Wheater plays with matches in the Joffrey’s storage space in the Loop.

When Ashley Wheater danced with the Joffrey in the 1980s, the ballet company made headlines by commissioning works by Mark Morris and Laura Dean. But in recent years, its performance schedule sagged with reruns of The Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet, and Giselle while other major institutions gambled, often successfully, on choreography’s rising stars.

It takes Wheater five tries to explain, politely, that when he took the helm of the company last September, change had been long overdue. “[Gerald Arpino, the longtime artistic director,] is now 85,” says the Scottish-born, English-raised, San Francisco-trained dancer. “With no discredit to anyone, it’s about knowing what is happening in the dance world today.”

Wheater speaks from his rented Loop apartment near the studios where the company rehearses. The lack of a flagship location, he says, is one culprit in what he sees as a recent crisis of identity; that will change in September, when the new $24-million Joffrey Tower opens at 8 East Randolph Street. “Chicago needs to know that this is their company,” says Wheater, explaining such visibility raisers as floor-to-ceiling studio windows that will allow passersby to see rehearsals.

A school for ballet dancers is scheduled to open in 2009.

And despite the additional cost and risk associated with presenting experimental work from young American choreographers, Wheater has commissioned a new work for the fall season from Edwaard Liang, a former New York City Ballet soloist turned dancemaker who has created pieces for Nederlands Dans Theater.

“The Joffrey was founded on the principle of constantly commissioning people to create new works,” says Christopher Conway, Joffrey’s vice president of external affairs. “We got away from that because of the expense—and other priorities in the company—as we matured. This is much more about getting back to our roots.”

Will getting back to roots confuse—or, worse, alienate—an audience accustomed to tried-and-tested favorites? When programming, “you think about all your audience,” says Wheater, who believes Joffrey’s patrons can handle the contemporary ballets. He’s starting them off gently with Chicago-born Lar Lubovitch’s Smile With My Heart, part of the company’s spring engagement that kicks off May 14th.


Photograph: Jimmy Fishbein