It's a familiar model within the world of modern dance: a youthful choreographic talent emerges, showcases work here and there, then establishes on ongoing troupe as a creative outlet. But in ballet, leading choreographic lights are usually freelancers, hopping on planes to work with far-flung companies that commission them.
Christopher Wheeldon, whose choreographic talent was introduced to New Yorkers a decade ago, and who rapidly became one of the most fluently inventive, versatile, and prolific of today's ballet choreographers, has accumulated plenty of frequent-flyer miles. It is easier to name a major company (nationally as well as worldwide) that has not commissioned a work from him than to list the imposing roster of those that have. All this creative activity has been in addition to his major contributions to the repertory of New York City Ballet, where he became resident choreographer in 2000.
But just as his ballets continually defy expectations — they can be blazingly contemporary, deeply romantic, or hauntingly mysterious — Wheeldon has defied the expected modus operandi and decided to form his own troupe. Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company is a boldly envisioned, ambitious venture that will allow Wheeldon to present his own ideas and aesthetic preferences in terms of choreography, dancers, stage design, and artistic collaboration. New York City Center has named it a Guest Resident Company, and will present its New York debut — six performances of two programs — next month.
"I don't want to say that I found choreographing on a commission basis limiting, but I started to become more interested in the idea of programming, putting repertoire together — and in having the opportunity to shape the dancers' careers. Really the only way it's possible to do that is by starting my own company," Wheeldon says by phone soon after returning from London, where he has done preliminary work for Morphoses' London debut at Sadler's Wells Theatre this month.
Born in England and trained at the Royal Ballet School, he was a promising member of that company before joining NYCB in 1993. New York has been his home ever since, and it is where Morphoses will be based. Wheeldon envisions a company with a distinct profile and mission. "The focus of Morphoses is to put programs together that are going to be exciting and are going to appeal to people that haven't been to the ballet before — and to younger audiences. We will be finding creative and innovative ways of doing that, through programming, use of music, collaborating with other artists — breaking down boundaries between art forms. We're starting from scratch and building it from the ground up, so we can focus on the youthful creative force that will be behind Morphoses. Also, it's about not being afraid to promote ourselves (or ballet) as a sexy, youthful art form — another thing which I think is perhaps a little bit frowned upon by some of the more established members of the ballet world, because ballet has always been this highbrow, rather elitist art form."
Despite his vast and impressive resume (which includes the intriguing but short-lived Broadway musical Sweet Smell of Success, and the feature film Center Stage), Wheeldon is just 34, and seemingly bursting with ideas and energy, as well as an eagerness to break out of existing molds. "A lot of people have asked, why are you leaving City Ballet? It's such a great job, you've got great security, they pay you well, it's carte blanche. It's true, all of those things are wonderful, and I've enjoyed it very much. But I feel that the walls are closing in a bit, because I don't have that much input into the other aspects of the company. I'm excited at the prospect of being able to create a wonderful, exciting, vibrant, and broad artistic experience for the dancers I'm going to be working with."
For this inaugural season, Morphoses has attracted a stellar roster of dancers from major companies with which Wheeldon has worked. In addition to NYCB principals Wendy Whelan, Maria Kowrowski, and Ashley Bouder, San Francisco Ballet's Gonzalo Garc‹a, and former NYCB soloist Edwaard Liang, it includes the Royal Ballet's Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope, Bolshoi principal Anastasia Yatsenko, Britain's iconoclastic Ballet Boyz — Michael Nunn and William Trevitt — and their company member Oxsana Panchenko.
"I've been very lucky," Wheeldon says. "I've choreographed on some wonderful dancers over the last five to six years, and thankfully they've enjoyed the experience enough to offer up their services this year." Down the line, the choreographer anticipates that Morphoses will be a full-time enterprise with 20 dancers. But its beginnings are more modest. "The dancers are all coming to me as guests from other companies — probably for the first three years, depending on how much money can be raised, and how quickly we can get an infrastructure in place. I don't want to be promising jobs before I can really deliver." The troupe rehearsed and gave its initial performances at Colorado's Vail International Festival, which has joined City Center and Sadler's Wells in making a three-year commitment to Wheeldon's enterprise.
In addition to two premieres of his own and several earlier works (including two created for the Royal Ballet), the Morphoses repertory includes a commissioned work by Liang and New York premieres by contemporary choreographers whose work Wheeldon finds in sync with his vision — William Forsythe, Michael Clarke, and Liv Lorent. Both programs will feature live music and vocalists.
"This year, it's a pretty Wheeldon-heavy repertoire," the choreographer states, almost apologetically. As Morphoses gets on a more secure financial footing, he expects to commission many new works. He himself will continue to create elsewhere, although on a reduced basis. "It's been really important for my development as a choreographer, having the experience of working with different dancers. It's been fascinating to see how they respond to rehearsal processes, to new works and their artistic directors — and how directors deal with their dancers. It's been pretty eye-opening stuff. I feel I'm armed with some of the tools that are going to be necessary to take on those responsibilities.
"My focus will, of course, be more directed towards Morphoses, and I'll be creating what's needed for each season," Wheeldon says. "It's quite exciting to think of being able to focus my creative energy more in one place."
Susan Reiter writes frequently for Playbill.