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Video: Sasha Fornari (Courtesy of Joffrey Ballet)

Ashley Wheater was born in Scotland and raised in England. He began his professional career with The Royal Ballet and, on the advice of Nureyev, he joined the London Festival Ballet where he danced Romeo & Juliet, The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Etudes and Sphinx. After two years, he was promoted to principal dancer. In 1982, he joined The Australian Ballet, and under the direction of Marilyn Rowe, he danced roles in both classical and contemporary works. He also danced in Western Australia and Asia with Barry Morland. In 1985, he joined the Joffrey Ballet where he worked with Robert Joffrey. While at the Joffrey, he danced in many American works by choreographers William Forsythe, Gerald Arpino, Eugene Loring, Mark Morris, and Laura Dean, and he performed the lead in numerous Ashton and Cranko works. In 1989, he joined the San Francisco Ballet and danced lead roles in all of the Company’s full-length productions. He had many works created on him by choreographers Helgi Tomasson, James Kudelka, David Bintley, and Mark Morris. In 1996, his dancing career came to an abrupt end when he suffered a serious neck injury. After a long and acclaimed career as a principal dancer, he reinvented himself while still recovering from his injury and he assumed the role of Ballet Master with the San Francisco Ballet in 1996. In 2002, he was named Assistant to the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Ballet. In 2007, he was appointed Artistic Director of the Joffrey Ballet.

Thirsty:  What role does dance play in American culture?

Ashley Wheater:  The role of's such a broad topic, but I think it's hugely important because, whether it's ballet, jazz, hip-hop, Dancing with the Stars, clubbing, we all relate to that physical movement of working with music and dancing within a musical phrase.  It's just so important.  When we physically move, our bodies respond instantly in every way.  Your cells generate your mood changes.  It releases a lot of pressure and tension.  I think that in terms of ballet, it's part of one of the great arts of America.  And, America's always had this way of expressing itself on a very physical level.  Unlike European, which is almost polite and controlled, America's always had that freedom of movement.  So free dance in America, it's really important and this company is about serving America in the aesthetic of the American way of dancing.

Thirsty:  How has ballet evolved during your career?

AW:  Hugely.  I started dancing professionally in the 70's and I think we went through great periods in the mid-70's to the middle of the 90's.  Ballet was really at its peak in the 80's and there was a huge following.  I think that we as ballet companies have looked to different ways of getting into the younger generation.  I think that people have broken the boundaries.  We're not so caught up in what people perceive as classical ballet, which people think a little bit toe shoes and long tutus, but we have moved into a very different way.  Physically we're dancing very differently today.  It is much more athletic.  We have broken the boundaries with new ideas musically in dance.  Even the way we present ballet now has become much more open.  It's much more accessible to every generation.

Thirsty:  I understand that you like to sail and that you are a keen observer of the direction of the wind and the current.  What are the trends you see in American dance that will strengthen over the next five years?

AW:  When you're in a sailing boat, your eyes are always looking at the water.  You know what the wind is.  Where the direction of the wind is coming from.  And when you look at the ripples of the water, you know how gusting it is.  And, I think, what we've seen in America is a big break coming and then it flattened out.

The Nutcracker
Photo: Herbert Migdoll (click to enlarge)

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And I think now what we have to do, is we have to be able to dance at the highest possible level.  And what people really need, I think these days, is content.  Not just a quick, you know,  flash in the pan choreography.  People want...I mean I've seen a lot of young kids come to the Joffrey Ballet and they look at the performances and they know that they're watching a good company.  That there's a lot of integrity to it.  That there's content in the material that we're dancing.  It's not just do this for the sake of it.  That there's a structure to movement and the movement is structured within the music.  So, I think, in the next five years, if we're going to keep our audiences and if were going to bring in younger audiences, we have to realize that young kids want great music and great steps in ballet.  But they want integrity with it.  You know, people have tried doing works to hip-hop.  But unless you're a great choreographer, you are not going to know how to use that music.  It sounds trendy to do a ballet to hip-hop, but it's only really successful if the work that you are doing to the hip-hop is really grand.  What I'm looking for is young American talent.  Talent that really, really understands their craft and what they want to do.  And to bring them to the Joffrey and do great pieces and also choreography by a diverse group of people - women choreographers, Latino choreographers, African-American choreographers.  These people all need more opportunities and the Joffrey is a great place for that.

Thirsty:  You had an illustrious career as a performer and then you reinvented yourself after you suffered a serious neck injury in an accident.  In little more than ten years, you have gone from principal dancer to Artistic Director of the Joffrey Ballet and overcome personal tragedy.  How were you able to face such tectonic changes in your life so successfully?

AW:  That's a good question.  I've always been a person with a positive outlook.  Even when I was a little boy, my parents were very positive people.  And I feel that I have been exceptionally lucky in my life just with the people that I've worked with, the people that I've met in my life, the different cultures where I've danced in different countries.  It gives you a balance about what we have.  What we have in America is...we're lucky, lucky people here.  We have a lot.  And we do have a lot of tragedy.  When I did have my injury, because it was on my spinal cord, I ruptured every disc in my neck and I had a lot of paralysis in my upper body, the choice was very limited.  The choice was "this is so bad we have to operate and this is the end of your career".  If I had not had such a fulfilling career, I might feel differently about it.  I think because I was so lucky, I accepted it.  I said, "O.K., if I have to give up being a principal dancer, then that's what I have to do".  But I wanted to stay within the ballet world, the dance world.  I had a lot of surgery and I was laying in bed for a month with this steel brace bolted into me, I had a halo on, and I just had to get up and I had to do something.  And so, at the time I was with the San Francisco Ballet and I called the Director, Helgi Tomasson, and I just said that I need to do something...I need to work. 

Ashley C. Wheater - Artistic Director, Joffrey Ballet
(Photo: Jim Luning Photography)

So I went back into the studio with the brace on and I just started teaching and coaching.  And it just seemed that it was the right step.  Once you get onto a new path, I've always been one of those people who just follow it a hundred percent.  Give it a hundred percent.  And my father taught me that.  I lost my father when he was really young which was so hard for me because he was such an important man in my life.  But I think we all feel that when you've lost someone, you know they're always with you or you strive knowing that you miss someone but it's not in vain.  And, I've always heard that.  My father's always there.  And so, I just dived in and I became a Ballet Master, a teacher and then I became an Assistant to the Artistic Director at San Francisco.  And then, when the Joffrey was looking for a Director, they called me and I was one of those moments when I wish my dad was here.  I really do.  But I know he's here.  This is probably the greatest thing that has ever happened to me.  It feels right.  It's a lot of work, but it's work that is so enjoyable even with all of the problems.  I believe in this.  I believe in this company.  I believe in dance.  I believe this company has always been an American company and that we should promote American dancers in American choreography.  And I know people find that odd because I'm British, but I've spent more of my life in America than I ever did in the UK.  And so I consider myself an American.

Thirsty:  So it's really the teachings from your family, from your father, those attitudes and those principles that carried you through and kept you positive and allowed you to reinvent yourself?

AW:  Absolutely.  There is an expression: "Show me the boy of seven and I'll show you the man".  I think that is exactly as you said.  What we learn from our parents...the values that we have...the way of looking at life...the integrity of life, I know comes from my parents.

Thirsty:  Do you ever expect to create and choreograph an original ballet or would you prefer to coach and teach other dancers?

AW: A lot of people have asked me if I would ever choreograph.  I think that with certain pieces of work, some work, I'm very good at being able to re-tell a story or re-set some ballets, especially some of the classical ballets like Giselle, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and the Nutcracker.  The strongest part of me is to teach and to coach, and I've always loved teaching whether it's a professional dancer, a principal dancer or a child in a ballet school.  There is something about teaching that is such a fulfilling gift to be able to give back.  I know that that's what I've found for me.  I love directing.  I love deciding what the company should be dancing, how they should be dancing, and that all comes from teaching every day and coaching.

Thirsty:  How do you plan to continue to interest not only young aspiring dancers, but also to build a young audience for the Joffrey?

AW:  When I was growing up, there were a lot of boundaries.  There was a certain way of not asking a question, but just doing, being told what you should do and doing it.  In this day and age, it's so different.  Young kids really want to know more and to feel confident and open to say "I don't understand that?" or "Why do you want it that way?" and ask the question.

Le Sacre du Printemps
Photo: Herbert Migdoll (click to enlarge)

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And so, when I'm teaching young dancers now or when I'm working with the company, we have a very open dialogue which is much more conducive because all the questions they have ever wanted to ask start to come out.  Once they have the information, they change.  They become a totally different dancer because they're's not the instructor and the pupil.  It is two people that are open to different ideas. And I feel that that works within the company and also with our audience.  Being able to show young people what we're doing today...that it has a lot of relativity to their environment, that is very acceptable to young people.  Probably the biggest misconception about ballet companies is that they are a rarity or that they're their own category of people.

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And, what I feel is that dance is for everyone and we need to make it available to everyone.  And so here in Chicago, there are things that we do in the city at the Pritzker Pavilion, which is an open-air theater in Millennium Park, is we have free performances.  And when we do those performances we have eight thousand people.  And there's a lot of young people now that are coming to the ballet, because I think they realize they identify with it.  It's not something that was of a different generation, but it's actually something that belongs to their generation.

Thirsty:  Following up on that, I have two questions from aspiring dancers.  The first one is from Luca, age 15, and he asks: "I'm the tallest in my men's class at Ballet Florida.  I'm even taller than my instructors.  Costumes are a problem and I'm always the last one on the placement in a performance.  What would you suggest to a six-foot-two, fifteen-year-old who loves dance more than anything, but is worried that his height gets in the way?"

AW:  Well, I would say to him that we have a wonderful male dancer here in the Joffrey Ballet, his name is Fabrice Calmels, he is six-foot-seven and he's a beautiful dancer.  I'm six-foot-one-and-a-half myself.  You just have to keep persevering.  I think the hardest thing when you're tall is that you just have to work harder to do many of the tricks that we have to learn because you're taking a lot more body and throwing it into the air.  I say if it's what you really want to do, there's always a company for you.  When you look at today's dancers, there are a lot of tall dancers, a lot of tall ballerinas and they need a beautiful, tall man.

Thirsty:  The second question is from Lucia, age 10, and she asks: "I'm the dancer in ballet class who answers questions and most often is asked to demonstrate a movement, but I have not been moved to the next level.  I was moved up a level in jazz and tap, but not in ballet.  The director told my mother that they need to observe me a little longer.  How would you suggest that I approach my teachers about being moved up?  I feel I am ready."

AW:  Well, I would say to her that there must be something...she must be very smart and to be moved up in two other classes...what my advice to her is talk to the teacher and find out what it really is.  Is it that they don't feel that you are strong enough to move up in classical ballet or is it that they are concerned that if you go the next level, which is probably where they're starting to do point work, that they don't want to injure you?  I think you have to ask the question and really accept, even at a young age, that we're all different and some of us mature faster in some things than other things.  I know when I went to the Royal Ballet School at eleven, we were always being adjudicated as to exactly what year we should be in.  The thing is to go to the teachers and to ask them and to talk to them about her work and to be open to what they might respond to because sometimes we only want to hear the good things.  I think in the best way, if it's positive, criticism can be very beneficial.

Thirsty:  How would you describe your artistic vision for the next few years for the Joffrey and what do you envision as the balance between classical and contemporary works?

Ashley C. Wheater
(Photo: Jim Luning Photography)

AW:  For me, the vision here at the Joffrey is to deepen the company through teaching, through having created work, through bringing in really what I think are excellent pieces of contemporary dance and classical ballet and to make the company of such a high standard that they are able to take on many of the challenges that I want to bring here.  There are many young choreographers that I think would come and work with the Joffrey, but the demands on the dancers today are huge.  You have to be able to go from a classical ballet to a contemporary ballet even in the space of a program.  So in one night, you might do three different pieces of work that could go anywhere from point shoes to flat shoes to bare feet.  And, the only way to achieve that is to be a really strong dancer and to mentally understand all it takes to fulfill that.  And so, what I do think is that our audience is growing here at the Joffrey and now we do have a lot more young people...a lot of young kids that are coming to see the company.  And there are still audiences that want some classical ballet.  So the goal is to always have a balance.  To have a lot of diversity and an eclectic repertoire, but to make sure that we're serving our audiences with something that they really want to see.  So whether we're doing something by Twyla Tharp or Billy Forsythe or Christopher Wheeldon or Ed Liang or Paul Taylor or whether we're reviving a ballet of Giselle or Cinderella, there has to always be a balance.  And, I think, that the company is on its way to be able to take on the challenges and meet them at the highest possible level.

Thirsty:  What advice would you give to someone who aspires to join the Joffrey Ballet company?

AW:  I would say to them that it's a great company.  It is Robert Joffrey who founded this company.  He built it on a very high structure of training.  That he wanted strong dancers.  And I think that if people want to come to the Joffrey or join the Joffrey, you want to be excited by everything.  You want to have an open mind, that you're willing to take on all the different challenges from all the different work that we do here, and to want to invest not only in the company, but in the way of thinking that you're in it for the long haul. Then, the Joffrey's the place for you.




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