Christopher Wheeldon

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

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The women at NYCB are incredible right now.
They really are. And through the ranks, too. I love Lauren Lovette. She's a beauty. She's featured in second-cast stuff in this program. I'm not sure whether Sara or Lauren will do Polyphonia. I love them both so much in it; they both do something so different in it.

It's almost shocking, right?
Yeah. I've only seen Sara do it once. I was in the middle of choreographing for ABT last season, and I came across; I was a little skeptical because I hadn't worked with them, but I think it was the best performance of Polyphonia I've ever seen. I'd hemmed and hawed about casting Sara in it because she's so the antithesis of [the original dancer, Alexandra] Ansanelli. But she did something so beautiful with it, and if I'd sat in rehearsal, I probably would have said, "No, that's wrong." And I'm so grateful that I didn't.

What did she do?
She filled it out with this kind of lushness that she can't help but be. She's just a very lush dancer. But there was a quietness to it as well that I don't often associate with her. She's...ta-da! And she was far less ta-da about it than I thought she'd be. And it was delicate. And I also loved Lauren, who was far closer to the way I had imagined it initially, but equally as good. She's an interesting girl. There are boys coming up, too. Harrison [Ball]. The men in the ballet are Tyler Angle, Robert Fairchild, Amar Ramasar, Gonzalo Garcia and Daniel Ulbricht. It's a good group. There are some overlaps among the ballets, but I've tried to spread [the dancers] out; in one night, you get Tess [Teresa Reichlen], Wendy, Maria, Jennie Somogyi, Sterling Hyltin, Tiler Peck, Ana Sophia Scheller, Sara Mearns.

Take me back to DGV: Michael Nyman's score was written for the TGV train in France, right?
It was written for the inaugural voyage from Paris to, I want to say, Lyon. And the music is called MGV: musique grande vitesse; I named the ballet Danse Grande Vitesse. Originally, it was going to be a far more literal take on travel—the emotions that travel instills in us, like the romantic notion of travel. Sometimes, there's the conflict that arises when you travel with someone. Jean-Marc [Puissant] and I were going to combine that with almost a historical look at the engineering of travel as well and then it ended up all just being mixed together with the ideas still there, but just the inspiration for it really. What we ended up with was something far more abstract than we initially planned.

Do you find that you start out that way in general? That you need an anchor or a story of some sort?
Yeah, almost always. And interestingly enough, in working with Jean-Marc, he always wants me to give him a story to start with. He's always pushing: "What does that mean?" Quite often, when I'm making a new piece, it doesn't mean anything until there are bodies in the room moving to music. It doesn't have to start with a literal thing; sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. In this case, it got pared down. But they're still there: It's set in four regions, and you can see the conflict in region one and the power and sense of mechanics in region two and the romance of region three and the sexiness of travel in region four. I was rehearsing Amar and Ana Sophia, and there's a lot of slow, sexy body manipulation in that last movement. I said, "It's like when you take the night train from Amsterdam to Geneva with your lover, and it's dangerous and dark...." It's good to give the dancers some sort of image. Quite often, they discard it, but just as a starting point so that they're not just doing something purely physical; there's an impetus behind it.

Do you remember what you told Puissant in reference to L'Arlsienne?
There was a story originally when it was an opera; when Roland Petit choreographed it, it is the story of L'Arlsienne, so we talked about something that gave us a sense of place, that was maybe a little bit pastoral, a little bit architectural so that we didn't feel like we were just nowhere. Even if it's abstract, I like for ballets to live within an environment. We've got a lot of plain blue cyc [cyclorama] at City Ballet, and it's nice for the curtain to go up every now and then and for us to see some kind of place. I've only seen the drop in miniature form, but it's painterly and in gray tones, although the costumes are extremely bright and vibrant. We went through all sorts of photographs: the rolling hills of southern France, lavender fields and, again, kind of pared it all down. When an audience looks at it, they may not see all those things, but they were there initially. It's a flavor more than anything else.

Why did you decide not to go for the artistic directorship of the Royal Ballet?
It was a really hard decision. [Alice's Adventures in Wonderland] was an intoxicating experience. There was a lot of support within the theater for the ballet on every level, and I felt like by making the ballet, it pulled the house together. While Alice was coming together, it seemed like it was the right fit. I was excited about the possibilities for the company—and still am—and then Alice premiered. I stepped away and thought, I had that great experience because the dancers were coming into the room every day for me purely in a dancer-choreographer relationship. They weren't coming into the room ticked off because they weren't cast in Swan Lake last week. It's that fresh, blank slate that you get when you're just choreographer to dancer. Had I had each individual dancer's careers in my control, would we have still have been able to have that great conversation that we had making the ballet? I don't think it's possible. Also, I don't actually feel yet ready to be able to sit down with dancers on a daily basis and be able to remove myself enough emotionally from their... I still feel so close to dancers. Maybe ten years down the road there will be enough of a...

An age difference?
It's not so much about the age. I think it's just more that I'm really sympathetic to their needs and I think it's just not time. I'm not ready for that. It's a huge responsibility. When you have a company like the Royal Ballet, you're responsible for each of those dancers and their careers within this huge organization. And then, on top of that, many other departments. I think it was the size of responsibility. When I had Morphoses, it was manageable because there were 16 of us, and we were getting together and making ballets and any problems that came up, I could deal with it on a much more personal level. I guess I was worried about losing myself in this—wanting to be personal with everyone and wanting to be understanding and wanting to make sure that each dancer's artistic experience within the company was nourishing. It's a very different thing when you're talking about a group of 16 and a group of over 100.

What about the difficulty of staying in one place for too long?
That was kind of appealing actually. London's a great place to live, and it's sort of the pinnacle of anyone's career in the dance world. To be the director of the Royal Ballet, it's one of the top five directorships in the world—if you can count the five top companies on one hand. It was a difficult decision. I would have been home. I would have been closer to my family. That played into it a lot, but I also wasn't ready to leave New York. I love New York. I love living here. I think London's an exciting city for dance, not necessarily just at the ballet. And for theater.

And the art and fashion are amazing. But I don't know about dance.
I think there's quite a lot of interesting work coming out of Sadler's Wells. And I wonder if people feel freer to take more risks in London? I don't know. That's a long discussion. [Laughs] I feel like to be in New York is to be in a place where everything passes through, so you do get the benefit of that and really there is no ballet company in the world more creative than the NYCB, even if you don't necessarily think that what comes out of there is great. There's always new work. But I think the Royal Ballet is going to change with Kevin O'Hare as the director. I think there will be more new work.

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