Morphoses: The Wheeldon Company

Classic Arts Features   Morphoses: The Wheeldon Company
By the time all 18 Morphoses dancers took the stage for their second annual New York City Center season in early October, they had perfected a skill their artistic director, Christopher Wheeldon, excels at: juggling.

During the past year Wheeldon has not only toured Morphoses around the world, but has done it while maintaining a full schedule of choreographic commissions for other companies. In spite of it all, Wheeldon thrives. He maintains his poised sense of humor, and his company members follow suit. Together, they create breathtaking work in mere weeks of rehearsal.

Most of the dancers this year : a mix of new and returning faces, including New York City Ballet's Maria Kowrowski, Teresa Reichlen, and Gonzalo Garcia : were performing with Morphoses during their few weeks off from year-round jobs at companies as diverse as The Royal Ballet and Norwegian National Ballet. Those from New York City Ballet, where Wheeldon started his choreographic career over ten years ago, were engaged with that company in Paris until days before Morphoses started its 5-day City Center season.

Collaboration in the studio is one of the key elements that makes Morphoses "never truly feel like work," notes dancer and choreographer Edwaard Liang. By selecting repertory that demonstrates both the breadth of Wheeldon's vision and the versatility of classical ballet vocabulary, he is able to attract an all-star roster of performers.

"It's eye opening to work closely with extremely accomplished artists from around the world," acknowledges New York City Ballet principal dancer Wendy Whelan. "A little change is always good. It's a more focused creative input than other companies; it's more of a conversation within the group."

"I am interested in dancers who are excited about a different experience than the one they get in a big company," Wheeldon notes. "What's been wonderful is the cross-pollination of ideas and styles; the dancers feed off that and it creates a great energy." Each has a particular way of approaching the technical demands of the rep, which includes ballets from choreographers such as George Balanchine, William Forsythe, and, of course, Wheeldon himself, who will create at least one new work each season.

Regardless of what it has to offer, Morphoses faces the challenge of how to survive in a less than thriving economy. While the company managed to come out of the first season with a financial surplus (an almost impossible feat for a new undertaking) Wheeldon still notes that finding money to take care of the "not particularly sexy" aspects, such as operational costs, is challenging.

The key to lasting financial and artistic success, Wheeldon feels, is being as transparent about the creative process as possible. In the barrage of press coverage that accompanied the company's debut last season, much was made of Wheeldon's responsibility to expand ballet's audience and attach a hipper image to the art form. So in addition to focusing on what happens onstage, he did what any forward thinking director would do: turned to technology.

By embracing the world of blogging, videos, and behind-the-scenes photography on the company's website, Wheeldon hopes to give the audience a peek into company life. It's an attempt to humanize a craft often viewed as elitist and abstract by the general public, which carries into the company's performances as well. Audiences in the theater encounter "process films," five-minute clips preceding the ballet that document the genesis of a particular work.

"I want [the audience] to have been taken on a it doesn't all feel like the same thing sort of stirring of the mind," he says. "And to also feel like they got to know a little bit about the dancers themselves, the process, and what goes into the performance."

No matter what the members of Morphoses are doing: choreographing, performing for two companies, exploring technology, or balancing dancing with schoolwork (as 15-year-old Beatriz Stix- Brunell does), it's clear that the challenges keep things energized.

The constraint of dancers' availability has prompted Wheeldon and team to think in unconventional ways that result in diverse programs. But they're still all about moving. Moving the dancers on stage. Moving the audience emotionally. And moving the company and the art form forward.

"We do have the goal to be set up as a full-time company by 2010," Wheeldon says. That way we can take a little more time with creation, and not work under such high pressure. But either way, we know we can put on a really fantastic performance."

When the result is worth the struggle, maybe juggling isn't such a bad skill for a dancer to pick up after all.

For more information and news, visit Morphoses: The Wheeldon Company

Matthew Murphy is a freelance writer and photographer living in New York City. He has his own blog:

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