Glissade Series: Willy Shives

The Glissade Series focuses on artists in various stages of transition.

In May 2008, Willy Shives was gearing up to perform in his final performance with The Joffrey Ballet.  This bittersweet occasion coincided with my first professional writing job.  We sat down one chilly morning to discuss his career and thoughts on retiring.  Now, 18 months later, Shives is thriving in his role as the Joffrey’s Ballet Master.



Cue Curtain – Up
Cue Music – Copeland’s “Hoe-down” (Think “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner” ad)
Cue Lights – Fade In

Act I
A young farm boy on his paper route in south Texas stumbles across a dance studio. Rapt, he starts mopping floors and washing mirrors so he can take class. He befriends a local girl also studying dance. At age nine, he receives a full scholarship to study at a famous ballet school in New York City. More scholarships follow. He and the girl fall in love. At 19, he lands his first professional gig, marries the girl and moves to NYC. He dances all over the world, receives rave reviews, has two children and lives happily ever after.

Set this love story on a ranch, throw in some boots, a cowboy hat and a lasso and you’ve got Rodeo, Shives’ favorite ballet (his wife Evie was his first cowgirl). Really, you can’t make this kind of story up.

Looking out over Lake Shore Drive, he says, “I lived my dream.” Truly.

His entire face lights up when talking of his charmed life and love of dance. At 46, he takes class every day. His execution deemed the “equivalent of velvet” by Chicago Tribune Arts critic Sid Smith, is still spot on. So why retire now? His official retirement has been in the works for over three years and he says the time is “right”.

He’s attempted retirement once before. In 1999, injured, tired and with a second baby on the way, he was ready to head home to Texas. Enter Gerald Arpino, co-founder and Director Emeritus at the Joffrey Ballet. Mr. A (or “Uncle Jerry” as the Shives girls call him) convinced Willy to dance for him in Chicago and for nine stellar seasons he has been center stage and an audience favorite.

Act II
With a career spanning 27 years (33 years if you count the jobs he was getting paid for at the age of 13), eight major ballet companies, international tours, critical acclaim and a role in a Robert Altman movie, Shives seems to have nine lives. His next step will be transitioning into full-time Ballet Master for the Joffrey.

Affectionately called “grandpa” by some of the younger company dancers, he thrives in the mentoring role. He is gifted at teaching and enjoys watching dancers embrace his direction and make it their own. Whether through his coaching, character roles or his daughter’s future career (yes, at least one is planning on following in her parents’ footsteps), his presence will be on the Chicago stage for many years to come.

For his final performance (Sunday, May 25), Shives will be dancing Ruth, Ricordi Per Due with long-time partner Maia Wilkins, who is also leaving the Joffrey after this season. Created for the pair, Ruth is a memorial piece in which one lover is left grieving. This duet holds an additional artistic challenge for Shives; he has to cry onstage. When asked if those tears would be easier to access this time, he quietly says no. He is ready to move on and is “cherishing every moment” until that last curtain call. My guess is there won’t be a dry eye in the house.

Music Ends

Cue Lights – Fade to black

Cue Curtain – Down



Here is the article as it appeared in the May 2008 issue of CS Magazine: shives_CS_May08

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