The world may be waking up, but the future of artistic and performance activities worldwide remains hard to envision. Still, Joffrey Ballet artistic director Ashley Wheater isn’t letting the empty theaters get him down. Rather, the Scotland native—and recently appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire—is focused on the positive: keeping the Joffrey “family” healthy, looking ahead to the 2020-2021 season, and enjoying a vodka or two with husband Brian. We caught up with Wheater to get his take on surviving and thriving as an artist during this time—and his preferred downtime libations.
Cultural institutions like the Joffrey are being hard hit right now—how is the Joffrey responding?
The Joffrey is nimble. We do not have debt. We own our studios and offices. These strategies were established by our Board of Directors in the past, and we hope they will help us weather the current crisis. We push ahead with creative projects, for instance with Cathy Marston’s new Of Mice and Men [scheduled for February 2021]. The composer, Thomas Newman, has created a portion of the musical score for this ballet. Scenic and costume designers are working away on this production. This is very exciting.
The hiatus from performances also provides an opportunity for us to consider new work in a different way. If we are not able to perform, we may still be able to create. We are exploring possible new ballets, and ways to bring artists together while respecting social distance. It would be fantastic if, at the end of this pandemic, we were able to emerge with an arsenal of newly created dances.
How are you getting your culture fix during this time?
I’m an avid reader—I begin the day with newspapers and finish the day with a good novel. As with most folks, I am scrolling through the streaming options on the television. I have subscribed to Marquee TV, with a wide selection of dance, music and theatre videos. With all the content available, though, I still contend there is no substitute for a live performance.
What has been your favorite at-home cocktail or beverage of choice?
A subject about which I am passionate: Chopin vodka, straight up, clean, with an olive. In the summer, I am a big fan of a vodka negroni. I recently discovered a French wine, Picpoul de Pinet, [a Languedoc white] perfect for a summer evening.
What watering hole are you particularly looking forward to visiting when this is over, and what will you order (and who will you be with)?
I am fond of Acanto, The Gage, Beacon Tavern, and The Dearborn. If you look at a map of the Chicago Loop, the Joffrey Tower is at the geographical center of this cluster. My husband, Brian, and our Joffrey friends, often gather—and it’s vodka, straight up!
What can fans of the Joffrey look forward to as we emerge from the pandemic?
It may seem odd under the circumstances, but I am really excited about the state of the art. The Joffrey continues to offer online company class to our dancers. The Joffrey Academy of Dance provides over 80 online classes each week, for all ages and levels of experience. If we are not able to gather as a community, we will find new ways to be part of the community. We will be creative in quarantine. (I read that William Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in quarantine during one of the London plagues.) We plan our performance seasons five years in advance. There is so much wonderful work on the horizon…we are patiently waiting for the virus to step aside.