Every once in a while, a dancer and a choreographer just hit it off. A creative spark occurs that can turn into years of inspired partnership.

Christopher Wheeldon describes it like this:

“There are times in your life,” says Wheeldon, “when you find dancers who speak your language. They start to turn your language into song and then sing it in harmony.”

For Oregon Ballet Theatre principal dancer Alison Roper, Christopher Wheeldon will always be one of those choreographers who made her sing. We took a few moments to chat with her about the experience of working with Wheeldon and what she is looking forward to most about Liturgy, the 2003 Wheeldon work that will be featured in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s spring program, Chromatic Quartet.

What was your first experience working on a Wheeldon work? What did you like about his style or approach?

The first work I did was Christopher Wheeldon’s “There Where She Loved”.  We performed that in, I believe, 2004 Spring.  It was the end of Christopher Stowell’s first year at the company.

He came and watched us take class.  I didn’t even speak with him– but he cast me to do the final, dramatic duet in that piece, “Je Ne t’aime Pas” which Brett Bauer and I will also be performing this June in Dance United.  I loved dancing this pas de deux and spent almost a month after the show closed reliving the performance highlights in my mind.  I’ve been watching that video a lot  of late since Christopher Stowell has been resetting that pas and I am remembering again how wonderful and compelling it was to begin to dance some of these complex, contemporary pieces that Christopher Stowell was bringing to our repertoire at that time.

When did you first meet Wheeldon? What was your impression of him at the time? How has that evolved as your relationship has developed?

I first met and spoke with Christopher Wheeldon after a performance day in which I had danced Yuri Possikov’s Firebird and Christopher Stowell’s Third Act: Sleeping Beauty.  He met me in the hallway in the backstage area at the Keller Auditorium and was complimentary about my work.  I was a little awestruck to be meeting him.  But I was very happy after my shows that day which isn’t usually the case for me so I was really pleased that Wheeldon had seen those particular shows.

Soon after Christopher Stowell told me that Wheeldon wanted me to come dance with his company.

Tell us about being invited to perform with Morphoses [Christopher Wheeldon’s touring company that featured visiting guest dancers from around the world]? What was that like?

Dancing with his company was one of the great highlights of my career.  I found the other dancers a continual, daily inspiration, the ballet masters and mistress that we worked with were incredibly intuitive and clear and of course, actually working in the studio with Wheeldon and getting day to day feedback from him was really special.  I was very sorry when he left Morphoses because my experience with them had been so wonderful in every way.  But now I am tremendously grateful to be adding yet another Wheeldon piece to my life, his Liturgy, which was created for [NY City Ballet principal dancers] Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto.

Revisiting Wheeldon, a few years later, how do you see the work or the experience differently than your first time? How have you changed as an artist since then? From your perspective, how has he?

Revisiting “Je ne t’aime pas” has been very bittersweet for me.  As I said before, I loved dancing that part and I loved my previous partner.  I feel like I am a better partner than I used to be though–and that is helping immeasurably.  Things are smoother technically than they were before.  I don’t feel as scared of the partnering movements and lifts.

Before Christopher Stowell came to the company I didn’t partner frequently.  The men weren’t as tall as Artur Sultanov or Brett Bauer and they weren’t as strong like Ronnie Underwood.  The men in James Canfield’s company were great but I was still really tall and really strong and often I was knocking people over in the studio.  So James used me in the way that he knew I was most comfortable and the way I am still most comfortable–  dancing alone.  Corps work has always been stressful for me since I am so much taller than many female dancers.  I always stood out–not in the good ways.  So before Christopher Stowell came, I had worked alone onstage and really loved that sense of being in control of myself and the outcome of the performance.  It was hard for me to understand that in working with a partner… you have to move together forward or you don’t do your best.  It took me a long time and many sensitive and understanding partners through the years to come to this realization.

I don’t feel that I know enough of Wheeldon’s choreography to really analyze how he has changed throughout his career.  I’ve always thought him pretty much a genius and I certainly haven’t changed my opinion!

You can see Alison Roper perform Christopher Wheeldon’s Liturgy during Oregon Ballet Theatre’s spring program, Chromatic Quartet, playing April 19th through the 28th at the Newmark Theatre.

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