The Joffrey Ballet leaps back onto the Detroit Opera House stage for two performances this month. Metro Detroiters may associate the Chicago dance troupe with sugarplums and toy soldiers because of its past Nutcracker performances at the DOH, but artistic director Ashley Wheater is eager to show an edgier and more versatile side of the company.
The Joffrey Ballet began in 1956, led by artistic director Robert Joffrey and choreographer Gerald Arpino (who later became artistic director after Joffrey died in 1988). Under the co-founders’ tutelage, the troupe had unprecedented performances at the White House, on television, and in Russia, often being described as “America’s ballet company of firsts.”
Despite such acclaim, The Joffrey suffered financially in the 1990s and moved from New York City to Chicago in 1995 (with dual residence in Los Angeles until 1992 as well). Once there, The Joffrey struggled with its identity. “[The company] was like a house; it had good bones but needed new blood, someone to really nurture it,” Wheater says.
Wheater, a native of Scotland and former dancer with international companies — including The Joffrey (1985-89) — was appointed as the company’s artistic director in 2007. Arpino died in 2008.
“Even though the company had gone through a really difficult time, there was something really valuable about what Gerald Arpino and Robert Joffrey had started,” Wheater says. “When I came back to The Joffrey, I felt that I needed to feed the company in order for it grow, and in this case, the food was a balance of different types of work.”
Although Wheater is committed to having the company perform a range of works from such classical favorites as Romeo and Juliet to pieces by emerging choreographers, he wants to keep the work of Arpino and Joffrey alive. The dances being performed in Detroit are indicative of that. The eclectic mix of repertoire will consist of two Arpino works and contemporary pieces that challenge ballet’s classical aesthetics.
The Arpino works scheduled to be performed here, Reflections and Sea Shadows, are creations that Wheater learned as a company member in the ’80s, and he believes these pieces “really show off Gerry’s [Arpino’s] qualities.” While staying true to Arpino’s movement vocabulary in Reflections, Wheater has made it his own by updating the production aspects, including designing new lighting and costumes.
Working for a number of years under Joffrey and Arpino allows Wheater to approach their repertoire with unwavering confidence because, he says, “When you’ve worked with someone so closely, you learn what they want from a dancer very quickly.”
Wheater’s leadership at The Joffrey has led the company to reclaim its “company of firsts” title. By expanding its repertoire, hiring dancers and administrative staff from diverse backgrounds, and targeting people who aren’t familiar with dance, The Joffrey has become a reflection of what America is today. “This is key … to be able to show people across the country what’s on the cutting edge of the art form,” Wheater says. “I think The Joffrey does this very well and we will continue to push new boundaries.”