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Wheeldon Wheels Into Seattle

by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

Published July, 2009

Christopher Wheeldon is considered one of the leading ballet choreographers in the world today. He was born in Somerset, England, and trained at The Royal Ballet School until 1991, when he became a company member and also won the Gold Medal at the Prix de Lausanne competition. Mr. Wheeldon danced with New York City Ballet from 1993 to 2000 and has since focused completely on choreography. He became New York City Ballet’s first artist-in-residence in 2000, during which time he created “Polyphonia” and “Variations Sérieuses”, and, since 2001, has been the company’s resident choreographer.  In 2007, Mr. Wheeldon founded his own dance troupe: Morphoses, the Wheeldon Company.

In mid March 2009, we were able to meet with the busy Mr. Wheeldon while he was in Seattle at Pacific Northwest Ballet rehearing the company in his “Carousel (A Dance).” This is a summary of that interesting exchange.

Thank you for meeting with us. We like to begin by asking each of our subjects how they began in dance – a little about their background.

I saw dance on television and asked to study dance. I was fortunate that my parents were supportive from the beginning. I seem to be blessed with a good memory and can recall what it was that I saw: a Leslie Collier and Michael Coleman recording of “La Fille mal Gardée.”

My mother found a “Billy Elliott” studio where I studied for about six to eight months. The teacher suggested I audition for the Junior Associates of the Royal Ballet School, which was for students ages 8 to11, taking at least two weekly classes.

I’ve heard that you started creating dances early in your career...

I started making dances in Junior Associates – the teachers encouraged students to make up their dances. We were in small groups. The Royal Ballet School actually encourages choreography throughout and offers an actual class. I don’t believe great choreography can be taught but students can certainly learn tools of the craft such as elements of composition and get experience working with their peers.

I made some work in the New York City Ballet’s Choreographic Institute, making pieces on students which were performed at Juilliard. This eventually became the Diamond Project in 1995 or ‘96 and I went back and forth between doing school and company pieces.

While no one likes to be pigeon-holed, every creator of art has a particular style, feel, or look. For example, as wide a range of pieces as Balanchine did, you can pretty much always tell it’s a Balanchine work even without seeing the credits first. How might you characterize your choreographic process, output and style?

I love to move. While I was never a very good partner, I feel I have a natural sense of movement. When I’m working, I try to show things as much as possible. I process the music through my body into movement. I look for dancers who can absorb music and turn it into something involving movement. To be truly musical to me means neither being “on” nor “off” the music but rather flowing in and out of the beat. There are a few dancers who have this gift. Miranda Weese is one. Others include Tiler Peck, Sara Mearns, and Jennifer Ringer.

If you were to make a piece to no music, what might it look like?

No one has ever asked me that before! That’s an interesting question. With no music I might make movement that was very rhythmic and percussive enough to create a physical score. Robbins’ “Movements” is perhaps one of the only successful examples of a ballet to no music. Passages in some of my pieces have moments of silence – “DGV: Danse à grande vitesse” for Royal Ballet.

Paul Taylor has said that he works hard not to repeat himself. How do you handle not allowing yourself to become a “one-note” choreographer?

I try to make each ballet quite different than the one that came before. I try to push in a different direction – musically, theatrically – and not to repeat.

How do you find your “muse?” Your inspiration?

Finding music can be very difficult and I enjoy the challenge of different music. I enjoy being given specific commissions; it’s actually freeing and I’ve found that when I have to make the decisions, it’s never as successful. “Carousel” came out of a specific commission to choreograph to Richard Rodgers.

I seek an emotional connection. “Carousel” was an easy one, but very difficult to choreograph – I couldn’t allow complacency for myself. I like shifting dynamics – piano concertos are good for this. I know instantly upon hearing something if it will work, choreographically, for me or not.

What are some of the challenges that today’s dance makers have?

Escaping the ghost of Balanchine is very challenging. It’s hard to see where dance is going. There is a resistance to moving forward with the contemporary side of dance here, less so in Europe. Finding ballet choreographers is a challenge. Younger choreographers are not using pointe shoes. The number of ballet choreographers on a very high level are very few. There are the Kylian and Forsythe “schools” – a style/vocabulary which is easier than exploring the pointe shoe. [Editor’s note: many of these choreographers’ works are done in ballet slippers.] Their influence has been so strong on young choreographers in Europe in a similar way to the influence of Balanchine here in the States, that it is difficult to break away and become an original, when your inspiring influence is so iconic.

What have been some of the success that you’re most proud of and what have been...

Some of my flops?! [Laughs] The period I spent working with Wendy [Whelan] and Jock [Soto] was a short but productive and inspiring one. I most disliked “The Four Seasons” I did for Boston Ballet.

Where do you see you and your career 10 years from now?

10 years is a long time. I focus week by week and by my work of the moment – that and getting through the next year or two. My company is doing well – dancers are in place, pieces are coming together. It’s manageable.

How has your experience been here at PNB?

Very good. This is my fourth work for PNB, with my having very limited prior experience with the company, as previously I had ballets here and at San Francisco Ballet that premiered the same night. I’ve found that ballet companies tend to be somewhat the same around the world – the dancers are willing to work and take great pride in what they do; the work ethic is fantastic.

What are some of your interests outside of the ballet?

Reading, movies, travel. As much as I’ve traveled for work, I’ve never tired of it; the more exotic the better! I’m currently fixing up my new apartment in New York.

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