Jedediah Wheeler is an alchemist. Since he started what became Peak Performances at Montclair State University 10 years ago, Wheeler has turned the program into gold with a mix of ground-breaking, often challenging shows by avant-garde performers and more than 70 U.S. and world premieres.
“Jed has always been fearless in his commitment to new voices, new artists, and new perspectives,” says Mario Garcia Durham, president and CEO of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, based in Washington, D.C. “He presents pieces unapologetically. He doesn’t try to make them more understandable. And I really applaud him for that.”
Under Wheeler’s direction, Peak Performances—presented in MSU’s state-of-the-art, 463-seat Alexander Kasser Theater—has chalked up the only major New Jersey appearances by artists such as the Richard Alston Dance Company, jazz composer Fred Hersch and theater director/choreographer David Gordon.
Before arriving at MSU, Wheeler curated the Serious Fun festival at Lincoln Center, and managed pioneering artists such as composer Philip Glass and choreographer Twyla Tharp. But it was at MSU, that Wheeler, now 65, came into his own.
In the first season, the series featured ballet icon Mikhail Baryshnikov in Forbidden Christmas, or the Doctor and the Patient, a play by Rezo Gabriadze. More recently, Peak Performances presented a first-time collaboration between the Kronos Quartet and Laurie Anderson.
“There’s no formula with our programming,” says Wheeler. These days, he increasingly commissions and produces more of what he calls “highly contemporary” new work.
“That sets us apart,” he says. “We’re really leading the way. It’s riskier, but the results are remarkable.”
Durham says Wheeler’s high-caliber programming draws audiences from all over the metropolitan area. Special shuttle buses from Manhattan facilitate access to the theater—a Wheeler innovation.
“The issue is finding places that offer programs that are challenging and not the norm—and not necessarily easily accessible. And that’s what Jed does,” Durham says. “It’s important because it’s honest. Jed isn’t pandering to the audience.”
In his dual role as artistic director of Peak Performances and executive director of the Office of Arts and Cultural Programming at MSU, Wheeler has presented some potentially controversial work. In one theatrical production, Imagining O, which had its world premiere at Kasser last fall, two women were completely naked for one entire scene; others were similarly bare at different points throughout the performance. Wheeler does not think anyone found the show salacious.
“The work we do is not about being provocative,” he says. “It’s a visual statement. There’s nothing wrong with being nude. Contemporary works of our time often involve exposure.”
MSU president Susan A. Cole has been a consistent champion. “I selected Jedediah Wheeler to head up our arts programming,” says Cole, “because I believed that he had the artistic vision and the courage to place the university at the front edge of enabling the work of emerging artists and the exploration of new art forms.”
Wheeler keeps Kasser performances within reach of his audience by pricing all tickets at $20 (up from the earlier price of $15). He also includes MSU theater and dance students in many performances, giving them a taste of working with professionals in their fields.
A show by the Richard Alston Dance Company last fall, for example, featured live accompaniment by a group of MSU choral students. Alston was so impressed that he asked the students to perform in January with his dance company at Sadler’s Wells Theater in London.
Upcoming bookings in the Peak Performances series include a new piece by choreographer Robyn Orlin, performed by Compagnie Jant-Bi (through February 1); the American Contemporary Music Ensemble and Roomful of Teeth performing the works of Caroline Shaw, Gavin Bryars and Henry Purcell (February 7); the Shanghai Quartet (February 8); and a piece choreographed by Emio Greco and Pieter C. Scholten for the Dutch dance company ICKamsterdam (February 12-15).