10 Things We Didn't Know About Christopher Wheeldon
Dance Magazine has published several stories about the brilliant, multi-faceted choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, including a cover story and a recent feature on the making the Broadway musical An American in Paris, plus an occasional posting from me, like when his company Morphosis opened at City Center.
But Monday night, when the glamorous Rita Moreno (star of the movie West Side Story) interviewed him at Symphony Space, they struck up a delightful rapport and we learned some things we never knew before. Here are some of those things:
Beginnings in Somerset, England
“I was a hyperactive child. Before ballet I was probably driving my mother insane. My early lessons were very Billy Elliot —12 girls at the barre and me holding onto a plastic chair in the middle of the room.”
Watching musicals on TV
“We had only three television channels. Whenever a musical was on, it was a big event in our family. We planned a week ahead of time; we had early dinner. My favorites were West Side Story and Singin' in the Rain.”
The first ballet he saw was a dud.
“My mother took me to a local community center production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was a pretty easy audience but it was dreadful.”
“When I saw Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée with The Royal Ballet, I was sold by the chickens. That made me know I wanted to be a dancer. I was so disappointed when I got into the company and learned that the chickens were danced only by the ladies.”
A choreographer is born.
“As an 8-year-old, I made a prequel to Swan Lake. My dancers hatched out of eggs before they became swans….It might be my best work to date.”
“I’d skip Labanotation class and go to the library and read Dance Magazine and watch videos of American Ballet Theatre when Baryshnikov was there.”
Making theater sets
“My parents bought me a Victorian toy theater. I built sets. One of them was the set for Starlight Express, and I had runways going all over my bedroom.”
Joining NYCB was based on a misunderstanding.
While on a break from The Royal Ballet, Christopher asked to take class at New York City Ballet. They were auditioning another boy, but they must have mixed the two of them up. After class he was told to go see Peter Martins. “He offered me a spot in the corps and asked me why I wanted to leave The Royal Ballet. When I told him I didn’t, he said, ‘Then why did you audition?’ But I hadn't meant to; I was just taking class and then I was headed for Macy’s and the Statue of Liberty. Still he said he needed a boy in the corps, so I asked him if I could watch the company for a week and then let him know.”
Bad at partnering
“When I was on my own I was in heaven, but I was terrified of partnering. Partnering is a certain sensitivity, and beyond that, poetry. I would joke that a girl would fall off pointe when I came in the room. I so wanted to find that sensitivity. It broke my heart that I didn’t feel it.”
Lack of confidence
When working on An American in Paris, "I was so far outside of my comfort zone. I had to hide my fear and appear confident when actually I was feeling like a sweaty, floundering fool. Thank goodness the actors were patient with me.”
Photos from top: Rita Moreno, courtesy of Symphony Space. Christopher Wheeldon rehearsing An American in Paris, photo by Matt Trent.
More than once, when I'm sporting my faded, well-loved ballet hoodie, some slight variation of this conversation ensues:
"Is your daughter the dancer?"
"Actually," I say, "I am."
"Wow!" they enthuse. "Who do you dance with? Or have you retired...?"
"I don't dance with a company. I'm not a professional. I just take classes."
Insert mic drop/record scratch/quizzical looks.
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