Dance Matters

December 26, 2007


The Joffrey Ballet Picks Ashley Wheater. 


“I’m so thrilled,” was Ashley Wheater’s concise reaction to his appointment as artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet. It is the company in which he danced so handsomely between 1985–89 when it was still in New York. “This was an American jewel and I want to revitalize it,” he says. “For Chicago, however, it’s a very young company, so everything we do will be an adventure.”

Wheater, who was named in September to succeed co-founder Gerald Arpino (who became artistic director emeritus last July), went to work immediately. He is much too busy to mince words telling you why he’s come home.

“Look at the fabulous repertoire,” says the 48-year-old Scots-born, Royal Ballet School–trained dancer as he begins his five-year contract. “It’s Ashton, Cranko, and the Diaghilev ballets. Robert Joffrey had a vision to keep these ballets and to revive them. But, what’s important is how they are danced. The Ballets Russes centenary is in 2009, and I realized that we are one of the few companies that can really celebrate it properly.”

At the same time, Wheater hones in on where the Joffrey could be strengthened. “We need new repertoire, new blood,” he says. “Mr. Joffrey loved offering opportunities to gifted young choreographers like Mark Morris, James Kudelka, and Laura Dean. I’ll be looking around a lot.” He mentions Shen Wei, Wayne McGregor, and his friend Christopher Wheeldon as dancemakers of interest and muses that Bill T. Jones has never made a piece for an American ballet company.

Wheater has no immediate plans to increase the size of the Joffrey beyond the current 46–50 dancers. He is hoping that the company’s glassy new home, the Joffrey Tower, opening in Chicago’s loop this spring, will boost the organization’s profile. And although he has no choreographic aspirations, he plans to be in the studio, constantly coaching and teaching. “My commitment,” he says, “is to the dancers I have.”

Wheater has been in training for the Joffrey post for the past 18 years. He served as principal dancer at San Francisco Ballet from 1989 to 1996, when a neck injury curtailed his performing days. But he remained with the company as ballet master. In 2002 Wheater was promoted to assistant to artistic director Helgi Tomasson, who has always said that the two years in his early career when he danced with the Joffrey were instrumental in shaping his own aesthetic.

“My love for SFB and for Helgi is huge and it was a lot to walk away from,” admits Wheater. “But Helgi was not surprised when I got the offer. He said, ‘You’re ready.’ ”

Wheater’s old Joffrey colleague, SFB principal Tina LeBlanc, agrees. “Ashley is so well-rounded. I’m going to miss his classes. You always knew what to expect. He warmed you up for the day and he gave you the chance to work hard.”

Maia Wilkins, one of the Joffrey’s leading ballerinas, has taken Wheater’s classes and come out of them buzzed. “Ashley works on the fundamentals,” says Wilkins. “With him, it’s a matter of getting the basic nutrients of the ballet diet before the other stuff. I need that balance in my life and Ashley energizes the process.” See

—Allan Ulrich


A Solid 75

Bennington College Celebrates Its Diamond Year.


Back in the day, Bennington College was instrumental in spreading modern dance throughout the country. In 1933 Robert Leigh, the founding president, went straight to Martha Graham to ask for a dance program. She referred him to Martha Hill, and history was made.

Hill embarked on an ambitious summer intensive, the Bennington School of the Dance (precursor to American Dance Festival), which commissioned new works from Graham, Doris Humphrey, Hanya Holm, and Charles Weidman. It attracted passionate students who then went back to their towns energized to teach modern dance, often within the physical education departments in colleges and high schools. The college’s academic dance major, instituted the following year, was given its own department, unlike the dance at University of Wisconsin–Madison, which was under the aegis of phys ed.

Last October, when the college celebrated its 75th year, the dance program celebrated its own history. In the Visual Arts and Performing Arts building (VAPA) a photo exhibit honored its beginnings, with shots of Graham and Hill as well as Doris Humphrey, Bill Bales (faculty 1940–67), Jane Dudley, and many more. Alumni pictured included Ulysses Dove, Kathryn Posin, Risa Jaroslow, Cathy Weis, Harry Sheppard, Harvey Lichtenstein, Tina Croll, and myself.

A panel on dance in higher education consisted of alumni who are working dance artists: Linda Tarnay of NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Penny Campbell of Middlebury College, Sandra Burton of Williams College, and Caitlin Corbett of Salem State College. Representing the current Bennington faculty were Terry Creach and Dana Reitz. The discussion (which I moderated) revealed that everyone wants more connection with other disciplines and cultures. Campbell spoke about branching out beyond European-based dance. Creach spoke about working with the music and art disciplines and his hope to connect with a physics teacher. Corbett announced that she had just started the first dance concentration in performance and choreography in the Massachusetts state college system. We all cheered.

Three alumni dance concerts displayed a range of styles. High points were Myrna Packer’s playful and clever multimedia collaboration with Art Bridgman, Under the Skin; Monique Jenkinson’s devilishly precise gloss on Maria Callas, Mimicry & Flaunting; and Selena Colburn’s deeply personal work in-progress, The History of the Future. All three concerts were packed, showing once again how central dance is to life at Bennington.

To this day Bennington’s dance program is designed for modern dancers who aim to be professional. The focus is on new work, and more specifically on improvisation. (Clearly if you want to concentrate solely on technique, you would not choose Bennington.) In a class for first-year students that I observed, Terry Creach gave a composition assignment that yielded, for each student, a nucleus of highly individual movement just waiting to be mined for more. In an advanced “projects” class, Dana Reitz got students talking about their creative process, showing drawings, and questioning each other’s plans.

One of the changes over the years at Bennington is the greater number of MFA students. Professional artists like Sara Rudner, Keith Thompson, Paul Matteson, and Eva Karczag (not to mention Bennington’s own faculty, Reitz and Susan Sgorbati) have gotten their MFAs there. Another is an annual exchange with Movement Research, the enterprising champion of experimental dance in NYC. For a tiny school (about 600 undergraduates) it’s had a large impact on dance.

—Wendy Perron


Native Son Returns

Jock Soto Gets a Documentary. 


It was kismet when Jock Soto, then principal dancer of New York City Ballet, whose mother is Navajo Indian and father is Puerto Rican, met filmmaker Gwendolen Cates at her book signing for Indian Country. Four years later Soto and Cates have produced the beautiful film Water Flowing Together, an intimate cinematic profile of the man and his art.

The 42-year-old ex-dancer (see “Transitions,” June 2005) returns for an encore when Water Flowing Together (the clan name of his extended family) premieres at the New York State Theater Jan. 7 as a special event in the Dance on Camera Festival, sponsored by Dance Films Association. PBS will air the film nationally on April 8.

As a child of a Navajo family, Soto was hoop dancing at age 3. By 6 he began training at Ballet Arizona in Phoenix, and at age 11 he arrived in New York for his first summer course at the School of American Ballet. His meteoric rise began at 15, with the lead in SAB’s Workshop of The Magic Flute, created by Peter Martins, ballet master in chief. “Jock was astonishing,” says Martins in the film. “He could do anything even at an early age.” In Soto’s first year in NYCB when he was 16, Martins made Concerto for Two Solo Pianos for Soto and principals Ib Andersen and Heather Watts, who would become his most frequent partner.

The dance footage is a highlight of the film. In one sequence Lynne Taylor-Corbett rehearses Soto in the ballet she made for him, Chiaroscuro (1994), as the camera cuts back and forth between rehearsal and performance. Taylor-Corbett says, “I don’t think I have ever seen anyone quite as powerful in space as Jock.”

The camera follows Soto’s intense schedule of rehearsals, workouts, and performances. The pace slows down as Soto journeys back to the Navajo reservation in New Mexico where he grew up. There he visits his family and reconnects with his heritage.

Known as a private person, he projected the essence of masculinity onstage, yet he has the courage to show vulnerability. Three days before his farewell performance, having just finished rehearsing all five ballets he is scheduled to dance, Soto lets the camera capture him, utterly spent, slumped on a bench with a towel on his head. “I’m so exhausted,” he whispers. “I’m overwhelmed.”

Soto is open about being gay and has a devilishly self-deprecating sense of humor. Sitting in the trailer with his mom, brandishing a fan in the blistering desert heat, he quips, “How gay am I?”

Throughout the documentary Soto’s affinity with Balanchine ballets is clear, especially when he is dancing with Wendy Whelan, a partnership that sparked a new beginning for him. He and Whelan also became a celebrated duo in Christopher Wheeldon’s work. When Soto is partnering Whelan in Wheeldon’s After the Rain, the two dancers move as if they were one. Soto says on camera, “Even now, when I see that section with Wendy, I start crying.” Whelan, her eyes misting, talks about him as a partner. “I just picture this tree with rings and rings of experience and deep strong muscular roots.”

The day after his final bow, Soto enrolls at the Institute of Culinary Education to study restaurant business management. Fast-forward to the present: Soto is holding his diploma. He and his life partner now run a catering business. Soto continues to teach at SAB, something he has enjoyed for more than 15 years. He often travels to Taos, where he is building a house for his parents.

—Astrida Woods 


Rising Ranks, Comings & goings

Recent graduates of Teatro alla Scala, Federica Vincifori and Riccardo De Nigris, have joined Dominic Walsh Dance Theater. • Connor Walsh was promoted to principal at Houston Ballet in September. • Nancy J. Kadel, MD, is the new director of ODC’s Healthy Dancers Clinic, which provides free health services to hundreds of dancers in the Bay Area. • Alberta Ballet has appointed Deborah Apps the new executive director. • After eight years with the company, Cédric Andrieux has left the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and joined the Ballet de Lyon. SUNY Purchase alum Daniel Madoff recently joined MCDC.