Does It Matter If You Know the Story?

June 20, 2007

I always get excited to see a new Wheeldon ballet, so before I went to see The Nightingale and the Rose at New York City Ballet, I read the Oscar Wilde story that it’s based on. It’s about a Nightingale who sacrifices her life for a young man’s hope of love. A thorn must pierce the bird’s heart as she sings all night long to produce a red rose that the youth can present to the girl he has a crush on. I thought this was a perfect role for Wendy Whelan, who’s been Wheeldon’s muse for many abstract ballets. She has a creatureliness and a subtle all-out energy that would suit a magical, tragic bird. After seeing the dance last week, I think I (and he) was right. But was I right to read the story first? My friend Nancy, who hadn’t read the story, loved the piece—the quirky twisting, the beak-and wing shapes, the aura of sadness—but didn’t really get anything about the story from it. The Playbill did have an insert that summarized Wilde’s story. But how many people in the audience read that? And how would I have reacted (I loved it too) if I had not read the story? Would the images have coalesced for me? Would that group of men who revealed red under their unitards have seemed like a rosebush? Or would I have seen something else, something even more interesting, in that group of men with waving red limbs?

The main thing is, Wheeldon takes risks, and this is the first ballet of his where the narrative is not well-known or obvious. It’s an attempt to set Wilde’s poetic pessimism to movement, and it adds to Wheeldon’s already huge range. Seeing this ballet makes me even more curious about his new company. In a “Quick Q & A” with Wheeldon in our upcoming August issue, he says he wants his new company, Morphoses the Wheeldon Company, to start right away outside the box. Which is what he has always done.