New York City Ballet's Resident Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon may be a Brit in New York, but that didn't stop him from taking on the Gershwin classic An American in Paris. His new ballet version debuts this spring, during a season that also includes four other Wheeldon works in the repertory. New York Sun dance columnist Pia Catton caught up with Wheeldon just before the start of rehearsals for his new ballet.
Pia Catton: Why did you want to do An American in Paris?
Christopher Wheeldon: I was involved in the early stages of a Broadway version, just the workshops and discussions. It piqued my curiosity on doing a ballet. For a lot of ballet companies, it would be an odd choice. But the Balanchine dancers and Balanchine style all contribute to a more American idea of movement.
PC: Did George Gershwin's music appeal to you?
CW: I just love the music. It's quintessential American music. An American in Paris was written as an 18-minute piece of music. And then it was used in the movie. I'm using the original orchestrated version.
PC: What can audiences expect to see in your An American in Paris?
CW: It will be similar to the way that Carousel (A Dance), my version of Carousel, was a distillation of the musical. In working with Adrienne Lobel, the set designer, we wanted to create a more abstract version of Paris, through the eyes of an artist. In the movie, the last look of the ballet suggests Toulouse Loutrec and Degas. We wanted to remain true to that idea of Paris in the eyes of an artist.
PC: You're planning to use Damian Woetzel and Jenifer Ringer as the leading dancers. Why did you choose them?
CW: Damian's work is very American; he has an easy style. It's very rare that you see Damian pushing too hard. He's a laidback, handsome American guy. It's easy for the audience to relate to him. Jenifer is such a generous dancer. She opens up when she comes out on stage and invites the public in. She has great technique, but it's never showy. And she's got movie star looks. Like Damian, she has a very easy style. We don't get to see them dance together that often.
PC: On the other hand, we have often seen Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto dance together, especially in your ballets. What is it about your collaboration with them that works so well?
CW: I have a very special relationship with them in the studio. I think they appreciate the collaborative spirit that I offer them. I know that it has always worked for the better when I've allowed them to be part of the process. The movement that we come up with together tends to be more interesting than if I say, "Do this."
PC: In the second movement of After the Rain, Wendy Whelan dances in ballet slippers instead of pointe shoes. Why?
CW: We started work and we were coming up with ideas, but it kind of felt like we were stirring the same pot. And for me, that felt unsatisfactory. With Jock retiring, this was the last creation that the three of us would do together, and it felt like the same-old, same-old.
I went home one day, put on the music, and this is going to sound cheesy, but it had been raining. There's a beautiful tree out outside my apartment, and the way the light was hitting the tree inspired me to say: I'm going to go in tomorrow and throw them a curveball. We're going to try to do something different.
PC: Was it hard to convince her to switch shoes?
CW: I knew that getting Wendy to take her pointe shoes off would make her find something different about the way that she moved. And it did. She was upset with me the first day, but it didn't take long for her to feel comfortable.
PC: Jock Soto has chosen your ballet Liturgy for his farewell program. Was that a special piece?
It was. It happened really fast, just over a week. It was just one of those things. It clicked. The music was right. The feeling in the studio was right.
PC: What is it like to watch your older works? Do you see new things in them?
CW: I used to really hate looking back on work. But now there's something quite satisfying about it. With something like Liturgy, I don't really rehearse with them. It has become such a part of Wendy and Jock that I find it's better to let them work on it on their own. That way they can be creative without me holding them back.
PC: This season also includes Carnival of the Animals. Have you enjoyed the audience's reaction to it?
CW: It was made for the child in everyone, but at the same token, children really love it.
PC: Why did you cast John Lithgow in this work?
CW: We're great friends. We worked together on Broadway in Sweet Smell of Success. He introduced me to his writing for children, and I'm in favor of contributing to the family repertory here at City Ballet. I feel a certain sense of responsibility in that way. And it appeals to me because I like to stretch myself in different directions.
PC: When you've got free time, what kind of music do you listen to?
CW: I listen to all sorts. I find myself visualizing dance to practically any music I put on. I'll be commissioned to do a work and start thinking, "Oh, that could really work."
PC: What about pop music?
CW: I like Maroon 5. Every now and then I open up and I allow myself to enjoy a little Beyoncé.
PC: How do you like living in New York?
CW: I go through periods of time when I think: "Get me back to Europe, please!" And then there are times when I can't imagine living anywhere else. It depends on what I'm doing in the city. If I'm working, I love it. If I'm off or between things, New York tends to confuse me.
PC: What period are you in now?
CW: I haven't done any choreography in almost two months. I've been traveling and reading The Fountainhead.
PC: So is there an Ayn Rand ballet in your future?
CW: No! The words remain on the page.