Christopher Wheeldon: interview

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Christopher Wheeldon‘s new company boasts 20 of the best dancers in the world, and will operate on both sides of the Atlantic – its mission, to make ballet vital again. Ambitious stuff, given that he struggles to balance his cheque book

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    Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle (image © Yaniv Schulman)

    Want to put your life on the line? Risk every pound in the bank? Dare to do something that no one else has ever done before? Then meet Christopher Wheeldon. This week his new company makes its debut at Sadler’s Wells. Only a month later it does the same at the New York City Center. It will be the first transatlantic ballet company splitting its time, personnel, creative energies and powerbase between the two cities.

    And there are no half measures in sight. Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company sports 20 of the best dancers in the world – including Alina Cojocaru (Royal Ballet) and Wendy Whelan (New York City Ballet), as well as a full orchestra and a repertory that already features some 15 ballets, including a couple of world premieres.

    ‘What can we do to get new audiences into the theatre?’ asks Wheeldon. ‘Even the greatest companies in the world have to deal with this conundrum. I’d like to try to make a difference in the dwindling younger audience problem I’ve travelled the world this past year; I’ve been in Sydney, Moscow, Toronto, Boston, San Francisco, London, New York, and the audience is a sea of grey.

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    Ashley Laracey, Craig Hall and Gonzalo Garcia (image © Yaniv Schulman)

    ‘I want to help try and change that,’ he continues, ‘to make ballet vital again, to figure out ways of luring new audiences into the theatre without having to dumb down. I want to create cross-pollination between different media – fashion, visual arts, painting, photography, sculpture – a meeting place for new things to be created. I want to bring new audiences into the theatre and help them to fall in love with the art form. How? It’s alchemy really. I may not know the answers, but I sure want to ask the questions.’

    Wheeldon’s goal is nothing less than reinvigorating ballet for the twenty-first century. And hopes are riding high. At 34, the Somerset-born, New York-based Wheeldon tops virtually any company’s wish list; so it’s lucky that he’s a workaholic who once notoriously said that he hated Sundays because he wasn’t able to spend them in a dance studio.

    ‘I now have to be very strict with myself as far as time is concerned, what commissions I can accept,’ he says. ‘Now that I’m a director I have to think practically. I don’t have the head for administration. I can barely balance my cheque book. I need to be in the studio working on new things, planning rep, engaging dancers and building the company artistically.’

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    Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle (image © Yaniv Schulman)

    When we meet up at Sadler’s Wells in July, he admits that he is jumping into an unknown future. ‘It seems to me that in my life there have been some dramatic shifts of direction and I felt like there was one coming,’ he says, ‘New York City Ballet has been my home for the past 14 years and it’s been a great place to work, but I’m giving that up because I’m afraid of becoming too comfortable.’ After just two years dancing with the Royal Ballet, Wheeldon decided to spend a vacation in Manhattan. He took part in a daily class at New York City Ballet and, out of the blue, was invited to join the company. Wheeldon leapt at the chance. That was in 1993. By 2000, when he chose to abandon performing in favour of full-time choreographing, he had already created several successful ballets on both sides of the Atlantic. The following year, City Ballet named him as its resident choreographer, a position that had been devised just for him.

    ‘Now, I’m ready for a change,’ says Wheeldon, ‘and I’m excited about the possibilities even though I’m understanding more clearly with each day that goes by what a mammoth undertaking this is. I’m not really interested in inheriting the problems of any existing company. If there are going to be problems I’d rather make my own. I want to build something from the ground up. There’s a desire to be in a position where I can make a difference; and right now I have the energy and I’m also starting to accrue enough knowledge to make this happen.’

    Though he now regards New York as home, Wheeldon never severed his London links. ‘Though,’ he laughs, ‘the current exchange rate is raping me.’ Over the years he has created several works for the Royal Ballet (another is due in February) and has also often teamed up with his long-time mates the Ballet Boyz, Michael Nunn and William Trevitt. He thinks the Boyz are doing a great job at reaching out to new audiences, especially through television.

    ‘Morphoses is not a one-man band,’ he insists. ‘For the first couple of years there will probably be more Wheeldon on view than I’d want. Part of that is economics. It’s my company so I’m not going to charge myself royalties. Eventually, once we get going, I’d love to be heavy on the commissions, four or five new works a year. I want the dancers and the audiences to have a really broad artistic experience. You just can’t get enough of that.’

    Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company presents two separate programmes at Sadler’s Wells, Sept 19-23. Box office 0844 412 4300

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