Ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon is an Englishman in New York – artistically as well as geographically. His cultural baggage, like his high-flying transatlantic company, has LHR-JFK stamped all over it.
Born in Somerset in 1973, Wheeldon trained at London’s Royal Ballet School, joining the Royal Ballet in 1991. Two years later, he got a free flight to New York by buying a vacuum cleaner – part of a sales promotion that turned out to be disastrous for Hoover but a godsend for Wheeldon, who promptly joined New York City Ballet. There, it emerged that god’s real gift to Wheeldon was not dancing, but choreography. He retired from performing at just 27, became the company’s resident choreographer at 28 – a post created specially for him – and was soon in demand around the world.
In 2006, Wheeldon set out on his own, founding his company Morphoses. Based both at New York’s City Center and London’s Sadler’s Wells theatre, it’s a small company but with big ambitions and powerful contacts, and its dancers are top of the range. Think of it as ballet’s elite squad.
But one more thing …
You get the picture. But in this case, you also need the bigger picture, which is this: the classical ballet world is awash with brilliant dancers, but can you find a world-class choreographer? Who’s not dead already? Apart from William Forsythe, no. That is, until Wheeldon came along. And he doesn’t even try to deconstruct tradition or classicism or any of that Forsythe funny stuff. That’s why the ballet faithful are lifting up their eyes unto him and wondering if he might be their messiah.
Wheeldon’s immediate choreographic influences are mid-20th-century giants such as George Balanchine and Frederick Ashton. But his model for Morphoses is the early 20th-century Ballets Russes, where the most inventive choreographers, composers and artists came together and injected a shot of creative energy into ballet. They gave it a new look, made it fashionable, and attracted a new generation of dancegoers.
For Wheeldon, it’s early days yet. But he certainly has an instinct for making classical moves feel fresh, a way of bringing out the personalities of particular dancers. And it’s not all about the dancing. His musical tastes are eclectic, and he’s brought in some hotshot fashion designers to work with him. Plus, he programmes other work besides his own, to give audience a broader range of flavours.
So: art, fashion, beauty, old-world class, new-world vision – Wheeldon certainly fields a savvy combination of commerce, culture and couture. If the Sex and the City girls were in town, you just know they’d be at a Wheeldon premiere.
How to watch
Although he’s done story ballets, Wheeldon tends more towards the abstract. Either way, do pay attention to the craftsmanship – the shapes and lines, the geometry of groups, and how everything is pegged to the music. And even in abstract works, be sure to look out for the emotional stories – the suggestions of conflict or desire, hope and hurt – because they’re often there just beneath the surface.
Wheeldon is the It-boy, obviously, but the Morphoses repertory also includes pieces by ballet’s biggies such as George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and Frederick Ashton, alongside works by various newbies. Fashionistas to have worked with him include Narciso Rodriguez and Isobel and Rubin Toledo. His dancers are mainly from New York City Ballet and the Royal Ballet, but he’s begun casting his net wider.
In their own words
“I called my husband and said ‘Holy shit!’ – excuse my French – I think we have here the next great choreographer. He was like 19 or something” – Lourdes Lopez, executive director of Morphoses (actually, he was 23)
“Chris has been his own man since he was 12 years old” – Christopher Wheeldon’s dad
In other words
“Christopher Wheeldon makes ballets like David Linley makes furniture. Bespoke, top-of-the-range classics with a twist, and every one impeccably cut, grooved and jointed” – Luke Jennings, Observer, 2008
“[Wheeldon] looks like a man determined to experiment with freedom” – Judith Mackrell, Guardian, 2008
“It’s arty, it’s sexy. We’re young. That’s cool! Can I see more of this, what’s it called, ‘ballet’?”
But only if you mean it.
“You are our great white hope. Save us, save us!”
Because nobody deserves that kind of pressure – and frankly, you’re better off getting a life than a messiah.
George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, New York City Ballet (US)
Frederick Ashton, Kenneth Macmillan, Royal Ballet (UK)
William Forsythe (Germany)
Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes
Now watch this
A clip from the forthcoming Sadler’s Wells show
The wide range of videos on the Morphoses website
Where to see him next
Coudn’t find a Wheeldon website! Best to a websearch.