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From his favorite seat in the top balcony of Chicago’s exquisitely ornate Lyric Opera House, Greg Cameron ’80 gets goosebumps each time the velvet curtain rises on a Joffrey Ballet production.

“It’s magical,” said Cameron, the president and chief executive officer of the Joffrey—an internationally renowned, Chicago-based ballet company and dance education organization. “You arrive in the lobby, maybe with a few friends, but mostly surrounded by strangers. Then you walk in and you have this shared experience in the audience. I love the energy.”

It is a feeling that Cameron recalls discovering as a self-proclaimed “theatre groupie” at Illinois State University in the late 1970s. A native of Westchester, 15 miles west of downtown Chicago, Cameron arrived at Illinois State planning to become a special education teacher.

But during Cameron’s sophomore year, he noticed a poster pinned to a bulletin board in Schroeder Hall. “Spend a semester in Salzburg, Austria,” it read. On a whim, Cameron, who was taking German classes, packed his bags.

“It was in Austria that I discovered music, dance, the visual arts, and Baroque architecture,” Cameron said. “That was a really pivotal program.”

While studying abroad, Cameron and a classmate ventured to the Vienna Opera House, where they bought standing-room tickets—called “stehplatz”—for a production of the ballet Swan Lake. They secured spots in the morning by tying scarves to a balcony railing. That evening, they were treated to a performance starring Rudolf Nureyev, regarded among the best ballet dancers of his generation.

“There were 17 curtain calls,” Cameron said. “The audience would not leave, and I knew I was seeing something special.

“The studio is a place where you learn trust, discipline, and commitment.”  —Greg Cameron


Back on campus, Cameron attended nearly every School of Theatre and Dance show and traveled to New York on a weeklong trip to watch seven Broadway plays, led by former Illinois State Provost, Dean, and Department Chair Alvin Goldfarb. Cameron even took an introduction to ballet course in McCormick Hall.

“I had been to New York with all these theatre folks,” Cameron said. “I’d seen dancing, and so, I wanted to try it.”

Cameron’s burgeoning passion for the arts made him reconsider his career path. The semester before he was scheduled to begin student teaching, Cameron changed his major from education to German with a minor in art history.

“I would say that I have been able to put all of those things to good use,” Cameron said. “Although I’ve never taught special education, everything that I learned in those education classes prepared me, I think, to be a leader.”

Cameron has served in administrative and philanthropic roles for nearly four decades with prominent Chicago art and community organizations, including the Department of Cultural Affairs, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Art Institute of Chicago, and PBS affiliate WTTW. He was hired as the Joffrey Ballet’s executive director in 2013.

“One of the things that appealed to me about the Joffrey Ballet was the fact that, while the Joffrey is all about supporting our 47 company artists, we also have an Academy of Dance with 700 students, and through our community engagement program, we’re out in about 50 Chicago Public Schools giving kids an opportunity to move and dance and express themselves,” Cameron said.

“I thought, ‘I can work in a place that enables me to pull all of my commitments: a commitment to education, a commitment to artists, and a commitment to the community.’”

Anna Karenina. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Founded in 1956 by Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino, the Joffrey Ballet began as a six-dancer ensemble that toured the U.S. in an old station wagon pulling a U-Haul trailer filled with costumes and recorded music. It was Joffrey and Arpino’s vision to create a uniquely American style of dance that contrasted with traditional notions of European ballet where dancers all looked the same.

“In 1956, there were Black and brown dancers in the Joffrey, and there were dancers with different body types,” Cameron said. “Now, every ballet company in the world is trying to get to what Robert Joffrey set up in 1956.”

Originally based in New York, and later, Los Angeles, the Joffrey took up permanent residence in Chicago in 1995. Today, the Joffrey employs a diverse troupe of dancers from 14 countries who present an annual home performance season at the Lyric Opera House and tour nationally and internationally. The 2023-24 schedule includes Frankenstein, The Nutcracker, Studies in Blue, and Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Unlike traditional seniority-based ballet hierarchy, the Joffrey’s dancers follow a democratic “all-star, no-star” system developed by Joffrey in which a dancer might be a lead soloist during a matinee performance, and later that evening, a member of the dance corps ensemble.

Additionally, the Joffrey Academy of Dance, founded in 2010, provides training programs for students of all ages, skill levels, and backgrounds. Classes ranging from year-round to drop-in are held in Joffrey Tower, located in downtown Chicago, and in the newly established South Loop Studios.

“Something that we’re constantly focused on is building an audience and engaging the next generation of dancers,” Cameron said. “Dancers who think they want to be professional dancers and dancers who want to take classes but will never be professional dancers—they will all be good leaders because the studio is a place where you learn trust, discipline, and commitment.”

During Cameron’s tenure, the Joffrey has set records at the box office while establishing a historically solid financial foundation after facing near-financial disaster prior to his arrival.

“The first year was intense,” Cameron said. “But we sorted out the messy stuff. It was like peeling back layers of an onion.”

Although Cameron has forged a lifelong career in arts administration, he admittedly is not a talented artist himself. He cringes at the thought of performing onstage.

“I’m more of a dot connector,” Cameron said. “Even as a little kid, I loved connecting dots to make pictures.”

Over the years, Cameron has collected paint-by-numbers artwork as an ode to his artistic disposition. Some works adorn the walls of his Joffrey Tower office, including a painting of Neuschwanstein Castle, which he visited during his Illinois State study abroad trip to Austria.

Cameron is an exceptional dot connector, beyond the canvas, too. In Chicago, he connects people to foster philanthropy. His accomplishments at the Joffrey include establishing an endowment with a significant gift from the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation—its namesake the dancer Cameron watched in awe as an Illinois State student at the Vienna Opera House.

“We have a lot of new donors—people who wanted to be committed to the Joffrey before but didn’t believe that it was going to survive,” Cameron said. “It’s involved connecting dots and being a trusted member of the Chicago arts community.”

As president, Cameron manages a $24 million annual operating budget while collaborating with Ashley Wheater, the Mary B. Galvin artistic director, to produce a slate of world-class performances. A former Joffrey dancer, Wheater became the company’s third artistic director following co-founder Gerald Arpino’s retirement in 2007.

Wheater, an appointed Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) by Queen Elizabeth II, said Cameron has unified the organization and aligned everyone—from administrators to artists—with a focus on the Joffrey’s mission and vision.

“He supports and encourages our entire organization even as we challenge our audiences and bring them new ideas about what ballet can be.” —Ashley Wheater


“Robert Joffrey built an eclectic company—he took risks and made a professional ethic of pursuing what was new, uncertain, and sometimes seemingly impossible,” Wheater said. “I have had the great privilege of operating that way myself in some ways. I have experienced great freedom in my ability to chart an unconventional artistic course for the Joffrey, which is, paradoxically, the most logical one for our particular company.

“Greg’s great gift to the Joffrey, to Chicago, and to the world of the arts, is that he made such risk-taking possible. Greg understands that delicate balance at a profound level. He supports and encourages our entire organization even as we challenge our audiences and bring them new ideas about what ballet can be.”

By connecting dots to honor and build upon the Joffrey’s nearly 70-year-old legacy, Cameron is embracing his lead role, ensuring that ballet—a “language of movement”—keeps dancing across stages in Chicago and beyond. “Joffrey has given us a roadmap for how the arts can tell beautiful and tragic stories about being human,” Cameron said. “His commitment was to classical ballet but also to always pushing and creating new work so this language lives on.”

Listen to an extended interview below with Greg Cameron ’80 on Redbird Buzz, the official podcast of Illinois State University.