A tarot card reading in the '80s predicted that Ashley Wheater would become the artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet.
Well, maybe it didn't specifically mention the Joffrey Ballet and the reading was not for Wheater himself; it was for his sister. But it did clearly indicate that her brother would one day be an artistic director and that he would make a lasting impact on his field.
Sometimes even unknown dreams come true. This year marks the 10th anniversary of Wheater at the helm of the Joffrey Ballet.
Wheater holds a career as a ballet dancer that began at the Royal Ballet School in England and carried on through the London Festival Ballet, the Australian Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet ( under the direction of Gerald Arpino ) and the San Francisco Ballet ( SF Ballet ). Over the course of more than 20 years, he worked with some of the most renowned dancers and choreographers in the world, including Rudolf Nureyev, Frederick Ashton, William Forsythe, Paul Taylor, Mark Morris and John Cranko.
It was during his time with the SF Ballet that Wheater suffered an acute injury while attempting to execute a choreographer's new movement idea in rehearsal. These sorts of immediate, life-altering injuries are rather rare in the dance world. More often than not, dancers accumulate injuries over time as the extreme demands of the form meet the wear and tear of the aging body. This often facilitates a more gradual decision to stop dancing. Unfortunately, circumstances were different for Wheater.
"I had no choice but to retire," Wheater recalled. "The end result was that I had ruptured the discs in my neck so I had a lot of pressure on my spinal chord and numbness in my upper body, particularly in my arms. Also, some of the vertebrae were cracked. So the choice we made was to remove some of those discs. The doctors said, 'This is kind of it'."
But the rest of Wheater's career was just beginning. With the immeasurable support of Helgi Tomasson, artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet, Wheater was encouraged to take on a new role with the company as ballet master. "Helgi was there for me every step of the way," Wheater told Windy City Times. "He said, 'You have so much more to offer. We want you to teach, we want you to coach, we want you to be here.' It was really good to be in the studio again even though it was in a very different capacity. And, honestly, I haven't looked back."
Wheater eventually became Tomasson's assistant and learned the ins and outs of running a successful company. The ballet world took notice of this new potential leader and, in 2007, when the Joffrey search committee began looking for a successor for Arpino, Wheater's name was at the top of the list. Although incredibly honored, he originally declined the invitation to apply because he was quite happy in his role at SF Ballet. But after teaching a master class at the Joffrey that summer, he realized that he maintained a deep connection to the company, the city of Chicago and the legacy of Robert Joffrey. It was clear to both Wheater and the Joffrey organization that he was the right fit for the job.
The organization has grown steadily in the last 10 years with the establishment of the Joffrey Academy of Dance founded in 2008 along with community engagement programs that ensure young people have access and exposure to ballet. The company also continues to work with a diverse group of both established and up-and-coming choreographers keeping in line with its founder's original vision.
"Robert Joffrey was a classicist at his core," Wheater explained, "but he was the biggest fan of dance. And he realized that the company didn't need to fit a certain criteria to be valid. So, Joffrey acquired a 'different' kind of dancer and gave opportunities to people really in the left field. … He was experimenting. I would like to think that over the last 10 years we have recaptured the spirit of Robert Joffrey in that way. In terms of being bold, of doing new work, challenging ourselves and the art form because we want the art form to thrive and survive. Therefore, we have to keep moving forward."
Of course, "thriving" and "surviving" mean different things to different people in our current cultural and political climate. One can imagine the difficulties of engaging new ballet audiences when the art form has a historical reputation of exclusivity, elitism and hegemony. These concerns are not lost on Wheater. "We have to keep making our art form really accessible to our audiences," he said. "And to engage them in stories that are reflective of our time. We want to be relevant."
Thanks to Wheater and his team of administrators, the Joffrey is well-poised to develop future ballets that will tell new stories and enliven the old. If their reimagined Nutcracker, choreographed by Tony-winning Christopher Wheeldon, is any indication of the direction to come, fans are in for a bold next decade of reinvigorated ballet.
"I think that by the end of my time, whenever that is, I would hope that the Joffrey is passed on in the best shape it has ever been in" Wheater said. "I don't think anybody does anything on their own. And I am incredibly grateful to everyone at the Joffrey ballet and our supporters."
"But," he added, "I really owe everything to my husband, Brian Johnson. For 20 years … he is the greatest source of my life."
Performances of The Nutcracker take place through Saturday, Dec. 30, at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. For tickets, visit Joffrey.org/nutcracker or call 312-386-8905.