As I write this article, I’m reminded of an old saying that March starts like a lion and ends like a lamb; the winds calm down as the temperatures rise and it’s spring again in New Orleans. There’s no better way to celebrate this transition than by enjoying a spectacular weekend of events featuring the Joffrey Ballet at Mahalia Jackson Theater. We are grateful for the opportunity to chat with Artistic Director, Ashley Wheater, about his career and how he landed at the helm of this prestigious company as well as the exclusive program designed specifically for this final stop on their tour before returning to Chicago.
Ashley Wheater is a hard man to pin down and rightfully so. When I finally did get to chat with him, his British accent and enthusiasm for his work with The Joffrey Ballet was music to my ears that morning.
Wheater was born in Scotland and raised in London where he attended the Royal Ballet School. His career in ballet allowed him to travel to many places, including Australia, and gave him the opportunity to work with many dance legends, including the great Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, whom he clearly admires as an artist. “When I was in the Royal Ballet, I worked with Misha and he was recently in our studios to say hello and watch practice,” he said. What he admires about the icon is his ability to reinvent himself. “There comes at time when you can’t continue to do ballet. It’s great that an artist such as him can find new ways to express themselves through installation theater and the spoken word.”
His experience in Australia as a principal dancer was very memorable. “Australia was really different,” he said. “The structure was very different. I was there for three years. We were based in Melbourne and performances were at the Opera House in Sydney.” Post down-under, Wheater joined the Joffrey in 1985 as a dancer and then headed to the San Francisco Ballet in 1989. When he retired from dancing in 1997, he stayed there as ballet master and then later as assistant to the artistic director. He returned to the Joffrey as artistic director in 2007, bringing expert choreographers and fresh talent to the company for such full-length presentation of Lar Lubovitch's Othello, Ronald Hynd's The Merry Widow and Yuri Possokhov's Don Quixote.
Although he’s traveled the world, New Orleans continues to be one of Wheater’s favorite stops on the tour but the logistics can be a challenge. “Schedules are always tight and, in the arts, every minute counts. There are 40 dancers in the company and we need to prepare. We need to get used to the space, adjust the lighting so it’s right and make sure that everyone is healthy and we don’t have any injuries,” explained Wheater. “The company loves to come to New Orleans and for many, this is their first trip. There isn’t a lot of time to spare, but after a performance they want to let down and go out to dinner, relax and have a few drinks. We just have to keep them off Bourbon Street.”
Wheater has his own plans for his time in New Orleans that include dinner at one of his favorite restaurants, Arnaud’s. “I also want to explore the city and discover more of it. That’s what interesting about touring because you get to see places that you otherwise wouldn’t,” said Wheater who will return to Chicago to prepare the company for Romeo and Juliet. The offerings for the 2015 season were recently released. “It focuses on the brilliance of telling short stories. One is Prodigal Son by Balanchine. I am very excited about our programs because to tell a full story in 25 or 30 minutes takes a lot of talent.” There are also plans to do a production of Swan Lake combining Balanchine’s music and the art of Degas.
The weekend at Mihalia Jackson Theater kicks off on Friday at 7pm with a fundraising gala presented by the Ballet Resource and Volunteer Organization (BRAVO). This exclusive event—there’s only space for 300 guests— will include culinary offerings from the chefs from Martinique Bistro, Dick and Jenny’s and Cristiano Ristorante. There will also be a silent auction and music by the Boogie Men. Attendees will be able to enjoy the rate opportunity of a 30-minute performance by the company next to them onstage while sipping champagne.
Saturday’s program starts at 8pm and includes performances inspired by the works of Jerome Robbins, Twyla Thorpe and current San Francisco Ballet choreographer, Yuri Possokhov. All audience members will have a chance to chat with Mr. Wheater prior to the performance at 7:15 on the mezzanine level at the theater.
Wheater is very excited to return to New Orleans and present this unique experience at Mahalia Jackson. “It’s wonderful to see the depth of the company and there are some truly amazing performances,” said Wheater. “We had a wonderful reception the last time we were here and hope to have the same again.” I don’t doubt that they will.