Christopher Wheeldon can't seem to stop working. At this point in his career it would be easy for the choreographer to fall back on his reputation and churn out ballet after ballet as he travels around the world. But Wheeldon, Artistic Director of Morphoses, is not the type of man to rest on his talents; he constantly aims to expand them.
"I am feeling much better about taking risks now," Wheeldon says. On the verge of his company's third annual season at New York City Center, he's scanning the globe in order to cull a roster of dancers from places as diverse as The Australian Ballet and Los Angeles Ballet, as well as an unlikely group of scenic and musical collaborators.
Since the beginning of his career, Wheeldon has often crossed boundaries to explore his potential. With work for ballet companies, in films, on Broadway, and at the opera, he has established him- self as one of the most diverse and in-demand choreographers of his generation.
With that respect comes the ability to step outside the box. In addition to a new piece he's choreographing for the company's upcoming season, Wheeldon has followed through on his desire to be a little risky: he has commissioned a young Australian choreographer, Tim Harbour, based solely on the power of the work he's seen on video.
"He has never worked in America," Wheeldon says of Harbour. "He has a great sense of humor and he's very musical. I'm excited [that] he is using classical ballet vocabulary and not ditching it as so many younger choreographers do these days."
Wheeldon himself has always planted his choreography firmly in the neo-classical style he absorbed during his time dancing as a soloist with New York City Ballet. It was there that he first met Principal Dancer Wendy Whelan in 1993, and although they've known each other for over fifteen years, their relationship is one that, just like Morphoses, continues to evolve through collaboration.
"We have a serious studio connection," Whelan notes of her time as a guest artist with the company. "And we're developing more of a brother/ sister connection where we can really be ourselves with each other."
This comfort is something Wheeldon has worked hard to establish between all of the members of Morphoses.
"It's like the Brady Bunch, where everybody just seriously gets along," Whelan says, sharing the fact that when on tour the company members often spend the evening cooking dinner for one another, even after rehearsing side-by-side all day.
Wheeldon hopes this same sense of connection flows over into the company's relationship with its audience. And while the dancers aren't cooking meals for a 1,500-seat theater, they're doing everything in their power to make sure ballet isn't viewed as an elitist art form.
"This year we're doing a lot of things with people outside of the ballet world," Wheeldon says of his efforts to expose audiences to something they haven't seen before.
For his own piece of new choreography, set to Rachmaninoff's Suites for Two Pianos, he has lined up a convergence of unlikely collaborators from around the globe: Francisco Costa, women's creative designer for Calvin Klein, to design the costumes, and the Havana-based artists Los Carpinteros to design the set.
"We're giving [the scenic designers] a very minimal budget and asking them to create a site-specific design using materials they find in the theater and backstage, which will result in an ever-changing environment," Wheel- don says. "It will be based entirely on their inspiration from watching rehearsals and then what they find in the theater."
However, throughout the past three years of running a company, Wheeldon has learned that success and risk don't always go hand in hand.
"You just have to put your trust in what [your designers] are going to do," he admits. "And also in the sense that what they do may be very different. If nothing else it will prompt some decent conversations about design for dance and how visual artists can contribute."
The Morphoses dancers are equally hungry to step outside of their com- fort zones, a feeling that is undoubtedly passed down from their director.
"Constantly exploring with new artists is something that has fed me from the start [of my career]," Whelan says of both her continuing work as a Principal Dancer with New York City Ballet and as a guest artist with Morphoses."I have always responded to that challenge and Chris enables that."
"It's wonderful having this fresh perspective when everyone comes in at the beginning of the season," Wheeldon says of his dancers' eagerness. And although he is forced to constantly adapt to a changing group of performers depending on who is available each season, he doesn't mind having to put in the extra work to re-stage certain ballets or get to know new personalities.
"I'm not happy when I'm not working," he says. "I get bored very easily."
Fortunately for ballet fans, his calendar is filled. There's a full-length version of Alice in Wonderland with The Royal Ballet in the near future, but for now he is focused wholly on Morphoses and the effort to fulfill the company's mission of bringing ballet to a new audience. How exactly that will evolve is still unknown, but that's the challenge that makes Wheeldon enticed by the unexpected.
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Matthew Murphy is a writer and photographer based in New York City. Visit rantingdetails.com for more info.