Joffrey's Maia Wilkins: Born to be Wild

July 22, 2007

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.