A conversation with Christopher Wheeldon

To counter any claim that ballet is dying, enter British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. In the 12 years since retiring from the stage as a New York City Ballet soloist, he’s choreographed more than 40 ballets for top companies worldwide, including the Bolshoi Ballet, The Royal Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. With 18 ballets for NYCB, alone, Wheeldon is capable of moving ballet audiences with the poignant use of gesture and complex partnering in his work.

Wheeldon first stepped onto the international scene as a 20-year-old dancer when, after two years with The Royal Ballet, he crossed the Atlantic to join NYCB in 1993. He became the company’s first artist-in-residence in 2001 and assumed the title of resident choreographer that same year. He co-founded his company Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company in 2007, though he withdrew from his post as artistic director three years later. But he certainly hasn’t left the limelight.

Many a choreographer’s goal is to attract a broader audience for their work, and next month, Wheeldon will bring his work to the largest global stage possible: the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

 Dance Teacher: What’s most exciting about being a part of the Olympics?  

Christopher Wheeldon: The director, Kim Gavin, approached me because he wanted a ballet sequence for the closing ceremonies, for which the theme is a tribute to British pop and rock music through the ages. I’m so thrilled that he wanted to include ballet in the mix, since we’re always looking for ways to get ballet out there to a young or new audience. And combining this very classical artform with popular music is the perfect way to do it.

DT: What’s challenging about this venture, compared to creating a new ballet?  

CW: Well, I have to create the segment to fit into the overall theme and idea of the director. So since I’m only making a part of an entire event, I don’t have a great deal of control. I’ve been told what music I’m using and shown the costume design, and I was told which dancers I’m using. It’s very planned out from the director’s standpoint—which is very different for me, since I’m usually in control of all those aspects.

DT: On the other hand, you’re in control of a new Cinderella, a co-production for the Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. Where did you find inspiration for this work? 

CW: Dramaturgically I’ve been working with playwright and film writer Craig Lucas. He and I have worked on creating a new version of the story, and Prokofiev’s score is the inspiration.

There have been many successful productions that have followed the original Perrault fairy tale, which was the inspiration for the Prokofiev score. But we felt there is an underlying tension and darkness in Prokofiev’s music, a machine-like Soviet feeling that reflects what was going on in his life. The music doesn’t marry the lightheartedness of the Perrault story—it’s definitely not a sugary musical telling of a fairy tale, and we wanted to explore that tension. So we’ve combined some elements of the Brothers Grimm tale with the original Perrault, and we’ve come up with a few ideas ourselves to make it a slightly deeper telling of the story.

DT: What’s your advice for teachers who are choreographing ballets for their students?

CW: Even if you’re working on an abstract piece, it’s good to give dancers imagery, or some sort of an idea to play with. More often than not, professional dancers will come up with their own story, and then your abstract movement starts to be infused with an idea, or with a sense of place, time or character. The most successful abstract dances are, in the end, story works with a narrative—even if it’s not explained to the audience. So give the dancers a seed of an idea to begin with and encourage them to imagine for themselves as they dance. DT


Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, courtesy of Christopher Wheeldon

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