Joffrey Ballet: Home at Last

Classic Arts Features   Joffrey Ballet: Home at Last
The Joffrey Ballet puts down roots with a new, state of the art facility in the Loop.

Change is afoot at the Joffrey Ballet. And like a dance by Twyla Tharp, it involves rapid changes of direction, a robust blending of the old and new, and unexpected entrances and exits. Ashley Wheater, a British dancer and former assistant to the artistic director of San Francisco Ballet, took the reins as artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet last year, when co-founder Gerald Arpino stepped down. This year, Jon Teeuwissen concluded his very productive tenure as the company's executive director, and Christopher Clinton Conway: the Joffrey's previous vice president of external affairs: took over Teeuwissen's post.

On the creative side, the enduring partnership of Maia Wilkins and Willy Shives came to a close during the spring engage- ment of "American Moderns" at the Auditorium Theatre, where they bid farewell with a performance of Arpino's Ruth, Ricordi Per Due. Shives was named the company's ballet master, while Wilkins departed with her husband and fellow ensemble member, Michael Levine, to pursue freelance opportunities. More shifts occurred among the company's cadre of teachers, with Wheater now conducting many company classes. And when it comes to repertoire, this coming season brings a Chicago premiere by admired English choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and a world premiere by former New York City Ballet dancer Edwaard Liang.

Topping off all this activity is the christening this month of the company's new digs in Joffrey Tower, the striking new high-rise in the heart of the Loop. Located at the corner of State and Randolph streets, the new, multi-use building marks the first time in its 52-year history that the company has had a home to call its own. Even after the troupe relocated to Chicago from New York City in 1995, its administrative offices and studios were in separate buildings and its school remained in Manhattan. Now offices and studios are consolidated across three floors of the glass-enclosed skyscraper, designed by Booth Hansen Architects. The Joffrey's new facility encompasses seven studios, a 144-seat black-box theater, box office, loads of storage space, upgraded dressing rooms and the Joffrey Academy of Dance (officially set to open in 2009, with classes in ballet, modern, hip-hop and Pilates).

The Joffrey has been adapting to change since its founding by Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino in 1956. It survived many financial struggles during its years at New York's City Center and weathered the stress of its much-hyped bicoastal experiment, when the company maintained a presence in both New York and Los Angeles. And Robert Joffrey's death in 1988 was a tremendous blow, leaving many observers to wonder if the company could go on and if it did, what kind of company it would be. Yet through it all, the Joffrey forged ahead, amassing a repertoire of works by Leonide Massine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor, John Cranko, George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, Paul Taylor, Jiri Kylian, and William Forsythe, as well as Joffrey and Arpino.

Though it began as a classical troupe, the Joffrey was never modeled after its most renowned predecessors, American Ballet Theatre, with its full-length story ballets, or New York City Ballet, essentially a showcase for one choreographer (George Balanchine). Instead, it expressed a catholic taste in dance, performing all sorts of work by all sorts of choreographers. Although the company became renowned for its revival of works from Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, the company was also quick to commission works from modern dance artists, including Alvin Ailey, Laura Dean, and Mark Morris. Its acquisition of Kurt Jooss' 1932 anti-war ballet, The Green Table; Joffrey's 1967 psychedelic multimedia orgy, Astarte; Arpino's 1968 anti-nuke circus, The Clowns; and even the stylistically murky 1993 Billboards, set to the music of Prince, proved the company's ongoing mission to address socially relevant issues.

According to Arpino, now artistic director emeritus, the Joffrey Ballet set out to "imbue movement with individuality, rather than be stylized in any one rigid form." Although the group has always been grounded in ballet, he frequently stresses the "dancer athlete" and an openness to exploring uncharted movement terrain. "You have to respect tradition," says Arpino, "but not be stagnant." It's this delicate balance of history and innovation that Wheater promises to uphold. He also plans to provide more opportunities (through training and performance) for the dancers to grow as artists, continue to expose audiences to the eclectic range of Joffrey's repertoire, and constantly freshen things up with new choreography.

The 2007 _08 season already witnessed a shift in terms of which dancers were highlighted, based on their suitability for certain roles. And while stars still exist in the Joffrey's "all-star, no-star" system, a temporarily dormant sense of ensemble egalitarianism was reawakened. "I don't believe in dictating the casting," says Wheater, who opts to leave those decisions to a choreographer setting a new work or an expert brought in to restage a classic. "I believe in putting dancers in specific roles that will shape their bodies in a certain way and strengthen areas where they may need work."

Wheater, who danced with the Joffrey from 1985 to 1989, has focused on teaching and coaching since a neck injury ended his dancing career in 1996. He speaks of his performing years with the Joffrey as a time of "young, emerging talent," when choreographers such as William Forsythe and James Kudelka made their mark on the company. "There was an abundance of original work, and these choreographers weren't copying anyone. They were the innovators." He laments that many dance makers working today rely too much on copying those earlier innovators. "It's those carbon copies that worry me. I want to encourage talent to really find their way."

For future Joffrey seasons, Wheater is already considering new works by in demand New York choreographer Jessica Lang and Yuri Possokhov, formerly with the Bolshoi Ballet and currently resident choreographer at San Francisco Ballet. Yet overall, the 2008-09 season represents Joffrey's standard blending of the vintage and novel, traditional and barrier-breaking. It includes Jerome Robbins' Into the Night, Joffrey's Postcards, Arpino's Kettentanz, Wheeldon's Carousel (A Dance), and a centennial celebration of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.

On the business side, Conway's position as executive director has been streamlined. Unlike his predecessor, who had a hand in making artistic decisions, Conway will focus primarily on finance and facilities. Like other arts organizations, the Joffrey has done its best to court an elusive younger audience with special events designed to appeal to young professionals. Now, with a permanent home and school downtown, Conway is convinced the company can attract diverse patrons and bring them closer to the artists. For instance, individuals taking a Pilates class on their lunch hour at the Joffrey Academy of Dance may be more inclined to attend performances because they have developed a more personal relationship with the organization. "We become part of the fabric of the city," notes Conway. And how. Chicago has struggled for decades to establish its own, first rate ballet company. With the Joffrey taking residence in a brand-new home in the heart of the city, it's clear that that goal has been beautifully achieved.

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