"The music was the primary inspiration for this ballet," Christopher Wheeldon says of his new ballet, Rococo Variations, which premieres this month. "I'd been listening for many years to the piece, Tschaikovsky's 'Rococo Variations.' It's strange musically. There are very grand moments where you can sort of imagine yourself in Imperial Russia, and then there are intimate moments where you almost feel like you are at a little chamber music concert. I decided to focus a bit more on the intimacy, and to try to create the grandeur using the classical ballet vocabulary rather than a huge corps de ballet."
The intimacy becomes crystal-clear during a run-through in rehearsal with the ballet's four dancers, Sterling Hyltin, Sara Mearns, Adrian Danchig-Waring, and Giovanni Villalobos, all familiar to Mr. Wheeldon from his past ballets for the Company. Limber and energetic, he looks just like one of them in his dance pants and a long-sleeved T-shirt. As the pianist begins playing the Tschaikovsky, the dancers come across the floor, each couple holding hands and moving in a courtly, formal manner, chests raised, arms curved. Breaking away, Ms. Mearns dances alone, raising her leg into arabesque and holding it there for what seems like minutes, until Mr. Danchig-Waring arrives at her side and gently caresses her. They stop, not quite happy with their positions. "I feel so naked," Ms. Mearns says, "because it's so slow."
To help them get over their uneasiness, Mr. Wheeldon takes over Mr. Danchig-Waring's role and shows him how to provide Ms. Mearns with more stability. "She needs to be comfortable," he says, "and to know exactly where she is." The dancers are engrossed in the moment, working with Mr. Wheeldon to figure out a solution to the momentary difficulty. Dancers thrive on working with him, in part because he still thinks like a dancer and appreciates their contributions. "Chris has a lot of empathy for us," Ms. Mearns says, "and he knows what he wants to see."
As the dancers begin the next sequence in deep second positions, Mr. Wheeldon says to them all, "Stop looking in the mirror. You totally distract yourself from your dancing." They self-consciously nod their heads, and, by giving themselves more fully, make the ballet increasingly rapturous. Finishing, they stand before him, worn out by the ballet's demanding finale, and awaiting his verdict. "If you can do the ballet like this now," he says, smiling, "you'll be great at the premiere."
"Chris asks for your soul," Mr. Danchig-Waring says. "He gives one hundred percent, and he wants one hundred percent from you. It's exhausting, and it's thrilling."
Rococo Variations is Mr. Wheeldon's final work as New York City Ballet's Resident Choreographer, a position he has held since 2001. Though known for his ability to take on many challenges at once, he now will devote himself almost solely to his own troupe, Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company, which gave its debut New York performance at City Center in October. "But I haven't approached this ballet in any different way because of the circumstances," he says, not quite prepared to say a final farewell to the City Ballet dancers, or to Peter Martins, the Ballet Master in Chief. He credits Mr. Martins with giving him the chance to develop as a choreographer in the 15 years since he arrived in New York as a young dancer from England's Royal Ballet, and he hopes to continue to work with the Company in future seasons.
Right now, however, he's enjoying his work on this particular ballet. "My process tends to be spontaneous," he says. "I go into the studio with the music and work with the dancers to collaborate and create the overall piece together. Sometimes, if things are going slowly and I'm not finding that I'm clicking with the dancers so well, I'll work on material on my own, but that rarely happens. And in this ballet, we actually choreographed it very quickly over the course of a week and a half."
The dancers are enjoying the process as well, despite the demands Mr. Wheeldon has placed on their endurance. "The ballet is very romantic," Ms. Mearns says. "It's also much more difficult than the other dances he has done on us. It takes enormous stamina. But it makes me feel beautiful."
Mr. Danchig-Waring, who has worked with Mr. Wheeldon on other ballets, has watched the choreographer grow over the years. "He's much more confident now," he says, "and is even more keen on collaboration. He has an incredible awareness of space and how to convey emotion and mood, whether playful, erotic, or elegant. Basically, he's at the height of his game."
Rococo Variations will be performed February 7, 8, 16, and 19.
Valerie Gladstone writes about the arts for numerous publications including The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. In 2009, she and photographer Jose Ivey will publish a book on a young Ailey dancer.