Ballet's Meta-Morphoses

September 28, 2008

Few thrive on challenges more than Christopher Wheeldon. The internationally renowned choreographer’s dance card is bursting for the next few years with plum commissions. Yet last year, amid much fanfare, he launched his own troupe, Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company. It’s a pickup ensemble of 18 dancers that reads like a who’s who of the dance world—principals and soloists from New York City Ballet, The Royal Ballet, the Bolshoi and others. They performed 17 ballets to live music in first-class venues from the International Dance Festival at Vail, Colorado, to Sadler’s Wells in London, and City Center in New York City.


In addition to making his own works, the newly minted artistic director invited emerging choreographers, such as Morphoses’ dancer Edwaard Liang, to create ballets, and William Forsythe contributed his famous Slingerland Pas de Deux. But critics objected to the sameness of abstract, contemporary ballets with too many duets. On their own, each ballet is a tour de force of innovative partnering and ingenious shapes melding with emotional undertones, but together they become too much of a good thing.


Wheeldon admits that he underestimated the challenge of programming whole evenings and that his choices were too “samey.” But, he says, “Putting together a program of that kind, with limited resources, is not easy. What I’m most proud of is the standard of dancing that we had on that stage.” And the dancing was glorious.


Now in its second year, the company will play the same three venues, arriving at City Center October 1–5. The premieres include Wheeldon’s new ballet Pulcinella, to Stravinsky, and a new work by the young Canadian choreographer Emily Molnar to Steve Reich.


At Vail, headed by just retired NYCB principal Damian Woetzel, the dance festival functions partly as an experimental haven. Three fledgling dance-smiths created short works for the choreography lab—an evening where audiences saw works in progress and got to ask questions. “Of course,” Wheeldon says, “what I’m looking for are ballet choreographers, and let me tell you, we are a dying breed!”


Articulate, intelligent, energetic, full of charm and enthusiasm, he is on a mission to update the performance-going experience. Forgot to look at your program before the curtain went up? No problem—the title is projected on a screen, along with a brief film of dancers rehearsing that introduces the ballet you are about to see. This bright idea came from the Balletboyz, a.k.a. George Piper Dances, who made these “filmlets” for Morphoses, which can be seen on the company’s website (


In a spacious, high-ceilinged studio at City Center, home base for Morphoses, about 50 chairs line the mirrored wall. They fill up quickly. Wheeldon, dressed in clam-diggers, a T-shirt and mismatched ballet slippers—good luck charms from his dancing days at New York City Ballet—graciously welcomes guests and lays out the evening’s agenda: announcing the launch of Morphoses’ website, rehearsing a duet from Polyphonia, and beginning to choreograph the new ballet, Pulcinella.


He brings out an easel with a large sketch pad on which he writes out the counts and phrases of the Stravinsky music. Then he begins showing some steps to dancers—Liang, Craig Hall, Drew Jacoby, and Beatriz Stix-Brunell—and gives verbal cues on how he wants these performed: “folkier” and “lighter on that heel-toe step,” he instructs. “Let’s have clean classical movement here,” he says to Beatriz with her tapering long legs. “And when you face the back,” he says to the four dancers, “you have to speak with your shoulder blades.”


Born in Somerset, England, Wheeldon, 35, began ballet lessons at 8. On the advice of his first teacher, Christine Deacon, he auditioned and was accepted at The Royal Ballet School, to which his devoted parents drove their talented son two and a half hours each way twice weekly. In addition to taking classes, he participated in the school’s choreographic competitions. In 1991 Wheeldon joined The Royal Ballet’s corps and continued to create ballets for the school.


His life changed irrevocably with a cheap flight to New York City in 1993. He visited NYCB, took a few classes and was invited by ballet master in chief Peter Martins to join the company. He accepted and promptly added, “I choreograph too,” and handed Martins a few videos of his work.


Wheeldon thrived on both fronts. A beautiful classical dancer, he was promoted to soloist in 1998. And he scored a major success with the touching and expansive Scènes de Ballet for the School of American Ballet graduation performance in 1999. Martins recognized a good thing and created the post of choreographer-in-residence for Wheeldon—a first for NYCB. Martins gave him freedom to choreograph what he wanted and allowed him to extend his horizons to other companies including The Royal Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Boston Ballet, Hamburg Ballet, and the Bolshoi, to name a few.


Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan from the Royal, and Balanchine and Robbins at NYCB were his major choreographic influences. Wheeldon’s ballets now range over a vast spectrum—from his narrative ballets such as the humorous Variations Sérieuses and the family fun Carnival of the Animals to the sinister Shambards, in which the man drags his dead ballerina into the wings, and The Nightingale and the Rose in which the heroine (Wendy Whelan) sacrifices her life on bloody thorns—and many romantic ballets in between. In some of the breakthrough ballets—Morphoses, Liturgy, After the Rain, Fools’ Paradise—the dancers perform in spare costumes, the better to define angularity and create collages of bodies in space without losing a classical ballet base. Not wanting to be locked into either story ballets or abstract ballets, Wheeldon told Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times in 2003, “I want to create a world that is not specific to either the narrative or the abstract.”


Looking back over his 15 years with NYCB, Wheeldon says, “Those were great years of influence: dancing Balanchine ballets, watching and working with Robbins and with Peter Martins. I’ve grown up as a NYCB choreographer. The one thing I missed at City Ballet—not as a criticism—is that I wanted more feedback. Peter was very generous but he didn’t want to give an opinion. I just felt like there was always this silence after I made a work. I didn’t need balloons and cartwheels, but something.” Wheeldon will return to NYCB in 2010 to make a new “big ballet.”


His last NYCB ballet, Rococo Variations, a classical gem for two couples, reaffirms the choreographer’s passion to create pas de deux. Ironically Wheeldon stopped dancing because he felt he was not a good enough partner. “I became more and more aware of this,” says Wheeldon, “I love and adore that moment in partnering when the brilliance of the physical maneuvers are transcended by a partner who understands how to make it poetic.”


He is constantly on the search for that special dancer who inspires him. “There are times in your life,” says Wheeldon, “when you find dancers who speak your language. They start to turn your language into song and then sing it in harmony. Wendy understands my language.” Wendy Whelan, NYCB principal ballerina and often Wheeldon’s muse, says, “He is incredibly respectful to each of us personally and artistically and that is a very powerful thing for a dancer. Chris asks you to be involved, to be part of it, and thinks it’s crucial to his work.”


Maria Kowroski, another NYCB principal, also fits that category. “Her bold, straightforward way of dancing is laced with finesse and vulnerability,” says Wheeldon. And that is what Wheeldon tapped in There Where She Loved (made originally for The Royal Ballet), in which Kowroski’s emotionally scorching performance made you want to weep. Wheeldon knows how to zero in on dancers and pull out what’s not obvious. He gives them confidence to dare.


Like any dance institution and particularly a fledgling one like Morphoses, money issues affect a company’s fate. “We think of ourselves as the Obama campaign because we pull in a good deal of money from our public in small donations—$20, $10. Every penny counts,” says Wheeldon. While he is out making ballets for other companies, executive director and co-founder Lourdes Lopez, a former NYCB principal dancer, holds down the fort with a small staff at their downtown office. Why does he still accept the commissions that take him away from his own company? “I can’t do big works with Morphoses and I like to do that. Also,” he adds, “whenever a ballet of mine is reviewed it mentions that I have my own company and spreads the word on Morphoses.” A portion of the money he pulls in from these commissions goes directly into Morphoses.


Wheeldon hopes that in five years Morphoses will be a full-time group with its own roster of dancers. In the meantime the company has a three-year dual residency with Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London, and City Center in New York, and goes to Sydney, Australia, in January. City Center president Arlene Shuler enthusiastically supports her leap of faith with Wheeldon. “It’s going to be a long road to build a successful company. But if anybody has the ability, the drive, the intelligence, and the talent to pull it off, I would say Chris Wheeldon is one of those very few people.”


A former ballet dancer, Astrida Woods writes for many publications including
Playbill, Pointe, and The New York Sun.