Christopher Wheeldon: Ballet Superstar

Christopher Wheeldon: Ballet Superstar

Christopher Wheeldon has enjoyed success on both sides of the footlights, first as a dancer with the Royal Ballet and New York City Ballet, and now as an internationally acclaimed choreographer. During NYCB's spring season (April 29-June 8), his “This Bitter Earth” and "A Place for Us" return to the repertoire. Here journalist Robin Tabachnik chats with Wheeldon about how he came to leave his native Britain (where he was born in 1973) for the States, how ballerina Wendy Whelan intimidated him at first, how Jerome Robbins mentored him, how rap inspires him and how, at age 41, he yearns to go to college and take a degree.

You enjoyed a remarkable career as a dancer before retiring in 2000 to devote yourself to choreography full-time. That would be just 10 years after joining the Royal Ballet. Do you miss performing, or was your desire to be a choreographer just too overpowering?

It’s been so long since I’ve danced that [my memory of] performing onstage is a little dim. I was already doing choreography for the kids at school [Royal Ballet School], so the transition to choreographer seemed very natural. I was the kind of kid who danced around the garden and put on shows when school was out. So, from the get-go, I knew choreography would be a big part of my life.

There’s an amusing story about how you came to join New York City Ballet. Would you mind telling it again?

Yes, it is a funny story. There was an ad [on British TV] for a vacuum cleaner [a Hoover. Buy a Hoover vacuum cleaner and get a round-trip ticket on Virgin Airways London-New York]. As a young dancer, who didn’t like to do housework, but needed to have a vacuum cleaner nonetheless, I bought the vacuum and, more importantly, got the ticket. I wrote in advance to ask New York City Ballet to let me take class with them while I was in town to keep in shape. They were auditioning another guy that day, but I ended up being offered the job. If I didn’t already believe in fate, I certainly did then. [Wheeldon was invited to become a member of New York City Ballet’s corps de ballet in 1993; in 1998, he was named a soloist with that company.]

You’ve created works for and with NYCB’s Wendy Whelan, including the premiere of “This Bitter Earth” in 2012. Can you talk a bit about your collaboration with Wendy? Was the rapport between the two of you immediate?

From the first time I saw Wendy dance, I thought she was fascinating and had a natural beauty and a poetic, very individual way of dancing, not always a conventional beauty, but beautiful in her own unique way. I didn’t approach her right away, because I was a little afraid of her. She has such a concentration when she dances that I mistook her for a scary person. She is, in reality, one of the most wonderfully open people you could ever hope to work with. A truly beautiful lady. Wendy, who was a star when I came into the company, had a formidable look about her. She’s very focused, and I thought, “She must be scary.” It wasn’t until I got to know her a little bit that I found she is actually this incredibly generous human being. In the work environment, she treats every colleague as an equal, no matter if you have just gotten into the company or are a principal dancer. She is open with everyone. Wendy has a very strong fundamental technique, but her brand of virtuosity is poetic, not just technical. She inspired me to capture the poetry that is present in more complex works of music. We struck a mutual kind of chord. She is an artist who thinks before she moves and is interested in the dialogue between dancer and choreographer. I think it’s a great merit for an artist to be able to recognize what he or she does best. “The Nightingale and the Rose” [based on an Oscar Wilde short story], which I built on Wendy, was controversial at the time [2007]. People hated Bright Sheng’s very complicated music, and it was not a particularly happy story. But creating a story for Wendy to inhabit was such fun.

It sounds like you went out on a limb by choosing the Bright Sheng score. Is that typical of how you select music for a dance?

I have a broad musical taste. And sometimes I choose music that is challenging for an audience. But since a lot of people are put off by atonal or polyphonic scores because it is hard for them to find a place of identification on which to latch during the piece, I tend to choose music that breathes for the audience, something that is more pleasing [to their ear]. I don’t shy away from music that will be pleasing to the general public and have them connect with it. I’m not snobby about that because it can help me as a choreographer win half the battle. Besides, if you are going to give [audiences] something already different to see, you cannot also give them something different to hear. That would be too much. Let’s just assault one sense at a time. I like to use new music. I use film composers, too. That’s good when you’re doing a work that tells a story because a film composer already knows how to handle that. He’s used to music that is about being in the background. He’s used to music that is meant to enhance the situation. So, quite often, that is the perfect background to have when you are writing a story-driven ballet.

You used a piece of music from the soundtrack of the 2010 Martin Scorsese film, Shelter Island, to great effect in “This Bitter Earth”: British composer Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight,” remixed with Dinah Washington’s 1960 rendition of Clyde Otis’ “This Bitter Earth.”

It’s a very unusual piece of music. There’s a beautiful, mournful string melody running through Washington’s vocals. The three of us [Wheeldon, Whelan and Tyler Angle] began in the studio, responding to this mournful music: dramatic, yet ambiguous.

You’ve staged the classics as well as new works. Does one have an edge over the other?

I’ve done Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, and I try to come at them (without actually modernizing them) in a way that they feel fresh and new and relevant to younger audiences. In the case of Swan Lake, I came up with a completely new idea for the staging of it, and I liken it to taking an old gemstone and giving it a new setting. For Sleeping Beauty, which is a little bit more traditional, I went back to the original fairy tale and tried to weave a strong narrative through the piece. All in all, though, I’m far more interested in creating new work. It is much more exciting to be making something from scratch.

Do you have any choreographic role models?

There haven’t been many. I grew up in the final years of [Sir Frederick] Ashton at the Royal Ballet. Then, at the end of my first year there, Kenneth MacMillan died. When I came to New York, those were the influences I’d had [in Britain]. I hadn’t had [George] Balanchine. When I got into New York City Ballet, I was exposed to the Balanchine ballets and got to work with Jerome Robbins. For me, Jerry Robbins’ choreography has had the most influence on my work because I worked with the man. I worked with Jerry for five years before he passed on. I was in the first company cast of Brandenburg Concertos. Also, Alexei Ratmansky hired me when he was director of the Bolshoi. I admire his work enormously. I’m even inspired by rap artists.

With so much opportunity, is it possible that there is something you have yet to achieve? Something you’re dying to do?

I’d like to go on a really long holiday. I would love to be able to go back to school and take a course of study and a degree. I missed the college years. My dad went to Cambridge University in the UK. That’s something that I would really love to do, even if it was a six-month hiatus, where I got to go and get some work experience somewhere else. Or travel around and see other companies. That would be something that I would love to do and plan to do in the next few years. It’s very easy to get caught up in your own world as an artist. I have a theater project coming up, where I am going to be directing actors. So, it’s nice to know there are things outside the ballet waiting for me to explore.

Photo above: Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon in rehearsal with the New York City Ballet. Photo: Paul Kolnik

>> New York City Ballet, David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, Columbus Ave. at W, 63rd St., 212.496.0600, April 29–June 8