There aren't many people in this world who have been brave enough to launch a ballet company that they can call their own. And none of this rare breed of impresarios was daring enough to envision a troupe that would have simultaneous homes on both sides of the Atlantic.
Yet, Christopher Wheeldon did exactly that when he inaugurated Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company in the autumn of 2007. From its outset, it was designed to split its time, personnel, creative energies, and powerbases between Sadler's Wells Theatre in London and New York City Center.
Sporting twenty of the best dancers around, all of them borrowed from the ranks of the world's finest companies, Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company has a repertory that features more than fifteen ballets including several world premieres choreographed by Wheeldon as well as other dance-makers. Already a major success in its home theaters, Morphoses is scheduled to be the first ballet company to perform in the new Dallas Center for the Performing Arts in October.
"I now have to be very strict with myself as far as time is concerned, and what commissions I can accept," says Wheeldon. "Now that I'm the director of my own company I have to think practically."
Even so, and as he happily admits, Wheeldon is most alive when he is working. He once notoriously said that he hated Sundays because he wasn't able to spend them in a dance studio. "For me, it's all about the process with the dancer. They don't realize it's not just me giving them a ballet: it's them giving me inspiration."
Since Morphoses is not yet a full-time operation Wheeldon finds himself continuing to work with other companies. In fact, he is undoubtedly today's most in-demand choreographer. Having already done a one-act work for the Bolshoi, Elsinore in 2007, he is now scheduled to create a ballet for the Mariinsky (Kirov) this summer. Next season there will be a new full-length work for The Royal Ballet: its first evening-length creation since Twyla Tharp's Mr. Worldly Wise back in 1995. It will be based on Alice in Wonderland and have a commissioned score from British composer Joby Talbot, who wrote the music for the Morphoses company's first major success Fools' Paradise.
Originally from Yeovil, a town in southwestern England, Wheeldon, now 36, began his performing career in London with The Royal Ballet. When he was 19, and had been dancing with the company for just two seasons, he was one of several hundred prize-winners in a newspaper contest that offered free round-trip airline tickets to Manhattan.
While he was there he asked if he could take part in a daily class at New York City Ballet. Out of the blue, Artistic Director Peter Martins invited Wheeldon to join that company. Wheeldon leapt at the chance. That was in 1993. By 2000, when he chose to abandon performing in favor of full-time choreographing, he had already created several successful ballets in New York, London and elsewhere. In 2001, Martins named Wheeldon City Ballet's resident choreographer, a position that had been devised just for him.
Carousel (A Dance) occupies a unique spot in Wheeldon's output. It was created in 2002 for a New York City Ballet gala performance that celebrated the centennial of composer Richard Rodgers. He admits he never expected its life to extend beyond that single evening at Lincoln Center. "I suppose its length is a little bit of a hindrance," he says. Just twelve minutes long, it is a rich distillation of the love story that is at the heart of this 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
At the time, Wheeldon had just had his first run-in with Broadway via the unsuccessful Marvin (A Chorus Line) Hamlish musical Sweet Smell of Success. Earlier, he had also provided the choreography for what quickly became a cult film, the ballet-school saga Center Stage (2000). Then in 2005 he choreographed Gershwin's An American in Paris for City Ballet. Added together, they illustrate that there is a true showman's streak to his creativity.
When he's asked if he'd like to do another Broadway musical Wheeldon's response is "Are you kidding! There's nothing like that Broadway intoxication. But it's a brutal world. Other shows, other opportunities have come up, but the timing has always been a big problem."
Stanton Welch specifically requested Carousel (A Dance) for Houston Ballet. The company already performs Wheeldon's frolicking Carnival of the Animals. "That," he laughs, "is about as light, bright and fun as I get. Houston has the right kind of wit and understanding to dance it. They're very good storytellers: very sensitive to characters and atmosphere: that's one of the reasons why I think they will do Carousel (A Dance) very, very well."
Of An Era includes Christopher Wheeldon's Carousel (A Dance), Nacho Duato's Jard‹ Tancat and Stanton Welch's Nosotros.
For tickets and info visit Houston Ballet.
Allen Robertson is the dance editor for Time Out London and co-edits the British Quarterly, Dance Now.