Register Saturday | June 15 | 2019
Balanchine's Heir Apparent

Balanchine's Heir Apparent

A conversation with choreographer Christopher Wheeldon

New York City Ballet's Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto in
Christopher Wheeldon's

When asked if he wanted a memorial to his work, George Balanchine, the greatest ballet choreographer of the twentieth century, replied, “What’s wrong with Now?” Only the present mattered to him, the act of creation itself. Balanchine never placed much hope in his ballets surviving him. Yet in this year of the centennial of his birth, he is in fact memorialized both in the performances of his masterpieces worldwide and in the careers of those whom he influenced. Maisonneuve salutes Balanchine’s achievement not only by examining his long and productive career in our May issue (“How to Follow Mr. B?”) but also by taking stock of his legacy--the choreographers who have followed his lead, advancing ballet into the twenty-first century.

Perhaps the best example of that group working today is British-born Christopher Wheeldon, currently the resident choreographer of New York City Ballet, the company Balanchine founded and brought to international renown. Wheeldon, thirty-one, trained at the Royal Academy of Dance in London and joined its company, the Royal Ballet, in 1991. Two years later, curious to see New York City, Wheeldon took advantage of a promotional deal by Hoover: one free ticket to the Big Apple with the purchase of a vacuum cleaner. Besides gaining a new household appliance, the ambitious dancer (who had already begun to choreograph in England while a student) found himself a new home base at Balanchine’s company.

Although he eventually attained the rank of soloist with New York City Ballet (NYCB), Wheeldon retired from dancing in 2000 to concentrate on his choreographic career. Along with works for NYCB and the Royal Ballet, Wheeldon has also choreographed for the San Francisco Ballet, Boston Ballet, Colorado Ballet and George Piper Dances. His ballets, which have won accolades from critics and audiences alike, range from plotless, neoclassical works like Polyphonia and Continuum to full-length narrative works like The Firebird and A Midsummer’s Night Dream. And, like Balanchine himself, Wheeldon has moved beyond the ballet world to choreograph for Broadway (The Sweet Smell of Success) and Hollywood (Center Stage). At present, the busy choreographer is working with actor John Lithgow on a movie adaptation of their acclaimed version of Carnival of the Animals as well as completing a new Swan Lake for the Pennsylvania Ballet.

This May, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal is performing Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia along with George Balanchine’s Episodes and Helgi Tomasson’s Prism as a part of the company’s centennial tribute to Balanchine. In honour of the event, Maisonneuve spoke with Wheeldon about his career and Balanchine’s legacy and influence.

You trained and danced with the Royal Ballet. What drew you to New York City Ballet?

For my graduation performance I danced Valse Fantaisie, which was really my first exposure to Balanchine. It was an exciting experience for me because I had grown up watching the Ashton and MacMillan repertoire. I had never really been exposed to Balanchine because the Royal Ballet at that stage wasn’t dancing very much of his work. To have a ballet mistress come out from America and coach us in this piece made me feel, as a dancer, liberated. I was just eating up the stage with movement and allowed to dance without too much affectation. It felt wonderful, especially for an eighteen-year-old who had been studying ten years by that point at the Royal Ballet School with its very rigid, academic training (the Vaganova method from the Kirov). So, suddenly to be asked to really devour space both in the studio and on the stage was a fantastic feeling. That was one of the things that interested me in going to New York and seeing the New York City Ballet. When I got my free ticket from Hoover, I had no intention of joining City Ballet; it was just a way to get to New York and see the company.

Another reason I went to NYCB was because I wanted to work with Jerome Robbins. I was lucky enough to work once with Kenneth MacMillan, but then he passed away while I was in the company [the Royal Ballet]. I felt at that point that Robbins was the only living choreographer of his generation who was still making ballets. As a dancer, I really wanted to work with such a choreographer.

Is there anything specific at NYCB that appeals to male dancers? Balanchine famously said, “Ballet is Woman,” but great male dancers--from Martins, Tomasson and Baryshinkov to others like yourself--have all sought out Balanchine’s company. Why?

For me, just starting out as a dancer in the corps de ballet, what lured me to NYCB was the fact that the corps really got to dance a lot. At that point I wasn’t focusing on the principal roles, although Balanchine created wonderful roles for men. Yes, he is famous for saying “Ballet is Woman,” and we all know he was quite obsessed with the ballerinas in his company--he loved women--but he also created wonderful roles for men, like the Prodigal Son and Apollo. These are all very attractive roles for dancers, and they offer possibilities to a male dancer to create a role without getting too bogged down in the dramatics, actually finding ways for the movement itself to communicate. That is very appealing. But like I said, I was really drawn because rather than skipping around a maypole nightly like in La fille mal gardée [at the Royal], suddenly I was out there in the corps of Allegro Brillante and [other] wonderful ballets that just enabled me to dance and enjoy that feeling.

Was it difficult for you to make the transition from the Royal Ballet style and technique to that of Balanchine’s?

It was six months of sheer hell because it was difficult for me to get my legs and feet around the movement, which is very speedy, and a very, very different way of training. Right from the beginning of the day, [the NYCB company] class has a very different focus [than the Royal’s], on a lot of attack and speed.

Did dancing Balanchine’s ballets teach you anything important about choreography?

Of course. Dancing in Balanchine’s ballets is the best way of studying them. You then really understand those quotes that you hear, like “see the music.” And it is really true when you’re in them and up on stage: there are times when you are able to watch what is unfolding in front of you. I particularly remember a moment in Symphony in Three Movements . . . At the end, when we stand up towards the back of the stage and look out into the black void of the auditorium, you can see very clearly the multi-layering of the musicality in the choreography. There was a group of dancers in front of me, and another group in front of them: because of the extreme lighting, you can very much see them [and the choreography] stand out in relief against the black. Things like that were fantastic for an emerging choreographer to soak up.

And then there is just the sheer number of ballets that the NYCB performs. When you’re not dancing, you can be out front just watching. It’s total immersion.

Which of Balanchine’s works have affected you the most, whether as a dancer or an audience member?

A long list of favourite ballets! A lot of people say that Balanchine wasn’t a skilled storyteller, maybe not in the sense that Ashton and MacMillan were, but I still don’t think that there is a better story ballet than The Prodigal Son. There’s not a moment of mime in the ballet, yet you are always very aware of the fact that the story is going on. The momentum of the movement, of the choreography, never stops. And the purely abstract, black and white ballets like Agon or Stravinsky Violin Concerto, ballets where as an audience you are offered an opportunity to sit back and imagine your own story--something that has affected me enormously as a choreographer--that has given me the confidence to let the choreography, the dance, just happen, as opposed to really planning them out. It is very true what Balanchine said: when you put a man and woman onstage, what more do you need? I think that creating movement and a relationship between two people is enough, and you allow the audience to interpret it for themselves. It creates a thinking audience as opposed to having everything spelled out for them.

How does it feel to be the resident choreographer of NYCB?

It’s nice to have a title, to have a place . . . I am more than anything grateful to have the opportunity to work, to make ballets, to have the freedom to travel and work with other companies . . . The only way an artist can grow is by experiencing other things, other ways of working . . .

Some critics have complained about Peter Martins’ directorship of NYCB and the Diamond Project [a festival of new choreography launched by Martins] with its new ballets for the company. Do you think these are accurate criticisms? What do you think the naysayers are missing?

They’re blind to the fact that it isn’t always necessarily about being a production line, always churning out ballet after ballet; that’s not the way it works. It’s about the choreographic opportunities that aspiring choreographers are given in that forum. It’s about the dancers having the fantastic experience of working with someone who is creating specifically on them, which is an amazingly enriching experience for a dancer. There is nothing more exciting than being created upon--having a role tailored to their capabilities--or being extended or pushed into a new direction. I think it is unfortunate that there haven’t been that many [critically successful] ballets . . . it’s not as if the repertoire has been entirely rebuilt by the Diamond Project, but I don’t think there is another company in the world that has that large of a choreographic festival. Maybe the critics don’t like the choice in choreographers, and that comes into play; [but] that is Peter’s responsibility, his choice, his taste, and while he has this position [as artistic director], he is going to make those decisions, obviously. I think it is a shame that Peter has been so criticized because I think it is a wonderful project, and certainly one of the most exciting times to be around City Ballet because of all the creativity going on. I know that the dancers really feed off that.

I don’t really understand how they [Martins’ critics] expect new ballets to be created unless there is this kind of project. Is City Ballet to do nothing at all? I hear people say it’s a waste of money. Should that money go into yet another revival of a Balanchine ballet? Fine, if what they really want is the NYCB to become a Balanchine museum, which in a sense it is very much in danger of becoming without that kind of project. Obviously it’s not all that bad, because Les Grands [Ballets Canadiens de Montréal] is doing two ballets [Wheeldon’s Polyphonia and Helgi Tomasson’s Prism] that have come out of the project. It’s not as if all these ballets are going into the bin.

It’s interesting to put Polyphonia and Prism together because they are two very different perspectives, and it’s very clear, looking at both, that we’ve been influenced by Balanchine. I think in Prism it’s clearer that Helgi worked firsthand with Balanchine and has managed successfully to take the knowledge he acquired working with Mr. B to create a work that, very clearly and with great detail, refers back to the musicality and classicism of Balanchine. Yet the ballet is very much Helgi’s. Whereas the inspiration for Polyphonia stems much more from an idea of Balanchine because of course I never worked with him . . . Sometimes I feel grateful for not having met or worked with Balanchine because his influence was so great and he really did have the Midas touch . . . That is a pretty heavy burden to carry with you when you have to move beyond that.

You’ve done a range of ballets, from narrative full-length to shorter abstract ballets. Which do you prefer?

I’ll work on an abstract work, and then on my next commission I’ll try to move more into the narrative world. What is exciting to me is finding a balance between the two: telling stories or suggesting a theme or an idea that is literal and spelling it out for the audience, or creating a mood and atmosphere and working within an abstract form. I like to push myself in different directions.

I’m quite anxious at this stage not to get too comfortable in any particular style, which I suppose has led to a little bit of criticism that I don’t really know who I am or what I am doing. I know quite clearly who I am and what I am doing! I like to take a step into the unknown and move into another direction.

You have choreographed for Broadway. Any plans to do so again?

Broadway is an interesting experience. It’s wonderful and fulfilling, but totally draining. Six months of my life were kind of sucked away from me; at the same time, it was a wonderful immersion experience. But I have to really feel it’s going to be a show that offers me a lot of opportunities choreographically before I commit to it.

So much ink has been spilled about the dearth of exciting classical choreography; at the same time, critics have really embraced you as being the new Balanchine, the new fill-the-blank. How do you handle the pressure of being classical ballet’s “saviour”?

I feel like the general tone is, “He’ll do for now.” I think it is human nature to pigeonhole people and wrap them in a neat little package, and at the moment there is a little bit of a lull, particularly in ballet choreography, because there aren’t really that many people doing it anymore. A lot of the contemporary work that is going into ballet companies’ reps now are from modern dance choreographers, who don’t necessarily enjoy choreographing for the pointe shoe. So I suppose, being philosophical about it, it’s to my advantage that there isn’t much competition. But by the same token, as long as people are asking for ballets, I’m going to do them, because that’s what I really love to do. I’m not trying to step into somebody’s shoes. I try not to think too much about the labels that go with the job because I think I would seize up with fear if I thought too much about it.

At this point, it’s a great ego boost to have people say, “Wonderful, wonderful,” but I know with the smooth comes the rough, that at any time things could turn horribly wrong. I just want to be at a stable enough place to accept that as well. It’s a little bit like being able to read a really bad review and a good review and treat them equally and not give too much importance to either. Or not read them at all. You know, that’s what Helgi does. He doesn’t read his reviews!

Where are we now with contemporary ballet? Is classicism still relevant in this postmodern age?

This is my personal opinion, of course, but I guess modern dance and a lot of contemporary ballet feels a little soulless, a little cold. It’s been stripped down so much to this angry physicality that it almost feels as if the poetry is being drained out of dance. My aesthetic and goal is to create contemporary ballet that still moves and transports and inspires people. It’s fun to watch extreme physicality, and dancers today are incredibly gifted. I think part of the reason that a lot of choreographers tend towards the physical is because it’s sort of a vicious cycle. As choreographers demand more of a physical presence, and less of an artistic presence, dancers are growing up without the knowledge of how to be characters; they aren’t required to transport an audience anymore. It’s much more about how many turns they can do, how high they can jump, how high they can get their leg. I just think that a well-rounded artist is kind of rare these days.

Having said all that, I suppose classical ballet for me is so relevant because you can go and still get caught up in the performance and feel like you are responding to something on the human level rather than going to the movies where you’re being moved by something that’s not there, something that is far more cosmetic, or sitting at home and surfing the Internet, which in the end will probably be the downfall of all the performing arts!

What would you like people to know about Polyphonia?

The music of György Ligeti is very grotestque and atonal, yet there is something quite touching and beautiful. I suppose that my aim with Polyphonia was to go into that and accentuate the strong physical presence in dance today, but then infuse it with a little bit of poetry, a little bit of tenderness, a little bit of human connection.

Look for Kena Herod’s conversation with San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson at soon as a Web Exclusive.

“Pureté Balanchine,” presented by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, runs May 20-22, 27 and 29 at Place des Arts’ Théâtre Maisonneuve in Montreal.