Fowler at PAB. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

What It's Like to Be Christopher Wheeldon's Right Hand Man

While still in the corps of New York City Ballet, Jason Fowler was drawn to the role of répétiteur. "Ballet mistress Rosemary Dunleavy was my rock in the company," he says. Fowler loved the process: learning steps quickly and absorbing the choreographer's intentions. He knew early on he wanted to nurture dancers through the rehearsal period one day. So it comes as little surprise that 20 years later, Fowler is a primary stager of Christopher Wheeldon's ballets around the globe.



Fowler first met Wheeldon as a student at the School of American Ballet in 1993, where he danced in the workshop performance of Wheeldon's Danses Bohemiennes. He was promoted to NYCB soloist in 2006, and performed with Wheeldon's company, Morphoses, on the side. Wheeldon first asked him to teach and rehearse one of his ballets, There Where She Loved, on a Morphoses tour to Vail International Dance Festival in 2008.


Fowler retired in 2010 after several knee surgeries. "I was lost, shocked and heartbroken," he says. But in a synchronistic bit of career timing, Wheeldon offered him a position as ballet master for Morphoses' Canada and California tours that same year. Since then, Fowler has staged over 20 Wheeldon ballets for companies across the globe, from the Broadway-sized Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to the stark Polyphonia.

Fowler rehearsing Miami City Ballet dancers. Photo by Daniel Azoulay

Unlike some répétiteurs, Fowler doesn't use traditional notation. Instead, he writes down the choreography and dances it out to secure it in his muscle memory. "I have a binder which I call my Bible," he says. "It's full of words, drawings, figures, musical notes, anything I can think of to remind me of what that step might be." Sometimes he notates within the score, including key words like "Titanic," for a formation that resembles the bow of a ship. When he sets a piece from a video, he'll often watch three different versions to absorb the specificity of the movement. "Especially when Chris comes in for three days or a week to work his magic, I need to know we're on the same page," he says.


At Pennsylvania Ballet, PC Alexander Iziliaev

Staging time depends on the number of casts, hectic rehearsal schedules and the amount of time the company allots. "I can teach all the steps of Polyphonia and Fool's Paradise in about a week," says Fowler. "But the coaching takes time, preferably three weeks total for two to three casts."

At PAB, PC Alexander Iziliaev

Working with a living choreographer, as opposed to re-creating works by a legend like Sir Frederick Ashton or George Balanchine, keeps Fowler on his toes. Wheeldon sometimes alters steps that he didn't originally have time to refine, or tailors them to the current dancer. "Not everyone dances the same—that's the beauty of having someone who can personalize something for a company," he says. "The frustrating part can come when a company gets a video and tries to learn from it and they get confused. That's what I'm there for."

Fowler with MCB dancers. Photo by Daniel Azoulay

Wheeldon always does the vetting of companies, choosing which ballets are suitable for which troupe, and he usually does the casting. "But if he's not available, it's something that I sometimes do," says Fowler. "I'm his eyes if he can't be there."

Fowler often crosses paths with other répétiteurs setting works by William Forsythe, Jirˇí Kylián and others. "I've known dancers all my life, but now I know more stagers than dancers," he says. "We're all in agreement that no one does this for the money." (The bulk of the work—studying videos and notations or working out steps—is unpaid time.)

At PAB, PC Alexander Iziliaev

Still, his life as a nomad, which can sometimes feel lonely with over 40 weeks per year on the road, works for him. "The rewarding part is traveling the world," he says. "If you only want to be in one place, it's most likely not the position for you."

With Wheeldon's rate of prolificacy, Fowler can probably count on a job for life, especially given that Wheeldon, a youthful 44, promises many more decades of creating. And staging ballets rather than choreographing them suits Fowler just fine. "I know what my strengths are—and it's not choreography. I'm like a backup singer."

Latest Posts


Clockwise from top left: Photo by Loreto Jamlig, Courtesy Ladies of Hip-Hop; Wikimedia Commons; Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet; Natasha Razina, Courtesy State Academic Mariinsky Theatre; Photo by Will Mayer for Better Half Productions, Courtesy ABT

The 10 Biggest Dance Stories of 2019

What were the dance moments that defined 2019? The stories that kept us talking, week after week? According to our top-clicked articles of the year, they ranged from explorations of dance medicine and dance history, takedowns of Lara Spencer and companies who still charge dancers to audition, and, of course, our list of expert tips on how to succeed in dance today.

We compiled our 10 biggest hits of the year, and broke down why we think they struck a chord:

GO DEEPER SHOW LESS
Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Nichols

I Am a Black Dancer Who Was Dressed Up in Blackface to Perform in La Bayadère

On Instagram this week, Misty Copeland reposted a picture of two Russian ballerinas covered head to toe in black, exposing the Bolshoi's practice of using blackface in the classical ballet La Bayadère. The post has already received over 60,000 likes and 2,000 comments, starting a long overdue conversation.

Comments have been pouring in from every angle imaginable: from history lessons on black face, to people outside of the ballet world expressing disbelief that this happens in 2019, to castigations of Copeland for exposing these young girls to the line of fire for what is ultimately the Bolshoi's costuming choice, to the accusations that the girls—no matter their cultural competence—should have known better.

I am a black dancer, and in 2003, when I was 11 years old, I was dressed up in blackface to perform in the Mariinsky Ballet's production of La Bayadère.

GO DEEPER SHOW LESS

Here's the First Trailer for the "In the Heights" Movie

Lights up on Washington Heights—because the trailer for the movie adaptation of the hit Broadway musical In the Heights has arrived. It's our first look into Lin-Manuel Miranda's latest venture into film—because LMM isn't stopping at three Tony awards, a Grammy award, and an Emmy.

GO DEEPER SHOW LESS
contest
Enter Our Video Contest