Five Questions with Ashley Wheater
by Emily Trace
by Kalya Ramu
“ I think keeping people sticky takes a lot of work. You can’t just let people go—you need to let them know where they are, what we’re doing, and that we’re here.”
Ashley Wheater MBE may be the only member of the Order of the British Empire to also be named Chicagoan of the Year. Popularity like that stems from creating fully-funded access to dance education for children across the city through the historically diverse Joffrey Ballet—known for daring original works that resonate with contemporary audiences.
Wheater sat down with myself and smART Chief Editor Michael Zarathus-Cook to discuss what gives Chicago an international reputation as a thriving arts eco-system and how it became even more important during the pandemic to keep this access alive. He also talks about how to create the pipelines that support an equitable, inclusive future for the art form.
What do you find unique about Chicago as an artistic destination?
The thing I love about Chicago is that it’s a big city, yet there’s a very tight community here. There is so much happening in Chicago on so many different levels; theatre, music, opera, dance. You can bring everyone together and the collaborative spirit is really quite unique. We all want to work together to make this city the best possible place to live, and I think we know that art and culture plays such a huge role. So there’s a mission, and many of the arts leaders here are very mission-focused about enriching their city.
I’m an American citizen now, so it was really wonderful to be honoured as Chicagoan of the Year [in 2013]. I guess it’s because of my commitment to not only The Joffrey but to Chicago. Of all the places that I’ve lived in the world—New York, San Francisco, Melbourne, London—Chicago for me has a soul that is gentle, and it’s a place where we can all come together and have a conversation. I think that’s quite unique, actually.
Walk us through The Joffrey’s novel programming in response to the cancellation of the 2020-2021 season.
From the get-go, we started to do everything on Zoom. We provided everyone with a Marley floor to work on [sprung-rubber flooring for dancers]; we had that cut by the manufacturer and shipped to their homes. All of our Academy classes went online, over a hundred a week. And our Community Engagement program is huge in Chicago; we’re in the Chicago public school system and we have a number of programs at the Joffrey Tower, so we kept all of those going.
One of the things I felt was critical is that we needed to remain whole as an organization. So one of the choices we made was to raise the funds that would keep us whole for eighteen months. We were cancelling many performances, but then we started talking about our digital content. There are many companies that have resources much greater than ours, so we were trying to be conservative in terms of what we could afford to do and what was innovative. Does the world want to see one more ballet production on YouTube…? I don’t think so. We wanted to try a different avenue.
So we started a digital platform called On Cue, which hosts interviews of various artists and it’s been incredibly well-received. We then started Stage Notes, where we would focus on certain works in a week, have the dancers talk about what it was like, and so you’re looking at the video while hearing them talk as well.
We also have an amazing program in the academy called Winning Works, which is for BIPOC artists. I felt really bad for the students when all of that was shut down, so we tried to find material that we could use to—as I like to say—keep everybody ‘sticky’. I think keeping people sticky takes a lot of work. You can’t just let people go—you need to let them know where they are, what we’re doing, and that we’re here.
Your Community Engagement department offers programming for kids of every age in Chicago: classes in jazz, hip-hop, Latin, African forms as well as ballet. What is Joffrey Ballet’s mission with these engagements, and how has this mission been changed by the BLM movement in 2020?
I’m going to backtrack a little here; when the company moved to Chicago in ’95, there was no Academy or Community Engagement programs. I didn’t want to build a school based on what you might see at the National Ballet of Canada or the San Francisco Ballet; I wanted a school that had many, many avenues. So if you wanted to be a pre-professional trainee, you could go into that program. But if you didn’t want to be a ballet dancer, or loved other forms of dance, then go to the Youth Program. We have a program that engages kids in the community, 7-8 years old, where they all get to dance, and after three years they figure out where they want to go. It’s fully funded for them—whether they’re in Pre-Professional or Open Youth, Open Adult—until they go to university.
What’s really important outside the ballet world is… learning to dance is like learning to play a musical instrument. There’s a social, emotional development there that kids really need. And we felt so committed to continuing those programs during this pandemic because people need them more than ever. I think that as we move forward in the future, we need to build a financial model that’s going to independently cover that access and opportunity.
What other ways do you see the ballet as a proponent and a force within DEI going forward?
I believe that you build pipelines, and those pipelines are a feeder for everything. I don’t think it’s about filling a quota, but that pipeline that’ll benefit everybody. We started Winning Work, a platform for BIPOC choreographers that’s been going for ten years. We’ve also partnered with Enrich Chicago, focused on undoing racism and white supremacy, and we’ve all done the training. During this pandemic we mandated that every single person in the organization had to do the training. It gives you a space to come to which is thoughtful, safe, where you can have conversation. Because it is collectively: “What are we all doing together?” You can’t just look at one person and say, “you’re not doing it.” We all have a role to play as we move forward.
One of the things I’ve always loved about The Joffrey… Robert Joffrey was Muslim whose parents came from Afghanistan and moved to Seattle. He grew up in a very different way and he was a passionate man that wanted to dance. And so the company doesn’t have the stringent blueprint of a European model—we’re very democratic; we have no rankings. We’re a company of 43 and there is opportunity all through. And when he started the company it was pretty diverse from the get-go, with Black and brown dancers all throughout the history of the Joffrey Ballet.
What we need to make sure happens is that there is access for people that want it. As one of our beautiful, beautiful Black dancers in the company, Dara Holmes, said: “Not everybody wants to dance, but we have to make sure the support is there to see people succeed.” We also have many programs for children on the spectrum. And they perform in our performances—so this is how you change people’s ideas. I believe the ideal would be if our company and our audience reflect each other.
What we consider to be traditional classical ballet comes with a lot of stigma. If we’re going to tell stories, then what are those stories? We can still do Swan Lake, but I don’t think we want the hierarchy and the privilege associated with it. There are ways to tell a story in a different way that has a relative impact for an audience today. When we did Christopher Wheeldon’s Swan Lake, it’s about a young boy learning a role in a ballet studio. So you bring it down to a level that we relate to. And we’ve seen our audience grow over the years—very young people, because we have many programs to give them access.
Why is Chicago’s arts scene so robust in terms of the capabilities of its arts organizations? Have you been fortunate with politicians or is there a cultural force that’s driving this?
I think it’s a bit of both but, predominantly, the driving force is the cultural community. There is wealth in Chicago at different levels, but people feel a responsibility to reinvest in their city. People that subscribe to The Joffrey are probably also members of the Museum of Mexican Art—everybody’s involved in everything. There is a pioneering spirit in the cultural arts in Chicago; we’re not looking for a Broadway blockbuster every single time. If you take the 200 theatre companies that are here, and the many art organizations, and the many different kinds of music—there’s a huge amount of jazz here—there is an appreciation for asking “Can we do more here? Absolutely.” We feel a responsibility to make sure that there’s equity in our city. There have been so many conversations, especially over the last year, about the programs that we want to present, giving free access to everybody, making sure the performances happen on the south side and the western suburbs; not only downtown or on the north shore. I think it’s really about pulling apart your city, looking at it and saying “Why haven’t we ever done that? We need to make an effort to do that.”