The New Joffrey Academy

August 2, 2009

If you’re a student coming to Chicago’s Joffrey Academy of Dance, you’re likely to be sharing your elevator ride to the third floor of Joffrey Tower with company dancers and world-renowned choreographers. You might even run into Ashley Wheater, the Joffrey’s effervescent new artistic director (since 2007) and inspiration behind the academy, which opened in January as the official school of the Joffrey Ballet. (The Joffrey Ballet School in New York continues as a separate entity.)

“The school is such a passion for me,” says Wheater. In its first semester, 400 students, ages 3 to adult, participated in 100 classes per week in the open and the pre-professional divisions. The academy launches its new trainee program in September.

Continuity between company and school is already evident in the daily interchange between dancers, faculty, and students. Current and past company members teach in the academy and its outreach programs, and scores of students will perform in the Joffrey’s Nutcracker and Cinderella this coming season.

“I would like to give back at least what was given to me,” Wheater says, referring to his own training at London’s Royal Ballet School, where he studied on scholarship. Wheater’s commitment to helping disadvantaged youth earned him Boeing’s $100,000 “Game Changer” award, which will help kids who otherwise wouldn’t have access to dance classes. Creating greater diversity among pre-professional dancers is one of Wheater’s goals. The academy’s outreach program (which predates the academy), provides dance instruction to an additional 4,000 students in Chicago public schools annually.

Wheater wants to create a curriculum that prepares dancers for the eclectic repertory of today’s companies. He hopes Joffrey academy graduates will be able to perform confidently in a wide range of styles, with depth of expression, a disciplined work ethic, and musical understanding. “Most students consider it a good performance when a dancer does 8 pirouettes or 32 perfect fouettés,” he notes. “But you never hear students say, ‘Wow, that dancer phrased the music so beautifully!’ ”

Musicality is a major emphasis in Anna Reznik’s advanced pre-professional ballet class. “The artist needs to be able to hear the music,” says Reznik. She and husband Alexei Kremnev are co-artistic directors of the academy. Trained at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, they bring a blend of Vaganova, Cecchetti, and Royal Academy of Dance techniques to the curriculum. “I like to teach with a smile,” Reznick says. “They have to enjoy it. Then they do their best.” Launching into a challenging adagio combination, she coaches her students to “feel this position with your being. Why do you go there? Feel something pull you in this direction. It’s a story. Give me a story.”

Wheater aims to address body knowledge at all levels. The baseline is classical ballet, but he wants ballet dancers to get beyond their fixation with legs and feet. “Choreographers look at the total body. We’ve become so upright in classical ballet training. People are afraid to move off their center axis, but there is so much more movement than that in ballet.”

Students in the pre-professional division, open by audition to ages 9 to 17, take classes in modern, jazz, Latin, and contemporary dance as well as ballet. “Dance is a language, right?” Lisa Johnson-Willing­ham asks her modern  students. “Enjoy it! Get your eyes off the mirror. If you feel good, you’ll look good.” Willingham, a former Ailey dancer, sees modern dance as a way to free the upper torso in ballet-trained students. “It’s a challenge for them to relax and be off-center.”

Wheater envisions the highly selective, one- to two-year trainee program filling a gap in training. “You see dancers who join a company at 18 or 19 getting injured,” he observes. Many young professionals end up with stress fractures, tendonitis, or chronic back problems because they’re not prepared to handle long rehearsals of repertory that makes contrasting demands on the body.

The program, which has accepted 34 dancers ages 17 to 20, will differ from previous apprentice programs in its emphasis on training, technical maturity, work habits, and life skills needed to transition from student to professional. Unlike the short-lived Joffrey Ensemble Dancers, a performance group that was based at New York’s Joffrey Ballet School, the academy’s trainee program will use the rehearsal process more as a teaching tool.

Developing a strong work ethic is as important as strong technique. “You come to your work with thought, with an idea,” says Wheater. “You do your homework. A choreographer ricochets ideas to an individual dancer or to the group and expects those ideas to be incorporated into the next day’s rehearsal.”

In addition to dance, trainees will study music, acting for dancers, choreography, stagecraft, and Pilates. They will also receive counseling in career options, like teaching and management.

It’s no coincidence that floor-to-ceiling windows surround the studios where students learn, choreographers create, and dancers rehearse. If you’re taking class at the academy, you might find yourself looking out those windows at one of the busiest corners in the world. And the world looks in as well. Not only do the windows create an atmosphere of openness and light, they serve as a constant reminder of the connection between the art of dance and the greater world.

Lynn Colburn Shapiro, a former dancer/choreographer, teaches creative writing at Columbia College Chicago.