On the cusp of his career as a professional ballet dancer, Christopher Wheeldon scored a cheap ticket to New York City that came with the purchase of a Hoover vacuum cleaner. He headed straight for the New York City Ballet. He explains,
”I walked into Peter Martins’s office with a videotape and said, ‘And by the way, I also choreograph.’ ”
He was 20 years old at the time.
His journey to Peter Martin’s desk reads like the script outline for Billy Elliot, beginning when he found himself (at age 8) inspired to take ballet after watching a televised excerpt from Frederick Ashton’s LA FILLE MAL GARDEE. He began lessons at the East Coker Ballet School in Somerset, England.
At age 11 his teacher recommended that he audition for the Royal Ballet School. He was accepted as a “junior associate,” and the next two years his parents took the 4 hour round trip to London for his classes. At 10 he was invited to join the White Lodge, the Royal Ballet’s full time lower school, a welcome relief from the private school where a ballet-dancing boy was an object of ridicule that sometimes escalated to bullying.
From the beginning of his dance training he expressed an interest in choreography.
When still a junior associate, he conjured up a prologue to Swan Lake with chicks hatching out of eggs. He regularly entered the school’s junior and senior choreography competitions. Princess Margaret attended a showing of his ballet about a businessman’s day, set to Leroy Anderson’s ”Syncopated Clock.” Mr. Wheeldon noted, ”It was never just a question of putting steps together.”
The Ursula Moreton Choreographic Award at the school brought him further notice, especially from Kenneth MacMillan, whose ballets often reflected the grim side of life. Mr. Wheeldon won the prize with ”Boxes,” a piece about the homeless set to Britten. Then he choreographed a piece about wife beating, to Chopin and Britten.
“Here I grew up with loving parents and was choreographing these works,” he said. ”I shudder, but I was very influenced by Kenneth and found his work very penetrating.”
Later, Wheeldon had the opportunity to take formal choreographic classes under David Drew and Richard Morrice.
”Norman was the closest I had to any type of mentor,” he said. ”Without his encouragement, I don’t know that I would have gone on to be a choreographer. He was gentle but pushed me musically. When I did a piece with a ‘Beetlejuice’ soundtrack, he said, ‘The movement is interesting, considering there’s no music.’ He encouraged collaborations with artists from the St. Martin’s School of Art. He was pushing for a complete theatrical experience. I remain loyal to that.”
At the same time, Mr. Wheeldon said that when he danced Balanchine’s Valse Fantaisie at his graduation performance, he first experienced what he called ”the liberating feeling of devouring space.” The chance to experience more of Balanchine’s distinctive style led him to the New York City Ballet. ”But over the years,” he said, ”I find myself longing for the richness of the ballets I grew up with, especially MacMillan’s.”
After he joined the Royal Ballet corps under Anthony Dowell in 1991, MacMillan went out of his way to praise Mr. Wheeldon’s Celestial Spaces, a work he created to Brahms for the Royal Ballet Choreographic Group. Mr. Wheeldon recalled:
”He told me: ‘You must take every opportunity to develop your craft. I saw such great potential.’ Three weeks later, he died backstage while I was performing in his ballet Mayerling. ”
At New York City Ballet he rose to the rank of soloist, but he was already eyeing opportunities to choreograph. Peter Martins invited him to choreograph for the School of American Ballet. After he had created several pieces, he realized he could not be both a dancer and a choreographer.
”Peter started me off gently, and I am grateful for that,” he said. ”I thought I was ready to choreograph for the big stage and the company, not just workshops with students. But he was giving me a chance to develop while I was going off and making my mistakes at the Royal Opera House and in other companies.”
Although he still used students in ”Scènes de Ballet,” his 1999 Stravinsky work, it was performed at the New York State Theater. The piece was a witty gloss on classroom ballets and was the dazzling success that sealed Mr. Wheeldon’s reputation.
Since then he has gone on to choreograph for major ballet companies all over the world, briefly founding his own company and scoring two “all Wheeldon” programs, at Pacific NW Ballet and at New York City Ballet in the last 12 months in addition to creating the Royal Ballet’s blockbuster Alice in Wonderland.
Check out an interview with Wheeldon featuring some great excerpts from his past work, here:
You can enjoy one of Christopher Wheeldon’s 2003 works, Liturgy, at Oregon Ballet Theatre’s spring program, Chromatic Quartet.
Details for this post excerpted in part from The New York Times article A Whirlwind Of Daring, Of Dances And Ideas By ANNA KISSELGOFF