This year, the Joffrey Ballet, founded in 1956 by Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino, celebrated its 60th anniversary. Last month, the ballet presented the fantastic Romeo & Juliet, as reimagined by Krzysztof Pastor. This winter, the Joffrey will host an all-new and totally revamped version of the classic, The Nutcracker, set in Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair. Whitewall spoke with the ballet’s artistic director, Ashley Wheater.
WHITEWALL: You joined the Joffrey Ballet in 1985 as a dancer, and after time at the San Francisco Ballet you came back to the Joffrey as artistic director in 2007. How would you describe your role as an artistic director of a ballet company?
ASHLEY WHEATER: I would say that I’m responsible for every dancer in the company, for everything that we dance, for the commissions that we have created here, and for the collaborations within those commissions. I ask, “What is the lighting of the ballet? What is the design for ballet? What is our feeling of live music? What is the creative path that we want to create? And How do we retain that and keep developing them as artists?”
And then we have a lot of long-range plans, and as an artistic director you have to be involved in fundraising.
WW: This winter, there’s an exciting change to the seasonal classic The Nutcracker. The Joffrey will hold a world premiere of Tony Award–winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s reimagined The Nutcracker, which is set in Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair with set and costume design by Julian Crouch.
AW: The reimagining of The Nutcracker is huge! We had this conversation ten years ago. And I’ve never lost the sight of it. Chris Wheeldon and I spoke about it [and wondered], what does the story look like today? The way we access narrative has changed a lot. And I wanted to make it a gift to Chicago, setting it in the World’s Fair. It was an interesting time in Chicago, rebuilding the city but also bringing the world to Chicago after the Great Fire. There was a lot of hope.
We looked at what the Nutcracker represents for family today, because family has changed. We are multiracial, we’re interconnected, there are lots of single parents out there . . . There’s no really traditional sense of family anymore, which I think is beautiful. So Brian Selznick has rewritten the story of The Nutcracker. And he’s really an amazing man. He sent a first draft, and I read through it and it was just so moving. When people come to The Nutcracker, I hope they see it as not just entertainment or ballet but as a deeper story that that can speak to all of us.
WW: How do you work with bringing in new choreographers like Christopher Wheeldon or Alexander Ekman, who will premiere a work in the spring of 2017?
AW: I travel around to places like New York or London, San Francisco, L.A., and you hear about people or see things. I would say, though, with Alexander, with Myles Thatcher, with Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, we connected in a really organic way, and I love their work. With Alex we have done two of his works, and we really wanted him to create a full evening work.
I think what happens sometimes in the ballet world is you have a choreographer who brings something and then you bring in everyone else. But actually, if you start it at the other end, it’s really is about starting with the visual artists to be the momentum for creativity.
WW: Ballet is full of artistic visual and choreography collaborations, like Merce Cunningham and John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg. Are those kinds of collaborations something that you are looking to explore further at the Joffrey?
AW: Definitely. Even coming up next year [in February] we are bringing back Infra by Wayne McGregor, with music by Max Richter. And it was done with artist Julian Opie. I love Julian’s work and it is truly an amazing piece. And Justin Peck is going to come in and do a new work for us for 2017. I think that once that people come in the door, they find that this is a very open creative space.
I think that is where the Joffrey has succeeded where other companies maybe have felt beholden [to past choreographers]. Robert Joffrey was a choreographer, but he wanted to be a director. The company never had to attach itself to 19th-century classical ballet or the idea of George Balanchine or Paul Taylor. It’s been able to float within all of it, so it’s refreshing.
There are things that I’d love to do. How do we discover young artists that probably want an opportunity to create on the stage? I’ve always wanted James Turrell to come and do something. It would be amazing.
This article appears in Whitewall‘s fall 2016 Fashion Issue.