Joffrey's Maia Wilkins: Born to be Wild

Earlier this year, as Maia Wilkins was rehearsing her role in Antony Tudor’s Dark Elegies, she did something she knew she would never do in a performance, but something she needed to try anyway.

“I realized I was being too controlled and studied, and that I wasn’t letting things just naturally come out in the dancing,” Wilkins recalled. “So instead of the usual run I did to get offstage, I ran full out, with no constraints. I had to taste the feeling of that so I could tune what I was trying to say in the piece. I had to experiment and explore the boundaries.”

It is that passionate attention to building a role that makes Wilkins such a fascinating performer—a dancer whose pristine technique is only the handmaiden to the challenge of interpreting a role and making it her own.

“Maia is not a classroom dancer,” says Donald Mahler, the representative of the Antony Tudor Trust who set both Dark Elegies and Lilac Garden on the Joffrey, and who cast Wilkins in both ballets. “She is superb onstage—the total artist, with a very individualistic approach. Working with her I’ve come to realize that it is best to let her lead.”

He adds, “She doesn’t come to a role with a preconceived notion. You give her some things to work with, and because she’s so creative she will build on them. She goes beyond what you give her. I thought she was fantastic as Julia (the lovelorn redhead in Ashton’s Wedding Bouquet) when I saw her with the Joffrey last summer at the Metropolitan Opera House.” Mahler wasn’t the only one who noticed her. Both critics and audience members in New York fell in love with her madcap energy.

Small, rail thin, and perfectly proportioned—with curly, corn silk blonde hair, an alabaster complexion, and a neck so long it resembles John Tenniel’s classic drawings from Alice in Wonderland—Wilkins, 35, has long been the unofficial prima ballerina of the Joffrey, a company that scrupulously avoids the ranking system.

She has given exquisite performances of artistic director Gerald Arpino’s sensual aquatic duet, Sea Shadow. And she was Arpino’s muse last year when he created another duet, Ruth, Ricordi Per Due—a piece about retrieving a great love from beyond the grave, to which she brings a beautiful otherworldly lyricism. She was brilliant as the wild Kate in Cranko’s Taming of the Shrew, and fervent as Juliet in his Romeo and Juliet. She prized the opportunity to dance The Chosen One in Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring (as reconstructed by Millicent Hodson), “because it is just so cool to be familiar with every note of that Stravinsky score and to be able to count it from beginning to end,” she says.

Born in Truckee, California, a small town in the Sierra Nevada Mountains just west of the Nevada state line, Wilkins says she wanted to be a ballerina for as long as she can remember. “But there was really no place to study in Truckee, and I think my parents (her father is a family practitioner, her mother a teacher) were just hoping I’d grow out of it,” says the dancer.

At 10, Wilkins started taking tap and ballet classes at a local recreation center. It was not long before her teacher told her mother that she had talent, and the only way she could develop it would be to take her to classes in Reno. So several times a week Wilkins’ mother made the hour-long drive down the mountain to Reno, so Maia could study with Maggie Banks, a former American Ballet Theatre dancer who had worked on Hollywood films with Jerome Robbins and who founded the Nevada Festival Ballet.

“My mom would correct tests and papers, and I would take class,” Wilkins recalls. “Maggie was a huge support and influence in my life. She was the one who said, ‘Go out for the summer workshops; get to the next pond.’ And she had friends in New York. She gave me advice I cling to till this day, which is that when you get out onstage, the theater is yours and you must love that power.”

It also was Banks who suggested she send a video to the Joffrey Ballet School. “I was 16 at the time, taking my PSATs in high school, and still a little clueless,” confesses Wilkins. “Did I want to go to college, like the rest of my family? Did I want to dance? Should I take my equivalency test?”

Those decisions were essentially made for her when she was accepted at the school. She headed off for a summer in New York—at the same moment, she notes laughing, “that Truckee got its second stoplight.”

By 18, Wilkins was in Joffrey II and had moved to the Upper West Side, where for the next five years she rented a room that had been vacated by ABT’s Julie Kent. The apartment belonged to former dancer Isabel Brown, mother of dancers Leslie and Ethan Brown.

Wilkins was invited to join the main Joffrey company in 1991, a time of chaos as the troupe lost its second home at the Music Center of Los Angeles and could rarely afford to perform in New York. She remembers this mostly as “the Billboards period,” when Laura Dean, Charles Moulton, Peter Pucci, and Margo Sappington were asked to choreograph sections of a full-length work set to the music of Prince—a very commercial project.

In 1995, before the Joffrey relocated to Chicago, Wilkins had eight months off and was still undecided about whether she would go along or not. “For years I’d been reading about all the different companies in Europe,” Wilkins says. So she and a friend decided to go and check them out during a two-and-a-half-week trip to the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and England. “We tried, whenever possible, to see them in rehearsal and performance, and to take classes. In a sense it was auditioning. But I felt I was auditioning them, too—looking at the different working environments and the quality of the performances. It was an eye-opening experience for me. And it was then that I realized I am just such a Joffrey dancer. We do work that is filled with the kind of movement I revel in. It may not be the epitome of classical ballet, but the repertoire has such range, and it keeps me learning.”

Two years earlier, in 1993, Wilkins’ life had changed in another way. That’s when Michael Levine joined the company. “I had decided I would never date a dancer, but I had a crush on him from day one,” she says. “I loved dancing with him. And once we started talking we realized we grew up about 40 miles away from each other and had a bunch of mutual family friends.” They married in 2000. “Because he loves psychology and acting, I’ve gained a tremendous amount from talking to him about my roles,” she says. “We go to see shows at Steppenwolf and other Chicago theaters whenever we can.”

Wilkins also has been thriving in recent seasons thanks to another special relationship—the one with her frequent partner, Willy Shives. “There is a level of trust,” she says, “that gives me the freedom to be completely spontaneous onstage.”

Ask Wilkins what the best and worst part of being a dancer is and she will not hesitate: “The answer to both of those things is the same—getting to live your passion. It is being so committed to something you love and to something that also can be so heartbreaking when it doesn’t quite work.”

Heartbreak is not, however, how she speaks about her experience working on The Company, Robert Altman’s fictional film about the Joffrey Ballet in which she ended up playing the dancer who gets injured and is replaced by Neve Campbell. “Every day on that film was an adventure and nobody knew how things would turn out, which is just how Altman works,” Wilkins says without a hint of bitterness about her minimal screen time.

In any case, it is the live stage that satisfies Wilkins. As Arpino says, “I first saw Maia as a young, lithe, charming girl in love with dance itself. And it has been thrilling to watch her grow, to see the way she has committed herself to her art. She lives the art of dance completely.”

Hedy Weiss is theater and dance critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and WTTW, Channel 11 in Chicago.
The Conversation
Dancer Voices
Kelsey Grills in rehearsal for ABT Incubator. Photo by JJ Geiger, courtesy ABT Incubator.

"Is everyone okay?" was my most used sentence during my time with American Ballet Theatre. There I was, leading world-class ABT dancers through my own choreographic process. I knew that it was unlike anything they'd ever experienced, but I think half of the time I was asking that question, it was really directed to myself.

ABT Incubator is a two-week choreographic program created by principal dancer David Hallberg. Supported by The Howard Hughes Corporation, this process-oriented lab gave me and four other choreographers the opportunity to generate ideas for the work we have been inspired to create.

Keep reading... Show less

It's contest time! You could win your choice of Apolla Shocks (up to 100 pairs) for your whole studio! Apolla Performance believes dancers are artists AND athletes—wearing Apolla Shocks helps you be both! Apolla Shocks are footwear for dancers infused with sports science technology while maintaining a dancer's traditions and lines. They provide support, protection and traction that doesn't exist anywhere else for dancers, helping them dance longer and stronger. Apolla wants to get your ENTIRE studio protected and supported in Apolla Shocks! How? Follow these steps:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Ilaria Guerra auditioned for LINES four times before joining the company. Photo by Kyle McKee, Courtesy Mona Baroudi

Ilaria Guerra only joined Alonzo King LINES Ballet in January, but she's already a towering presence in the San Francisco company—and not just because she's 6' tall. Guerra employs her seemingly infinite limbs with luscious fluidity and propulsive power, instinctive musicality and a self-assured presence. And as exquisitely as she embodies King's choreography, she also makes it entirely her own.

Keep reading... Show less
Harlequin Floors' home studio kit lets dancers bring the studio home with them. Image courtesy Harlequin Floors

So you're on layoff—or, let's be real, you just don't feel like going to the studio—and you decide you're going to take class from home. Easy enough, right? All you need is an empty room and some music tracks on your iPhone, right?

Wrong. Anyone who has attempted this feat can tell you that taking class at home—or even just giving yourself class in general—is easier said than done. But with the right tools, it's totally doable—and can be totally rewarding.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Magazine Awards
Clockwise from top left: Crystal Pite, photo by Michael Slobodian; Lourdes Lopez, photo by Alexander Iziliaev; Michael Trusnovec, photo via Instagram; Ronald K. Brown, photo by Julieta Cervantes

Today, we are thrilled to announce the honorees of the 2018 Dance Magazine Awards. A tradition dating back to 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards celebrate the living legends who have made a lasting impact on dance. This year's honorees include:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
The stars of "Broad City," along with PrioreDance, do "The Elaine." Photo by Scott Suchman, courtesy The Kennedy Center

How do you honor a comedian lauded for her physical humor and awkward dancing? Commission a contemporary dance, of course. Better yet, have the stars of HBO's "Broad City," Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer—physical comedians and awkward dancers in their own right—star in a contemporary dance.

Last month, comedian Julia Louis-Dreyfus was awarded the 2018 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at The Kennedy Center. (The ceremony airs tonight on PBS.) Most known for her role as Elaine on "Seinfeld," Louis-Dreyfus has had a long career of tickling funny bones, from her start at Chicago's Second City, then on "Saturday Night Live," CBS's "The New Adventures of the Old Christine" and now as foul-mouthed Vice President Selina Meyer on "Veep."

The "Broad City" gals determined that the best way to honor their idol was to dance, an appropriate choice considering "The Elaine," the dance that became Louis-Dreyfus' piece de resistance on "Seinfeld." (Not to mention her other go-to physical comedy moments as Elaine, like "The Shove"—hands on the chest, forcefully pushing one's companion back, sometimes with the exclamation "Get out!"—or the twitchy forefinger devil horns.)

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Ohad Naharin's Minus 16. Photo by Pierre Wachholder via

What makes big-time music artists and their collaborators think they can directly plagiarize the work of concert dance choreographers?

And, no, this time we're not talking about Beyoncé.

Last Wednesday, country artist Kelsea Ballerini performed her song "Miss Me More" at the Country Music Awards. The choreography by Nick Florez and R.J. Durell—which Taste of Country said "stole the show" and Billboard lauded as "elaborate"—features a group of dancers in white shirts and black pants performing with chairs onstage, often arranged in a semicircle. They move in quick canons, throw their heads back, and fling themselves in and out of their chairs.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Sinking into positions when you're not aligned isn't doing you any favors. Photo by Getty Images

When it comes to flexibility, more isn't always better. Donna Flagg says that many of the dancers who show up at her Lastics Stretch Technique classes at studios like Broadway Dance Center and Steps on Broadway are already hypermobile.

"They're so loose," she says, "they just yank their legs as far as they can." That's not to say that hypermobile dancers shouldn't stretch—they just need to take extra care to keep their joints safe. Flagg recommends a few guidelines:

Keep reading... Show less
Viral Videos
Amanda Castro taps to Robert Frost's "In White." Courtesy Monticello Park Productions Team

Many choreographers use spoken word to enhance their dance performances. But the Campfire Poetry Movement video series has found success with a reverse scenario: Monticello Park Productions creates short art films that often use dance to illustrate iconic poems.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Voices
Butler is also a choreographic fellow at Hubbard Street this season. Photo by Lindsay Linton, courtesy of Butler.

When I was just a little peanut, my siblings and I used to find scrap paper and use them as tickets to our makeshift dance performances at family gatherings. They were more like circus shows, really, where my brother was the ringmaster, and my sisters and I were animals; we dove through imaginary flaming hoops and showcased our best tightrope acts with the suspense of plummeting into an endless pit of sorrows. This was my first introduction to the beauty of movement as a way of communicating.

Photo by Lindsay Linton

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Magazine Awards
Ronald K. Brown tells the stories of those who don't typically see themselves reflected onstage. Photo by Jeff Strout, courtesy Evidence

Choreographer Ronald K. Brown sees himself as a weaver—of movement, but more importantly, of stories. "When I started my company Evidence 33 years ago, I needed to make a space for what I thought of as evidence—work that tells stories, so that when people saw the work, they would see a reflection or evidence of themselves onstage," says Brown, now 51. "That was my mission, my purpose."

Fast-forward to today: Evidence has become a mainstay in the modern dance world and Brown is now considered a vanguard among choreographers fusing Western contemporary dance with movement from the African diaspora, including popular dance and traditions from West African cultures like Senegalese sabar.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Magazine Awards
Crystal Pite, photo by Michael Slobodian, courtesy Kidd Pivot

She may not be the first choreographer to claim that movement is her first language, but when Crystal Pite says it, it's no caveat: She's as effective and nuanced a communicator as the writers who often inspire her dances.

Her globally popular Emergence, for instance, was provoked in part by science writer Steven Johnson's hypotheses; The Tempest Replica refracts and reimagines Shakespeare. Recently, her reading list includes essays by fellow Canadian Robert Bringhurst, likewise driven by a ravenous, wide-ranging curiosity.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Magazine Awards
Nigel Redden, photographed by Leigh Webber. Courtesy Spoleto USA

General director of Spoleto Festival USA since 1995 and, for two decades (1998-2017), the director of the Lincoln Center Festival, Nigel Redden has an internationalist's point of view on the arts—expansive, curious, informed by the cultural wealth that the world has to offer.

He is the son of an American diplomat and grew up moving from place to place—Cyprus, Israel, Canada, Italy—until eventually setting of for Yale to study Art History. After visiting the Spoleto festival in Italy as a young man, and working there while he was still an undergraduate, he very quickly realized what he wanted to: direct festivals. And that's what he has done for most of the last quarter century.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Magazine Awards
Lopez coaching Chase Swatosh and Lauren Fadeley in Balanchine's "Diamonds." Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy Miami City Ballet

No, she isn't like other artistic directors, and that's not just because she's a woman. Lourdes Lopez, who's led Miami City Ballet since 2012, doesn't want this to be taken the wrong way, but as for her vision? She doesn't really have one.

"I just want good dancers and a good company and good rep and an audience and a theater—let us do what the art form is supposed to be doing," she says. "I don't mean that in a flippant way. It's just how I've always approached it."

Keep reading... Show less
Mia Michaels has learned the power of inspiring those she works with. Here, rehearsing Rockettes. Photo courtesy MSG

Dancers are human, which means they're bound to make mistakes from time to time, both on and off the stage. But what happens when those mistakes burn bridges? In an industry so small, is it possible for choreographers and performers to recover?

In a moment of vulnerability, three-time Emmy Award winning choreographer Mia Michaels opened up to Dance Magazine about some of the bridges she herself has burned, the lengths she's gone to in order to rebuild and the peace she's made with the new direction her career has taken because of them. —Haley Hilton
Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Social media validates extremes over clean, solid technique. Photo by David Hofmann/Unsplash

The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."

My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.

This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?

Keep reading... Show less
Ramasar and Catazaro, photos via Instagram

New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)

The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:

"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."

Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Magazine Awards
Michael Trusnovec models what it takes to become a great Paul Taylor dancer. Photo courtesy NYC Dance Project

Paul Taylor cultivated many brilliant dancers during his 60-plus-year career, but seldom have any commanded such a place of authority and artistry as Michael Trusnovec. He models what it takes to become a great Taylor dancer: weight of movement, thorough grasp of style, deep concentration, steadfast partnering, complete dedication to the choreography and a nuanced response to the music.

Trusnovec can simultaneously make choreography sexy and enlightened, and he can do it within one phrase of movement. Refusing to be pigeonholed, he has excelled in roles as diverse as the tormented and tormenting preacher in Speaking in Tongues; the lyrical central figure—one of Taylor's own sacred roles—in Aureole; the dogged detective in Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal); and the corporate devil in Banquet of Vultures.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Did The Tenant unintentionally conflate transness and mental illness? Photo by Matthew Murphy, courtesy The Joyce Theater

Last week, Arthur Pita's much-anticipated The Tenant, featuring American Ballet Theatre principal James Whiteside, had its New York City premiere at The Joyce Theater.

Based on the novel by Roland Topor and the 1976 Roman Polanski film, The Tenant follows a man who moves into an apartment that's haunted by its previous occupant (Simone, played by ABT's Cassandra Trenary) who committed suicide. Throughout the show, the man—Trelkovsky, played by Whiteside—slowly transforms into Simone, eventually committing suicide himself.

But some found the show's depiction of a trans-femme character to be troubling. Whether the issues stem from the source material or the production's treatment of it, many thought the end result reinforced transphobic stereotypes about mental illness. We gathered some of the responses from the dance community:

Keep reading... Show less
Raffaella Stroik. Photo via

Update: Raffaella Stroik's body was found near a boat ramp in Florida, Missouri on Wednesday morning. No information about what led to the death is currently available. Our thoughts are with her friends and family.

Raffaella Stroik, a 23-year-old dancer with the Saint Louis Ballet, went missing on Monday.

Her car was found with her phone inside in a parking lot near a boat ramp in Mark Twain Lake State Park—130 miles away from St. Louis. On Tuesday, the police began an investigation into her whereabouts.

Stroik was last seen at 10:30 am on Monday at a Whole Foods Market in Town and Country, a suburb of St. Louis. She was wearing an olive green jacket, a pink skirt, navy pants with white zippers and white tennis shoes.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Training
Dancemaking skills will serve you far beyond the studio, says Iyun Ashani Harrison. Photo by Willow Pinkerton, courtesy Harrison

Whether or not you see yourself choreographing in your future, you can gain a lot from studying dance composition. "Many companies ask you to generate your own content. Choreography is more collaborative now," says Autumn Eckman, a faculty member at the University of Arizona.

Look beyond the rehearsal studio, and you'll find even more benefits to having dancemaking skills. "Being a thinker as well as a mover is what creates a sustainable career," says Iyun Ashani Harrison, who teaches at Goucher College. "Viewing dance with a developed eye and being able to speak about what you're seeing is valuable whether you're a dancer, a choreographer, an artistic director or a curator."

Succeeding in composition class often has more to do with attitude than aptitude. Above all, you need "a willingness to play along and explore," says Kevin Predmore, who teaches at the Ailey/Fordham BFA program. "You have to let go of the desire to create something extraordinary, and instead be curious."

Keep reading... Show less
Breaking Stereotypes
Judith Lynne Hanna in a still from "Partying Alone." Image courtesy Fox Force

Egg Drop Soup's "Partying Alone" video turns a run-of-the-mill dance team audition on its head with a vision of female power from a mature woman. The panel is stunned when a gray-haired, red-lipsticked 80-something tosses aside her cane and lets loose, flipping her hair—and the bird.

Egg Drop Soup - Partying Alone (Official music video)

Take a second look at that head-banging grandma—she is none other than renowned dance researcher and anthropologist Judith Lynne Hanna. An affiliate research professor in anthropology at the University of Maryland, College Park, the author of numerous scholarly books and an expert witness in trials for exotic dancers, she has spent her career getting us to think about dance's relationship to society. Hanna, 82, said she hadn't performed since college when she got a call from a music video producer, who caught a video of her dancing with her 13-year-old grandson. The rockers of Egg Drop Soup loved her energy and flew her out to Los Angeles for a day-long video shoot. We spoke to Hanna about the experience.

Keep reading... Show less
What Dancers Eat
Dancers often make the best chefs. Photo by Quinn Wharton

Tired of the typical turkey and stuffing? For Thanksgiving this year, try something different with these personal recipes that dancers have shared with Dance Magazine. The ingredients are packed with dancer-friendly nutrients to help you recover from rehearsals and fuel up for the holiday performances ahead.

If anyone raises an eyebrow at your unconventional choices, just remind them that dancers are allowed to take some artistic license!

Keep reading... Show less


You Might Also Like


Viral Videos


Get Dance Magazine in your inbox