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

May 21, 2017

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.”