What He Wants

Ashley Wheater, artistic director of The Joffrey Ballet, on auditioning for his company.
Published in the February/March 2009 issue.

For anyone interested in dancing with The Joffrey, the important thing to understand is that we are a non-ranked company—every dancer must be willing to do everything. Of course there are always leading dancers, but we couldn’t do something like The Rite of Spring unless everyone was invested in being part of the corps, as well as possibly dancing a principal role.

There are 42 dancers in The Joffrey now and not a huge amount of turnover. We are in dire economic times, so the key for me is to have dancers who are intensely committed to the company, who are contributing fully and who are being cast. I hope to stage Lar Lubovitch’s Othello in the fall of 2009, and Ashton’s Cinderella in 2010, so that requires at least 38 dancers. We operate on a year-by-year, 38-week contract, so I look at the budget, see what I need and figure out who does not need to be replaced. I am currently looking for a couple of strong male dancers and a few strong women, too.

I want fully trained dancers who know how to use the strength they have. I am far more particular than Gerald Arpino about women having really strong pointe work, with the ability to roll through their feet. For men, double tours, attitude turns and four or five pirouettes are givens. I also want real men who can run with power and weight, who can really do things. And the demands of most contemporary ballets make strong partnering skills absolutely essential.

Like Jerry, I am not looking for perfect cookie-cutter bodies, though obviously good physique and technique are important. But each individual is worth so much more than just his or her physical looks.

I don’t have a vision of the ideal dancer; mostly, it’s that you see someone dance and they just capture you. While I love dancers with individuality, they also must be able to dance in a group. I like genuine, honest movement—no affectations. An instant turn-off for me is a dancer with no understanding of the upper body or the use of the back, head and arms. And I don’t like people who want to dance in your face.

I always focus on enchaînements—those movement phrases that show me how the dancer connects the steps, finds the rhythm and musicality of a sequence and uses the port de bras. If a young dancer is “present,” and picks up combinations quickly, he or she just might be strong enough.

Robert Joffrey used to give extremely strict and rigid classes, but on stage, he expected so much athleticism and freedom. When I was with San Francisco Ballet, our auditions always included one Paul Taylor combination to see how a dancer could run, roll on the floor and keep moving. That is crucial.

For The Joffrey, even if there is no open spot, we generally hold two formal auditions each year—one in Chicago and one in New York. And I don’t mind if an interested dancer wants to take company class, unless we’re in a very busy rehearsal period. For the handful remaining at the end of an audition, I always talk with them. And if they say they need job security, I advise them to consider a European company.