A CONVERSATION WITH CHRISTOPHER WHEELDON
by Michael Popkin
copyright 2009 by Michael Popkin
[Editor's note: This is a longer version of an interview that ran in the Spring 2009 issue of DanceView. It is posted in four parts.]
Two years after forming his own company, the New York based choreographer talks about his plans and recent work, his methods of working and the experience of living and creating dance in New York City.
Christopher Wheeldon needs little introduction to today’s ballet public. Trained at Britain’s Royal Ballet, but formed as an artist during more than a decade at New York City Ballet first as a dancer and then as the company’s first official resident choreographer, the 36-year-old British born choreographer left City Ballet to form his own company, Morphoses, nearly two years ago, performing first at the Vail Festival in Colorado, and subsequently among other venues at yearly seasons at both New York City Center and the Sadlers Wells Theater in London. Danceview caught up with him on February 25, 2009, when he was back in New York after Morphoses’ January tour in Australia, to oversee the revival of Mercurial Maneuvers, one of his early works, at City Ballet before making a quick trip to Seattle for the premiere of his Carousel, A Dance at Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Wheeldon: Any new ballet is a collaborative process up to a point, so it depends upon how you work as a choreographer and how you approach that process. Some choreographers choose to work on themselves or on assistants in a studio and then go in with the dancers and teach them material that’s already been created. Some have a very clear idea in their head, but then go into the studio and work with the dancers collaboratively, allowing them to have a voice in the process. Some are lucky and have a large enough budget to bring a composer into the mix and start working on music from the word go – structuring the piece of music with the choreography. So it depends on how the choreographer works, and on what the resources are for the piece from the company you’re working with. I think most of the time I talk about Morphoses being a collaborative company in the sense that I’m looking to work with new people – not necessarily just ballet costume, or ballet theater design artists – but maybe going to the fashion world, and in general crossing the boundaries between popular culture and the classical art form of ballet. And as an individual and a choreographer, I’m interested very much in collaborating with the dancers and allowing them to have a voice in the process so they’re contributing artistically to the work that’s being made on them. That’s not to say that they’re choreographing it, it’s just not being so set in my ideas that I’m not open to hearing what they’ve got to say as we make the work.
DanceView: Does that vary between you and particular dancers as you make each piece?
Wheeldon: Yes. It depends very much on the dancer and how eager they are to be a part of that process. Some dancers either don’t like, or don’t know how to collaborate. They come in and they’re just simply a body to be worked on. But for Morphoses I try to find dancers who have a clear idea of who they are in the studio, what they can and can’t do, but also who are willing to take that step with me.
DanceView: What’s your ideal scenario in terms of collaborating with disciplines such as theater design, lighting, composers and visual artists?
Wheeldon: The ideal scenario is where you can begin work on a piece with a collaborator from scratch, approaching a story together. I haven’t had a chance really to do this in a way that’s allowed me to begin the process sitting around the table chatting, but it’s about to happen with the Royal Ballet as I’m doing a full length work for them for their 2011 season. I’m building the book with the playwright, and the composer is also involved. We’re meeting in London, and in New York in a couple of weeks, and then the designer will come into the mix. And that’s very exciting. So that in many ways is ideal. But then there have been collaborations, for example that with Isabel and Ruben Toledo last season on my ballet Commedia last season, which had some ideal elements to them. The music was already in existence because it’s Stravinsky, and I took the idea for the piece and sat down with the Toledos; we listened to the music and they watched some of my ballets, and we distilled the idea of a contemporary look with the perfume of the commedia dell’arte. And even though we weren’t able to spend a lot of time together, because they are incredibly busy, and with Isabel being a fashion designer and Ruben creating a lot of graphics for various stores it was not easy for us to get together often, the hours we had together were very fruitful.
So it goes project by project and it depends on the artists too. Some artists, designers or composers like just to be left alone in order to create something and I appreciate that as well. When I worked with James Macmillan on a piece called Shambards for the New York City Ballet a few years ago, there was already an existing movement for the score in place, so James and I met a few times and he went off and wrote the rest of the piano concerto and then came back to me and said essentially, “Look, here it is.” And even though we didn’t spend hours and hours working out the structure of the music together, it was still a collaboration. With dancers, it depends who you’ve got in the studio. So it just very much depends on the project.DanceView: When did you begin to want to work that way? I remember you speaking of it early in your plans for the new company.
Wheeldon: Well yes, it has always been part of the mission of Morphoses to bring in artists that haven’t necessarily been always associated with theater and ballet. It’s even the way we work in the office. We’re a very small company and there are three of us – myself, along with Lourdes [Lopez] who is my executive director, and Elizabeth [Johanningmeier] my administrator, and the atmosphere here is incredibly collaborative. We’re swapping hats all the time; we have a lot of creative meetings, and it’s very much a team effort.
DanceView: The collaborative model in ballet, combining avant-garde stage and costume design with contemporary music, is certainly associated with Diaghilev. The Playbill material for your most recent season at New York City Center mentioned that Commedia was part of an idea you had for the Ballet Russe centenary. Can you tell me about that?
Wheeldon: The plan for this year has been to create new work that in some way honors the centenary and to put together a program that honors the Ballet Russe in a way that’s fitting for this generation and for our resources – rather than reviving things like Petrouchka and The Firebird, which we couldn’t do anyway because they’re just too big for us; and which also wouldn’t make sense for us because it’s not what we are about as a company. There are plenty of other wonderful ballet companies around who are doing that in honor of the Ballet Russe birthday. But Commedia certainly was created last year with this year in mind and it will fit on a commemorative program.
DanceView: Do you have an idea at this point of what else you might do – of how you might fit Commedia in with further work?
Wheeldon: I’m trying to get ballets into the mix that in some way reflect composers that worked for the Ballet Russe, but it could also be subject matter. But I think that just commissioning a choreographer to come in and make a new work, again in the collaborative spirit, for me would be enough of a commemoration. Because you know, the Ballet Russe . . . and in the past I’ve been misquoted and sometimes rather regret having made reference to the Ballet Russe. (Laughing).
DanceView: But please then clarify.Wheeldon: I’ve always been inspired by the idea of this complete collaboration between music, design and dance, each one being as important to the overall finished product as the other. And unfortunately it’s not always possible to get to the point where you have enough money to be able to invest, for example, in a set or a score. In the end it comes down to practicality and resources. You often speak of your dreams and it takes time to reach those dreams. So in many respects I was and am very proud of Commedia just because, even though we are a small company, we were still able to commission the Toledos to make a beautiful drop for us and beautiful costumes that we’ve subsequently now toured to Australia, all of which go into a suitcase and get checked on the plane; because we’re not yet at a place where we can afford to ship things by crate and so on. So it’s much more the ideals that I’m trying to pay tribute to, rather than . . . (Pauses) Certainly I’m not trying to be Diaghilev.
DanceView: But then it’s interesting the degree to which the design and look of Commedia – and I mean the choreography and the blocking as well as the costumes and drop – did evoke something of the Ballet Russe era, the look of the School of Paris.
Wheeldon: Well yes, and I think at this stage we approach each work as much as possible with the idea of an equal emphasis on design, music and art because it’s where I come from. I come originally from the Royal Ballet, which is a tradition where the theatrical aspect of ballet is very important. And you know in many ways Balanchine turned his back on that and focused very much on the marriage of music and dance, and pushed design to the side in a sense; very successfully in many cases and that was his trademark. But I think now we’re probably facing audiences of a generation who like to be stimulated visually as well. Look at the extremes right now, which are things like those mammoth musicals on Broadway that are all about huge production values; people maybe expect a little bit more from the theater now and you know also none of us are Balanchine. And obviously his genius shines through in the choreography, but perhaps we’re also back to a point where dance can afford to be a little bit more balanced; and even if it’s not scenery, then maybe it’s lighting. There’s always a bit of a sense of the noses being turned up in New York when a choreographer attempts to do something interesting or painterly with light; and because we’re so used to that stripped down Balanchine aesthetic, I think sometimes it’s even suggested that if you use light, it’s in some way trying to hide weaknesses in the choreography. And I’m not necessarily talking about my work; I’m talking about a lot of choreographers who play with the theatricality of light. I happen to love that; it does a lot to create atmosphere for the work and it’s important to understand what’s going on: it’s about creating a world for the dance to live in.
Read Part 2