A decade ago, Joffrey Ballet made a major investment in its future with the Academy of Dance, an official school and training program that feeds the company with new talent while providing open dance classes to the larger Chicago community.
"It's really rewarding that over a third of the company today has come through the academy," says Ashley Wheater, Joffrey Ballet artistic director. That includes three of the four new dancers the Joffrey added this year: José Pablo Castro Cuevas, 18; Jonathan Dole, 21; and Miu Tanaka, 21. Hyuma Kiyosawa, 18, also joins the company, earning an invitation after impressing Wheater at the 2018 USA XI International Ballet Competition last year.
When choosing candidates to promote from the academy, Wheater looks for a natural quality. "You want to see that they are strong technically, and have a natural sense of musicality. They have to have the ability to dance a huge repertoire. Anything from the very classical ballets like Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty to as far afield as Alexander Ekman or Andrea Walker."
The first challenge for these new company members: Cathy Marston's Jane Eyre, a Chicago premiere that fuses classical and modern ballet techniques to mine the psychological depths of Charlotte Brontë's novel.
"Cathy Marston's not afraid to tackle literature," says Wheater. "She's a woman who enjoys the narrative, and her production of Jane Eyre spoke to me. She's taken a great novel and crafted a really beautiful work. Her work and the way the company is bringing it to the stage, it's a really good fit."
José Pablo Castro Cuevas, 18
On his introduction to dance: "My dad was a soccer player, and my mom would make fun of my dad because he would bring little gifts for soccer. And my mom would be like, 'No, what are you talking about? He's going to be a ballet dancer.' As a joke. But as I grew, I was always involved in artistic stuff. I told my parents that I wanted to dance, but I didn't know what exactly. So we spent a whole day just trying to find what type of dance I like."
On why he loves ballet: "The movement and the music, those two together are very freeing. It's something where I wake up every morning and I'm like, 'Oh, I get to do ballet again.'"
On overcoming boy dancer stigma: "I started dancing when I was six years old, and I had to hide it from all my friends. Once they found out, it was crazy. People stopped talking to me and were making fun of me. The director of my school talked to them and they understood what it meant to be a ballet dancer. They also included me in the jazz group of my school, and then everyone saw that I could actually dance and thought I was so cool."
Hyuma Kiyosawa, 18
On his introduction to dance: "I started ballet when I was six years old. My father was a professional weightlifter in Germany. My dad wanted me to be an athlete—weightlifting, rugby, soccer player, baseball. I had a flexible body, so he put me into ballet. On the day he told me I'm going to take ballet class, I thought it was volleyball class. They sound the exact same in our accent. I went there, put on tights, and was like, 'What am I doing here?'"
On when he knew he wanted to be a professional: "I went to Kiev State Ballet School. I was nine years old and I went into the dorm and I saw the students so serious about ballet. Almost the same age as me, and they were so passionate. That was when I realized I had a future as a ballet dancer."
On his main strengths as a dancer: "My mentor, Nikolai Kabaniaev, he told me after a performance, 'You look like fireworks on stage.'"
On joining Joffrey Ballet: "This is a place I can learn everything. I can become a better artist, a better dancer, and work with ballet masters. Classes every day, rehearsals every day, getting inspired every day."
Miu Tanaka, 21
On her introduction to dance: "I started dancing when I was four years old. In Japan, it was very strict. I had no off days. Christmas, New Year's, doesn't matter. It was very strict, but I had good teachers."
On what inspires her: "I know how special it is to be able to change the audience's emotion through my dancing. It's really difficult to make the audience love. If it's good, I can really feel the audience's excitement. If it's not as good, that's the moment when I get motivation and energy. It makes me want to get better and make the audience feel that."
On character roles: "I love the chance to dig deep and find the character. You have different people playing the same character, and it's the exact same steps, the same choreography, but it looks completely different."
On her big break: "In [last season's] Swan Lake, someone got injured and I had to jump into her spot, which I had never done before. [Academy dancers sometimes dance in main-stage productions before joining the company.] I had almost four hours to learn the performance. I watched the video. I made it, no mistakes. Because I learned all that stuff in school before, it helped me. And it showed them what I could do."
Jonathan Dole, 21
On his introduction to dance: "My mom put me in a bunch of sports and I hated them all. She sent me to a dance studio in my neighborhood. 'Go take this tap class, get rid of your energy.'"
On joining the academy: "When I first came here, we danced from 9 AM to 4:30 PM. Before I was dancing at night for two hours. Every year was challenging. The rep was really good. I wasn't technically a ballet dancer until I got trained here as a ballet dancer."
On starting ballet late: "Not starting in ballet made me a lot more well-rounded. A lot of people, when you start ballet, you do ballet until you retire. We're actually doing a tap piece this year—'The Times Are Racing' has a tap part—so it's an amazing opportunity to get to do that as a first year and as a soloist part."
On ballet as sport: "Ballet has taught me so much discipline, and it gave me a place to put all of my focus. With a lot of sports, it feels like you do whatever. I definitely view ballet more as an art form, personally, but one that is very athletic." v