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Established & Emerging

We asked four well-known cultural power players to predict future stars of Chicago. Meet the people you’ll be watching in 2014.

Ashley Wheater, artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet, and dancer Alberto Velazquez in very familiar territory: one of the rehearsal studios at Joffrey Tower


Established: Ashley Wheater
Emerging: Alberto Velazquez
Like many professional dancers, Alberto Velazquez expressed an interest in ballet at an early age. But this Cuban native had one distinct advantage over his fellow 9-year-olds: His mother was a ballet instructor. After studying at prestigious schools in Cuba, Mexico and the United States, Velazquez joined the American Ballet Theatre II company in New York, where he danced for two years. In 2011, he was invited to audition for the Joffrey Ballet, where he made an immediate impression on Artistic Director Ashley Wheater. “I could see that Alberto had a huge talent, not only as an individual dancer, but as a partner, which is something really hard to have instinctively,” says Wheater. “You can train people to be good partners, but I think you either have a sensibility for it or not.” And Wheater would know, being a former dancer whose career took him around the world and gave him the chance to work with some of the biggest names in the biz, including the legendary Rudolph Nureyev. At 23 years old, Velazquez seems poised for a similar path. He’s appeared in numerous productions during his first two years at the Joffrey, including Infra and Don Quixote; will dance the lead in this month’s The Nutcracker; and is learning the title role for the upcoming Romeo and Juliet. “My dream is to do as many classical principal roles as I can, but I like contemporary dance too,” says Velazquez. “I’d like to do a little bit of everything.” And we can’t wait to see it.

Established: Janine Mileaf
When the Arts Club of Chicago ( opened in 1916, it was the only place in the city showing art from that century. (Alexander Calder, Georges Seurat and Jackson Pollock received their first local solo exhibitions at the Arts Club.) While that’s no longer the case, the Streeterville club still features the work of a who’s who of the avant-garde art world, including exhibits by David Hockney, Andy Warhol and John Baldessari, all free of charge to the public. If you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone. “What surprises people about us is that we’ve been here for 97 years, and they didn’t know we existed,” says Janine Mileaf, who’s been working hard to change that since becoming executive director two years ago. And that includes showcasing the work of cutting-edge artists such as Sarah and Joseph Belknap, who, come spring, will have an installation in the Arts Club’s garden. “I find them exciting not only for the work they produce, but because of their approach to the artistic life. They collaborate further than most people possibly could and, in the process, break down the boundary between art and life,” says Mileaf. “They have this exciting combination of being full of fascination and incredibly smart about what they’re doing.”

Emerging:Sarah & Joseph Belknap
Chicago-based artists Sarah and Joseph Belknap may have their feet firmly planted on the ground—in their Cicero home/studio, to be exact—but inspiration for their work, which includes sculpture, video, installation, photography and performance, often comes from a higher place. “Our work is a love affair between science and wonder,” says Sarah, who lists a curiosity with the cosmos, in particular the moon, as a muse. “We spend a lot of time sitting outside staring at the sky.” To further fuel their passion for the final frontier, the two head to Iceland this month to study the aurora borealis. It was 10 years ago that the couple met and fell in love at a Chicago art store. Since then, they received their MFAs from the School of the Art Institute and taught classes there, founded their design firm (a collaboration with CB2 is in the works) and received plenty of praise for their thought-provoking projects, including an outdoor installation of some 2,000 fake meteorites suspended on wires in Logan Square. By collaborating together, something they’ve done for the last five years, the couple has been able to push the boundaries of their art. “The collaboration functions under an umbrella that encompasses both of us and allows each other’s skill sets to flourish,” says Joseph. “We’re continuously searching and seeking new ways of making things.”

Established: Ana María Martínez
Soprano Ana María Martínez was barely out of The Juilliard School of Music in New York when her career took off, winning numerous prestigious vocal competitions and being cast last minute in a world-premiere opera at the Spoleto Festival USA. Beginner’s luck? Hardly. Some 18 years later, Martínez is an internationally recognized, sought-after soprano who’s performed with top orchestras and singers, including Plácido Domingo, with whom she received a Latin Grammy for their collaboration on a recording of Merlin. A familiar face at Lyric Opera—she recently finished a run as Desdemona in Otello—Martínez’s passion for her vocation runs deep. “I cherish its depth of meaning, symbolism, the sheer power of the human voice and the stories that are relevant to our existential quests,” she says. Fitting then, that she finds herself attracted to roles that are “the more complicated emotionally and psychologically the better.” Offstage, it’s a different story: Martínez was recently given the Nicest Person in Opera Award by Lyric, a first for the company. Not surprisingly, she has kind words for Tracy Cantin, her pick as one to watch. “Tracy has a gorgeous voice, is very sensitive in her interpretations, professional and very well prepared,” says Martínez. “But, best of all, she has the most infectious joy I’ve encountered in a long time.”

Emerging: Tracy Cantin
While there’s something to be said for knowing from the get-go exactly what you want to be in life, never underestimate the value of being a late bloomer. Case in point: Soprano Tracy Cantin, who grew up in a small town in Prince Edward Island, Canada, and didn’t discover opera until she was almost 20. “Coming to the craft a bit later in life means I am still in awe and still so inspired by every new piece I come across,” she says. “That discovery lit a fire so deep within me, and I have been striving to make up for lost time ever since.” Boy, has she ever, quickly earning plenty of awards and scholarships, and, in a short time, becoming one of Canada’s top young artists. After graduating from McGill’s Schulich School of Music, where she was enrolled in its coveted Artist Diploma program in Voice Performance in 2012, Cantin’s performance schedule has been jam-packed. And that includes appearances at Lyric, where she is a studio ensemble member at the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center. While Cantin often listens to recordings of opera stars from past generations for inspiration, nothing beats the real thing. “Being a young artist at Lyric allows me to understudy with some of the greatest singing artists of today. This year, I am covering Ana María Martínez twice,” she says. “Amazing staff, amazing crew, amazing colleagues, amazing music—it doesn’t get any better than this.”

Established: Andrew Alexander
During his 40-year career, legendary theater, TV and film producer Andrew Alexander has only taken the stage for an improv set once, and it was a “disaster,” he says. “I thought it might be fun with Dan Aykroyd, Eugene Levy and John Candy, but I was awful, just terrible. So I knew my role was behind the camera, not in front of it.” Now, The Second City CEO and executive producer has big plans for the theater company. “We’re at an interesting juncture because we’ve expanded dramatically in the last 10 years,” he says. The diversified business includes outlets in Chicago, Hollywood and Toronto; 12 worldwide touring companies; training seminars for 3,500 students six times per year; and a TV and film division with a movie on Del Close in the works. “Chicago is special because it’s not under the industry glare of Los Angeles or New York, where a talent is looking at a manager, agent or producer in the audience,” he says. “You’re able to fail. ... And Chicago is very protective, so it’s a great place to nurture your talent.” When reflecting on the success of Second City alumni like Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell, he admits it’s hard to predict who will make it in a big way. “But there are people who stand out, and for me, that’s Emily [Walker]. She’s young, but she’s funny. Naturally funny. And that’s something you just can’t teach.”

Emerging: Emily Walker
“Andrew has been such a wonderful person to the comedy community without people knowing it because he’s a behind-the-scenes kind of guy. I think he just loves comedy, and it’s nice to have someone like that on your side,” says Emily Walker, who moved to Chicago at age 21 with the intention of making it onstage within 10 years. “I was speaking with one of my professors who said, ‘There’s this magical place called Chicago where people do [improv] for a living,’” recalls the Kentucky native. Just six years later, the self-confessed college dropout has become one of the youngest touring Second City members. And the kudos keep coming: In 2014, she will be the newest main stage cast member. After performing for free in the basements of bars while taking classes, she was initially hired by The Second City to perform on a cruise ship for 10 months and is behind the Web series Stupid Bitch Syndrome, where she and Chelsea Devantez perform two-person sketches based on common female situations like online dating or dressing on a budget. “It was a special moment because it was the first time we were paid to create something,” she says. And creating funny television is not the same as improv, where “there are no wrong answers,” she explains. “You look at Two and a Half Men and Big Bang Theory, and think they must be doing something right. ... It’s easy for people in comedy to goff at what’s popular, but that’s the beauty of it—finding something that works in the mainstream but can also make your superfunny friends laugh.”