Christopher Wheeldon (Choreography)|
Christopher Wheeldon (born 22 March 1973) is an English
international choreographer of contemporary ballet.
Born in Yeovil, Somerset,
to an engineer and a physical therapist, Wheeldon began training to be a ballet
dancer at the age of 8.
He attended the Royal Ballet School between the ages
of 11 and 18. In 1991, Wheeldon joined the Royal Ballet, London; and in that
same year, he won the Gold Medal at the Prix de Lausanne competition. In 1993,
at the age of 19, Wheeldon moved to New York City to join the New York City
Ballet. Wheeldon was named Soloist in 1998.
Wheeldon began choreographing
for the New York City Ballet in 1997, while continuing his career as a dancer.
He retired as a dancer in 2000 in order to focus on his
Called ballet's hottest choreographer in 2004,
Christopher Wheeldon has choreographed more than thirty ballets in five years.
His productions have almost always received high marks from critics, and ballet
companies across the country consider it an honor to work with the thirty two
year old. Wheeldon has been compared to ballet masters George Balanchine
(1904–1983) and Jerome Robbins (1918–1998) almost since he began choreographing.
And that comparison has never left him.
Born to dance
Christopher Wheeldon was born in Somerset, England. He began lessons at the
East Coker Ballet School when he was eight years old. He enrolled in London's
Royal Ballet School at age eleven and trained until he was eighteen. And though
he was a dancer in those early days, hints of his future as a choreographer
shone through. "I enjoyed being the center of attention, being bossy," Wheeldon
told Sarah Kaufman of the Washington Post. While home during summer
vacation, the young dancer would recruit neighborhood friends into dance
productions he wrote and choreographed.
While still a student, Wheeldon won prizes for his choreography. At
seventeen, he was one of five dancers chosen to compete at the Prix de Lausanne,
an international dance competition held each year to help dance students
kickstart their professional careers. One hundred and twenty dancers are chosen
to compete; only fifteen make the final round. The winner is awarded a study
scholarship with the finest schools and dance companies in the world. Wheeldon
won the Gold Medal in 1991. That same year, he was accepted into the Royal
Ballet Company (RBC).
Wheeldon stayed with the RBC for just two years. Then an unusual opportunity
presented itself. While recovering from a dance injury in 1993, Wheeldon was
lying on his sofa with a bag of frozen peas on his ankle to keep the swelling
down, watching endless hours of television. A commercial played that promised a
free plane ticket to New York City for everyone who bought a Hoover vacuum.
Wheeldon bought the Hoover and claimed his ticket. He visited the New York City
Ballet (NYCB) during his trip and participated in a couple of classes as a
guest. Even before leaving the city to return home, Wheeldon was invited to
become a member of their company. The twenty year old accepted and was promoted
to the rank of Soloist in 1998. During his years as a dancer, Wheeldon worked
with some of the most famous
"Dance has been my way of life since I was a child and I'll never give it
up—it really is my reason for living."
choreographers of all time, including Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine.
Years later, his innate feel for choreography and his willingness to reimagine
and rework traditional ballets would be favorably compared to these dance
Finds his calling as a choreographer
Although he enjoyed dancing, Wheeldon never forgot the advice given to him by
Sir Kenneth MacMillan, a respected British ballet choreographer who had more
than forty ballets under his belt by the time he retired. Wheeldon shared with
John Percival of The Independent, "I was summoned to the presence, and he
told me, 'You seem to have some talent for choreography; you should take every
opportunity you have to practice it and make ballets'." Wheeldon did as he was
told and choreographed student-led productions for the Royal Ballet School, the
London Studio Centre, and the School of American Ballet. He proved himself
capable of working with large ballet corps (groups), a talent that set him apart
from other young choreographers.
Wheeldon quit dancing at the end of the spring season in 2000 to focus his
attention and energy on choreography. Peter Martins, director of the NYCB, hired
Wheeldon to be the company's first artist in residence, a position created just
for him. Wheeldon was just twenty-eight years old. His first choreographed
ballet as resident artist was Polyphonia. It was given its world premiere
in January 2001 and received excellent reviews. Clive Barnes of Dance
Magazine wrote, "There is not a step in Polyphonia that doesn't
progress naturally from the step before it. The dance—prickly, angular—moves
with the force of nature like the wind." Jackie McGlone of scotsman.com
called the ballet an "immaculate masterpiece." Wheeldon won the London
Critics' Circle Award for Best New Ballet for Polyphonia. A production in
2002 by the NYCB earned the Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production.
In May 2001, the NYCB performed Wheeldon's Variations Serieuses. With
that ballet, Wheeldon appeared to have earned the respect of even the toughest
critics. Anna Kisselgoff, dean of American dance critics, wrote in the New
York Times, "No ballet choreographer of his generation can match his
imaginative use of the classical vocabulary." And that is what the budding
choreographer became known for: his ability to modernize the classical ballet
without sacrificing its strength and beauty. Wheeldon credited his training. "I
feel quite lucky and grateful for growing up in the environment of theatrical
story ballets and a very solid, very old tradition in ballet," he was quoted as
saying in 2001. That same May, Wheeldon was named resident choreographer for
NYCB, another position created just for him.
A man of many projects
While choreographing ballets for the NYCB, Wheeldon had his creative hands in
projects for other organizations, including the Boston Ballet, the Royal Ballet,
and the San Francisco Ballet. He won countless awards for his many ballets, and
more than one New York critic called him "the best thing to happen to ballet for
50 years." Wheeldon admits to not believing his own publicity. He explained his
stance to Jackie McGlone of scotsman.com: "I simply do not set too much
store by the good reviews, because then I don't have to set too much by the bad
Wheeldon got his first taste of bad publicity with his Broadway debut ballet,
The Sweet Smell of Success. The 2002 ballet was a stage adaptation of a
film by the same name. Without exception, the musical is considered Wheeldon's
weakest work. Critic Gerald Rabkin wrote a review for CultureVulture.com
in which he called Wheeldon's choreography "merely serviceable," meaning it
did the job but was nothing to get excited about. Wheeldon's debut was not
without value, however, as it introduced him to actor and writer John Lithgow,
who performed in the musical. Their next collaboration (in Carnival of the
Animals ) was considered more successful.
By June 2002, Wheeldon had produced the ballet Morphoses. He followed
that up with several projects, including a 2003 ballet set to the score (music)
of Camille Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals. The ballet was given the
same title and included verse written by Lithgow.
The year 2002 brought Wheeldon together professionally with Scottish composer
James MacMillan. The two ballet greats collaborated on Tryst, performed
by the Royal Ballet Company. MacMillan was thrilled at the opportunity to work
with Wheeldon. In an interview for Ballet Magazine in 2003, the composer
reminisced, "He has shone a light into the music, which is a new and unexpected
perspective. There is something in both our work that evokes this sense of
mysticism, mystery or otherness. I was aware of that corresponding sense of
beauty ... [which] allowed me to revisit the music of Tryst and see again
how vivid the experience was when I wrote the music initially 14 years ago."
Tryst was just one of a number of Wheeldon/MacMillan projects performed
by the RBC.
In 2004, Wheeldon was commissioned (hired) by the Pennsylvania Ballet to
choreograph a ballet of his choice. Wheeldon chose one of his favorite ballets,
Swan Lake, and was given $1 million to make it happen. He was indecisive
about how to proceed with the project. Should he go the traditional route and
perform the entire (and very long) ballet? Or would it be better to modernize
the production a bit, putting a new spin on the narrative?
In the end, the reviews spoke for themselves. Janet Anderson of the
Philadelphia City Paper praised Wheeldon's inventiveness. "The
choreographer managed the impossible, keeping all the classic's famous moments
and yet creating something magnificently, even wildly, original for Pennsylvania
Ballet." Wheeldon incorporated different performance styles into his Swan
Lake production. While keeping the choreography traditional, he updated the
sets and costumes and incorporated a modern energy into the classic.
According to Dancing Times magazine, Wheeldon had concerns about his
approach to the ballet. "I always felt Philadelphia was a fairly conservative
audience, not just for ballet and dance. I was a little concerned that this
might be too much of a stretch for them but, as it turned out, almost across the
board, people not only accepted it but enthusiastically embraced it." The ballet
was so successful that Wheeldon was invited to take the production to the 2005
Edinburgh International Festival in Scotland. This was a monumental moment for
the Pennsylvania Ballet, an organization that had kept a low profile over the
years in comparison to troupes such as the New York City Ballet. All ballet
companies aspire to be invited to the festival; to receive an
The Late, Great Jerome Robbins
When Chris Wheeldon is compared to Jerome Robbins, the young choreographer
takes that as a compliment. Wheeldon studied with Robbins in the early stages of
his career. The budding choreographer was just nineteen years old when he danced
his first workshop with Robbins. The master punched Wheeldon on the shoulders
and muttered "Mmmm— not bad!" As Wheeldon told Ballet magazine in 2003,
"He was a far more generous man than people give him credit for. That little
punch—because he didn't have to say anything—was enough for me to give me the
boost that I needed."
Jerome Robbins was born October 11, 1918, in New York City. He dropped out of
college when he realized his limited potential as a student and found work
training as a ballet dancer at the Sandor Dance School. In 1944, Robbins tried
his hand at writing a ballet, and his first, Fancy Free, opened at the
Metropolitan Opera House in April that year. The ballet received twenty-four
curtain calls; Robbins was an instant hit. He had teamed up with the
then-unknown composer Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990), who wrote the score for the
musical. The team produced another hit in December. On the Town cemented
Robbins's place in ballet history, and—with 66 ballets to his credit—he remained
the master of his craft until his death more than fifty years later.
Robbins enjoyed particular success with his Broadway titles, including
West Side Story (another Bernstein-Robbins smash hit). His role in this
production won him two Academy Awards (one for direction, one for choreography),
but this was also the point in his career in which he earned a reputation as
being a ruthless perfectionist. It was a reputation that would be with him
throughout his life.
Regardless of reputation, Robbins's style paid off. The
choreographer won countless awards for his work throughout his career, and his
name is attached to such famous musicals as Fiddler on the Roof and
Gypsy. In 1998, Robbins died in his home from a stroke at the age of
Robbins is largely credited, along with George Balanchine (1904–1983) and
Lincoln Kirstein (1906–1996), with establishing the New York City Ballet.
Kirstein, who supported the arts through his financial donations, helped fund
and bring to life Balanchine's vision of a ballet school. Once the American
School of Ballet was established, Robbins and Balanchine set out to make the New
York City Ballet the most renowned ballet company in the world.
invitation is basically to be told you've made it to the big-time. Wheeldon
had been to the festival in 2003 with the San Francisco Ballet, where the troupe
performed Rush. For that production, Wheeldon won the coveted National
Dance Award for Best Choreography in 2004.
2005 and beyond
Since 2000, Wheeldon has created more than thirty new productions, though he
lost track of the exact count. In early 2005, the award-winning choreographer
worked with the NYCB to create After the Rain, his eleventh ballet with
the company. The ballet was meant to be a swan song (the last performance) for
veteran ballet dancer Jock Soto, who was on the verge of retiring. After the
Rain garnered high praise for both Wheeldon and Soto. Wheeldon also pleased
critics with his American in Paris and There Where She Loved.
By mid-July 2005, the choreographer was spending his time with the San
Francisco Ballet, working on his new production, Quarternary. The name
means "four parts;" each act of the ballet focuses on a specific season in the
cycle. Wheeldon loves the San Francisco Ballet dancers. "They're quick," he told
Rachel Howard of the San Francisco Chronicle. "There's no waiting while
someone sulks because they don't like the steps."
The thirty-two-year-old Wheeldon lives in New York's Upper West Side and
enjoys a second home in Spain. He keeps his private life private, but doesn't
mind talking about his work. In his 2005 interview with Jackie McGlone, the
master craftsman mused, "I sometimes wonder if I'm going to fail the next time,
and indeed whether there's going to be a next time. Perhaps that's why I feel
that the time has come to take a step in another direction. And I will; I will."
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