The Nightingale and the Rose

Classic Arts Features   The Nightingale and the Rose
Christopher Wheeldon and Bright Sheng, both in residency at New York City Ballet, collaborate on a ballet - premiering June 8 at Lincoln Center - inspired by Oscar Wilde's bittersweet fable.

Oscar Wilde was a complete man of letters. Along with his eight plays (nine if you count both the original French and the subsequent English versions of Salome), he turned out novels, essays, lectures, poems, and tales, leaving scandals and witty apothegms in his wake. But he loved theater best. "I regard the theater as the greatest of all art forms," he wrote, "the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being."

And now the New York State Theater will have its own Wildean drama. Christopher Wheeldon has choreographed The Nightingale and the Rose, a short tale by Wilde published in 1888 as part of 'The Happy Prince' and Other Stories. Featuring a commissioned score by Bright Sheng, The Nightingale and the Rose will have its world premiere on June 8.

The story revolves around the loving sacrifice made by a wise yet perhaps too selfless songbird, and embodies classic Wildean paradoxes: the tale is simple yet lush, spare yet deeply moving. Unlike other balletic birds like the Firebird and Odette, who are pursued by smitten princes, this Nightingale is fascinated by a callow Student, who in turn fancies a young woman who barely knows he's alive.

"I think that I first read Wilde's tales in high school," says Mr. Wheeldon, "and they struck me as very bittersweet. They are fairy tales in that they have talking animals and statues that think and so on, but they are also almost autobiographical in nature. Many of the themes and situations that Oscar Wilde went through in his own life are echoed in the stories. 'The Nightingale and the Rose' is tragic and touching, yes, but also uplifting, because the Nightingale dies for something she believes in. It's a beautiful thing that she sacrifices herself for her true love."

The Nightingale and the Rose will be the 15th ballet that Mr. Wheeldon has choreographed for NYCB since 1997 — an extraordinary number by any measure. He joined the Company as a member of the corps de ballet in 1993, having trained in his native England with The Royal Ballet School and danced with The Royal Ballet. He retired from the stage in 2000 to focus on dance-making and was named NYCB's first Artist in Residence that year and first Resident Choreographer in 2001. (His residency concludes in 2008.)

Mr. Wheeldon's dances for NYCB range from the splashy Scènes de Ballet, with scads of charming young dancers, to austere, brooding works with music by contemporary composers such as György Ligeti and Arvo Pärt. And he has somehow found time to choreograph well-received works for Boston Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, The Royal Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, and other companies.

In rehearsal for The Nightingale and the Rose, Mr. Wheeldon is calm, direct, and often very funny. He's highly organized, but open to inspired improvisation and happy accidents. Working with Principal Dancer Wendy Whelan, who will perform the role of the Nightingale at the premiere, he suggests the minute adjustments — the merest lift of an elbow, the slightest tilt of the neck — that suddenly make the dancer gleam with avian glamour. After a while, you believe in a world in which a woman can be a bird, an arm can be a piercing thorn, and a red scarf can be a streak of blood.

Many of the ballet's images come from "experimenting with Wendy," Mr. Wheeldon explains. "We'll start with conventional port de bras, then break it down, figure out ways to create shapes to suggest a beak or the double-jointedness of a bird's leg. We're not going to have Wendy doing regular ballet steps, dressed like a bird — that wouldn't be very interesting. What's been fun is finding steps that imply a bird, without being overly literal."

The costumes, designed by Martin Pakledinaz, are also not literal. "What distinguishes a nightingale is its voice," Mr. Wheeldon adds. "Other than that, it's a very plain, brown bird. Not exotic in any way. Unfortunately, that doesn't make it very theatrical. My Nightingale is a bit more exotic: she's part nightingale, part hummingbird, part of a bunch of different birds."

The Nightingale and the Rose represents something of a milestone for New York City Ballet. The Company has long cultivated informal associations between composers and choreographers, among them Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins, John Adams and Peter Martins, and, supremely, Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine. But now the composer-choreographer relationship has been formalized: Mr. Wheeldon is the Company's first Resident Choreographer, Mr. Sheng is its first Composer in Residence, and The Nightingale and the Rose is their collaboration.

Mr. Sheng found inspiration in Wilde's tale. "The story is very dramatic — a children's story for adults," he says. "I found its tragic fantasy to be appealing. I think I've discovered a musical language for the piece. I've used a little bit of Turkish music, and there are some exotic elements. And I suppose some of my Chinese-ness has seeped into the score."

Mr. Sheng is a MacArthur "genius grant" recipient whose adventurous, visceral scores have been performed and commissioned by major orchestras and opera companies. He was born in Shanghai, but left China in 1982, after the Cultural Revolution. He moved to New York and continued his musical studies with such composition teachers as Leonard Bernstein and George Perle. Mr. Sheng's works are noted for melodies inspired by the folk music of China, a Bartókian sense of propulsion, and musical and theatrical gestures derived from Chinese opera. "My music has two sides: one is rhythmic; the other side is kind of very lyrical," he says. "So I hope that will work with ballet. This is a new experience for me: I have written dance music in my operas, but this is my first time writing especially for ballet."

Mr. Wheeldon confesses to taking artistic license with the story now and then. In the Wilde tale, the Nightingale overhears the Student lamenting that he can't find a red rose for the girl he loves. In the ballet, the Student captures the Nightingale and tells her his plight. "I wanted there to be an interaction between the Nightingale and the Student. Otherwise," Mr. Wheeldon says with a laugh, "the ballet wouldn't have a pas de deux."

"What makes this tale suited for dance is that it is a very vivid, simple story," Mr. Wheeldon says. "It can be conveyed through simple storytelling means rather than relying on massive set changes or a big costume drama. This piece falls somewhere between my abstract work and more literal storytelling. It's the essence of the story that we're going for."

Robert Sandla writes frequently about the arts.

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