city that has dance, opera, theater, but quite another to have a populace that has a really high level of understanding. I find Chicago to be an incredible well-educated city. They appreciate many different aspects of a museum, a symphony orchestra, or a ballet company. They're open. They know it's great to hear or see the old favorites, but they also want to move ahead.