Reflecting On Wheeldon

Classic Arts Features   Reflecting On Wheeldon
 
This winter (debuting Jan. 28) New York City Ballet will present its first-ever all Christopher Wheeldon program, featuring three works by the British-born choreographer and former NYCB soloist and Resident Choreographer.

The program will debut on January 28 on NYCB's annual New Combinations Evening and will consist of a world premiere ballet (Wheeldon's 18th for the Company), the NYCB premiere of DGV: Danse _ Grande Vitesse, and Polyphonia. On the occasion of this All Wheeldon evening, we asked Wendy Whelan, NYCB principal and longtime Wheeldon friend and muse, for her perspective on Wheeldon and their many collaborations over the years.


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This winter New York City Ballet will present its first-ever all Christopher Wheeldon program, featuring three works by the British-born choreographer and former NYCB soloist and Resident Choreographer. The program will debut on January 28 on NYCB's annual New Combinations Evening and will consist of a world premiere ballet (Wheeldon's 18th for the Company), the NYCB premiere of DGV: Danse _ Grande Vitesse, and Polyphonia. On the occasion of this All Wheeldon evening, we asked Wendy Whelan, NYCB principal and longtime Wheeldon friend and muse, for her perspective on Wheeldon and their many collaborations over the years.

I met Christopher Wheeldon 20 years ago, on the day he first came to take Company class with New York City Ballet. At that time he was a young dancer with The Royal Ballet, and it was his first visit to the U.S. It was clear to all of us in class that Chris was a strong and natural dancer. None of us were surprised when he was offered a contract.

Luckily for us, and for the rest of the dance world, Chris accepted. He spent the next seven years immersing himself in the many works of Balanchine and Robbins. Jerry Robbins took an immediate liking to Chris, and cast us together in a few of his ballets, notably Dances at a Gathering and The Goldberg Variations. Over those years, Chris and I spent a lot of time together in the studio with Jerry, not only absorbing his style, but also finding our own ways into the heart of his work.

One day I found Chris sitting in the wings after a stage rehearsal, all rosy-cheeked and deep in thought. He was drawing little pictures in a notebook and writing down ideas. I asked him teasingly what he was up to. He told me that he was interested in choreography and that he hoped to get the chance to make some work of his own one day. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I didn't put much stock in his dream, though I found it endearing that he wanted to grow up to be a choreographer one day.

Soon after, I found myself watching Chris from the sidelines as he started to make work for students at the School of American Ballet and then for NYCB. These first efforts proved remarkable, and he immediately seemed to find a new comfort zone at the front of a rehearsal room directing dancers. In 2000, at the ripe old age of 27, the call to choreograph became so strong that he retired from dancing altogether. The following year, I was called to a rehearsal with [former NYCB Principal] Jock Soto, for a new piece Chris was working on to the piano music of Gy‹rgy Ligeti. The music he played for us was dark, hypnotic, and complex, with an underlying hint of danger. I sensed right away that Chris wanted to challenge himself (and us) by combining Ligeti's fiendishly difficult music with the intense and quirky partnership that Jock and I had been cultivating.

This new piece became known as Polyphonia, and it seemed to pour out of Chris in no time at all. The work came together like the perfect unlocking of a Rubik's Cube, and it seemed to open up new levels in all of us as artists. With this ballet, I felt at once focused and charged with energy. I had found my choreographer, one who got me and knew how to shape my uniqueness into beauty. He gave me the space to dig into and play with my imagination and allowed me to blend my essence into the work. Since then, I've been an original cast member in 10 of his ballets and have cherished each opportunity to explore and create with him in the studio.

I think it was a surprise to us that we clicked so well in the studio. It was a special time for us, when we started making ballets together. Chris was a budding talent of a dance maker, and I was an established principal dancer eager and ready to tap into an uncharted side of myself. We were ripe for this new dynamic, and we were playfully collaborative. Chris began opening me up with his work, allowing me to make choices and add color to the direction he was giving me. It was incredibly empowering to experience that kind of artistic process.

He went on to create Liturgy and After the Rain for Jock and me. Liturgy, like Polyphonia, came together very fast; it was made in less than a week. It was the first time I'd been introduced to the hauntingly beautiful music of Arvo P‹rt. Chris let Jock and me decide which of the many versions of P‹rt's Fratres we wanted to dance to. We chose the solo violin and orchestra version. The piece is very close to my heart, as it was the first time anyone had ever choreographed a stand-alone pas de deux just for me, an incredible honor for any ballerina.

After the Rain was created in 2005, a few months before Jock was set to retire from dancing. It was a very emotional time for Chris because he knew it would be the last time he would ever choreograph on the partnership Jock and I shared. It was the first time I'd ever seen Chris visibly upset in the studio. For the pas de deux, he tried a few different ideas, but each idea he ultimately scratched. We tried different music. We tried pointe shoes. None of that seemed to work. He eventually chose to strip everything away, have us dance barefoot, wearing simple, almost naked costumes. Two days before the premiere Chris' mother made the decision that I should wear my hair down.

The pas de deux came together in bits and pieces, and it was only when we began run-throughs that the piece remotely began to reveal itself to me. The poetry began flowing from the steps into my body, blossoming in my mind and flowering in my heart. I don't think I've ever experienced anything comparable to dancing After the Rain. It's a true love letter.

Chris and I have come a long way in the past 20 years, and the distance I have traveled in my career has been, in part, due to the extraordinary work he has made for me. I can honestly say that on a certain level, not much has changed. He still feels like my little brother. His curiosity and eagerness to explore have only blossomed over time. He still has the same ruddy-cheeked enthusiasm and wideeyed playfulness as the day I first met him. Only now this playfulness is balanced with the serious wisdom and sturdy confidence of the world-class choreographer that he has become.

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