“I was pretty … I was happy … at the ballet…”
These lyrics from the iconic Broadway show A Chorus Line touch on our longtime love affair with ballet. How many little girls have grown up dancing around their living rooms in tutus with stars in their eyes, dreaming of being in the spotlight as a prima ballerina?
Ballet today is indeed still beautiful and graceful, but it also contains more dimension and innovation than some give it credit for, as today’s ballet companies embrace progressive choreography and aesthetics.
The Joffrey Ballet has the distinction of being the first ballet company to appear on television, the first to perform at the White House, the first to appear on the cover of TIME Magazine, and even the first to have a major feature film based on it (Robert Altman’s The Company). Nearly 60 years after its founding, this exemplary group remains on the leading edge of American dance.
In advance of their appearance at the Granada Theatre, courtesy of UCSB Arts & Lectures, Ashley Wheater, artistic director, shared some thoughts on the company’s evolution and process.
What is it about the Joffrey Ballet that is so enduring, so timeless, that even after nearly 60 years, it is still on the short list of the most highly regarded ballet companies in the world? Some ballet companies derive their identity from the work of a single choreographer or a consistent style. The Joffrey Ballet has always been eclectic. Robert Joffrey, our founder, loved the classics and the avant-garde equally. He showcased choreography with craft and quality, regardless of its source. We continue that tradition today. Indeed, Joffrey’s vision has become the blueprint for many ballet companies around the world. I think this hybrid model resembles the American “melting pot.” As a result, we have been called the mavericks of American Dance.
Is the company’s approach to teaching/rehearsing more traditional, along the lines of the stern ballet master/mistress, or does it embrace newer methods? In keeping with what I said about the hybrid nature of the company, I think “stern” ballet training is not consistent with our philosophy. I prefer the word rigorous to rigid. Our dancers work very hard perfecting their technique and artistry, but this is a team effort. Our job is to support their training and provide the benefit of our experience. I try to spend as much time in the studio as possible. I teach and coach whenever my schedule allows. If any dancer wishes to talk, my office door is open.
What is your advice for a young person wanting to get into ballet as a career? Work hard and expose yourself to as much dance as possible. Our Academy of Dance incorporates elements of the Russian, French, and English traditions (among others) in the syllabus. Learning ballet “tricks” is not enough. Learn to dance. Dance with your entire body: your feet, your hands, your head, and your heart. Today’s dancers must be able to dance diverse work, from classic to contemporary.
What would you like audiences to know about the works on the program for the company’s upcoming appearance in Santa Barbara? This program is grounded in classical ballet but embraces the 21st century. Each piece on the program shows a different vocabulary, as if choreographers who are trained in the same language speak with a different accent. The work is incredibly athletic: a celebration of the beauty and physicality of the human body.
What do you hope for audiences to take away with them after seeing the company perform? I hope our audience will find that the Joffrey speaks directly to each one of them. For some, dance is mystifying. We would like to take some of the mystery away. Our mission is to share a love for dance with as many people as possible.
UCSB’s Arts & Lectures presents the Joffrey Ballet at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Tuesday, March 10, at 8 p.m. For tickets and info, call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu. The Joffrey Ballet will also host a community ballet class at Gustafson Dance (2285 Las Positas Rd.) on Monday, March 9, at 5:30 p.m. For reservations, visit sbdancealliance.org.