Christopher Wheeldon

The choreographer is back at New York City Ballet for a triple bill.

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  • Photograph: Paul Kolnik

    Christopher Wheeldon Rehearsing NYCB1/5/12New York City Ballet Credit Photo:...

    Christopher Wheeldon

  • Photograph: Paul Kolnik

    Christopher Wheeldon rehearsing Wendy Whelan and Robert FairchildNew York City...

    Wendy Whelan and Robert Fairchild

  • Photograph: Paul Kolnik

    Christopher Wheeldon Rehearsing1/5/12New York City Ballet Credit Photo: Paul...

    Christopher Wheeldon

Photograph: Paul Kolnik

Christopher Wheeldon Rehearsing NYCB1/5/12New York City Ballet Credit Photo:...

Christopher Wheeldon


It's a big deal: This month, Christopher Wheeldon, the British choreographer extraordinaire, receives his first triple bill at New York City Ballet with a lineup of Polyphonia, DGV: Danse Grande Vitesse (originally created for the Royal Ballet), and a new work set to Bizet's L'Arlsienne Suites Nos. 1 and 2. It also marks a return to the company where he served as resident choreographer; since he left in 2008, his life has been eventful to say the least. Not only did he resign as artistic director of Morphoses (the company continues without him), he also took himself out of the for one of the most prestigious positions in the dance world: artistic director of the Royal Ballet. But he has plenty of reasons to continue choreographing in London. This summer, Wheeldon will unveil a piece for the closing ceremonies of the Olympics; in place of the flame will be a dance. For him, it's yet another adventure: "When will I ever get the opportunity to create something for 300 dancers in the Olympic Stadium watched by 30 million people?" It's a dance for the camera.

What's it like to be back at NYCB?
It's great. But it hasn't really been that long. I did the Calatrava project, which will be two years this next spring. It's nice to be back with such a presence. I've never had a program; so it's not just creating a new ballet, but revisiting Polyphonia. I haven't really worked with a lot of the new generation that are in that now. They've taken it on themselves. So that's nice. And DVG is brand-new to them, so it's like a new ballet.

Have you had your own program before?
I had one with San Francisco Ballet at the Edinburgh Festival and then just at [Pacific Northwest Ballet] this past September.

What does it mean to you?
It's obviously a great honor to have a company want to present that much of my work in one night. The really nice thing about PNB was—it was kind of an economic choice for them as well, because they had all the ballets in the rep already, but the choice of ballets worked out so that it was a diverse group of pieces: Variations Srieuses, Carousel, After the Rain pas de deux and Polyphonia. They all say something quite different, so it was fun to see a program of ballets that had come at different points in my NYCB career. They were all at a point when I was influenced by specific styles.

Did you put this NYCB evening together or did Peter Martins?
I've wanted City Ballet to dance DGV pretty much since it was created. The Royal Ballet was fantastic in it, but it has a very American dynamic. It's really full-on—you probably saw it with Angel Corella's company when they did it here. They did well, but the [City Center] stage was too small and there wasn't enough time, and it just has a very athletic, space-eating kind of style to it. I asked Peter if we could do that and he, of course, wanted a premiere. The decision to choose the Bizet L'Arlsienne came out of that: Okay, what are the other two ballets on the program? I wanted to make something that contrasts with them visually and musically.

What can you reveal about your new ballet?
It's a big, plotless work, but the music has some kind of folky influences to it. It's lush and romantic. It's sort of all over the place musically. It's very much a suite, and each piece has its own distinct flavor; it sweeps from big, lush, almost panoramic orchestral numbers to minuets, which are more intimate and rhythmically compact. It felt like it was screaming out for a big, dancey ensemble ballet. Estancia [2010] was kind of a big ballet, but before that, it was the Tchaikovsky—Rococo Variations—my last ballet officially as resident choreographer. So I wanted to make a big ballet for the company. It's always fun making big works on these guys because they get it.

What do they get?
They're just so used to being in architectural work, so it always feels like it forms itself comfortably. They understand space and formation, because the Balanchine ballets are ever-shifting kaleidoscopes. It's fun to make that kind of ballet for the stage, too, because they always look so good at the [David H. Koch Theater]. There's something about the dimensions—you're close for the intimate work, but also the big patterns look great in a way that you would imagine they should look at the Met. But even big, ensemble ballets kind of get a little lost there. So it's fun to paint stage pictures for the [Koch Theater] stage and this program's very much about that. DGV does the same thing. It's big and broad and architectural.

What do you want it to look like?
I'm working with two designers on the new ballet. Mark Zappone, the costume designer I hired, doesn't usually do scenery, and I wanted to have a drop at the back. He designed the costumes in Ghosts for me in San Francisco Ballet. And Jean-Marc Puissant's done the drop.

Are you working with Wendy Whelan?
It's Wendy, Maria Kowroski, Tiler Peck, Sara Mearns and Ana Sophia Scheller. I thought it was the perfect excuse to have a big ballet with five ballerinas, all representing their different flavors—or how I perceive them within this musical structure.

What are those flavors?
Maria has the big, sweeping romantic music, as does Sara. But Sara has a sassy, playful variation as well. Because Sara and Maria always inhabit the space with such grandeur, I gave them the big, lush movements. Wendy has the shortest duet, funnily enough, but for me, it's the most delicate and most beautiful piece of the music. It's the third movement, the strings. It's very short and pastoral in a way. And Tiler Peck and Ana Sophia share a pas de quatre, which is the first minuet, and then Tiler dances the second minuet in the second suite as a solo. That's how it's broken down. Also, they dance very much as a group in the piece; there's a lot of ensemble work. There's a big corps and the principals together. They work in unison and also they break off and have their own sections.

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