Christopher Wheeldon

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

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Can you relate that idea of tradition to this triple bill?
Funnily enough, I think that the most classical work on the program is the new work. And I look at DGV, and I love it—it's so fun to watch and it's so fun to see the dancers love it. If you went upstairs and asked them what their favorite ballet was on the program, they'd probably all say DGV because it's fun to dance. They just get to let rip. They love the music. It's a dancer's ballet, and it's for the audience, too. The audience always eats it up. It may be a little easy in a sense. But I think the most traditional of the three ballets is probably the new one. I think the most difficult thing to do as a classical ballet choreographer is to stay close to the things that we love, yet really make a departure from them and one of the most successful things about Polyphonia is that it is exactly that: It's very much in the tradition of Balanchine, yet it's also a step away from it.

It's timeless.
It seems to be. I love that. I've done Polyphonia so many times since then with so many different companies that it feels like it should be a lot older than it is.

Has it changed for you since you've seen so many different kinds of dancers perform it? I feel that if dances have a great structure, the dancers performing it can't kill it.
Yeah. It's always Polyphonia. And it is true that even when it's not that good, it's still okay. You can always kind of breath a sigh of relief; even if I know it's not necessarily being danced that well, I can say that. I can't say that to myself about a lot of ballets—most of my ballets, actually. But no one dances it like Wendy. I mean really, no one. When I saw her dance it last season at City Ballet, I realized that it was as fresh on her as it was on the opening night. She looked so dynamic and confident and beautiful in it.

How does she do that?
After the Rain is like that, too. God, people are so moved by that ballet. I always feel so detached, like maybe I should be feeling what everyone else is feeling or maybe I shouldn't because that would be a bit strange. [Laughs] It's Wendy. There's a perfume, there's something magical about her in that ballet.

She creates this quiet. I've seen it a million times, right? But I'm still put in this peaceful space.
Yeah. It's meditative in a strange way, and it's funny: I've just come to yoga, and when I [recently] saw After the Rain, I thought, How interesting that this quiet, meditative, contemplative piece came out of this noisy, busy 30-year-old? I was so noisy and busy.

So when you made After the Rain, you really just needed some peace and quiet?
Yeah. [Laughs] So I'm just going to create it! Like, I can't have it internally, so I'm just going to give it to you.

After all your experiences, what is the most important quality for an artistic director to have? Or even how could you really change things in that respect?
I think one of the most difficult things is to be strong and compassionate because dancers need somebody to take care of them. That's not to say that they're weak individuals, but it's a brutal profession. It's emotional and complicated on a daily basis. So to be that person that is supportive and at the same time is able to do what is best for the work and for the company, I think that's a very difficult balance. Monica Mason is really brilliant at it. She is compassionate and very maternal with her dancers, but she's also a steel girder. She makes a decision. And it's always the best for the company. That's tricky. I'm not sure I would have that right yet.

Do you approach choreography differently because of those experiences?
I'm trying to give myself a bit more time and space around each work. Although this year has suddenly become crazy, because I'm doing something for the closing ceremony of the Olympics. They've decided that the final thing after they extinguish the flame in the closing ceremonies should be a dance. I think Darcey Bussell is going to do it, too. She's coming out of retirement. It's a bit scary because I don't have control of the music—I don't have much control at all, but by the same token, it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And it will be a good exercise in creating a piece of dance for the camera. I think people assume that those ceremonies are created for the audience within the stadium. No. [Most] people are watching it on TV, so it's actually about making a piece of dance for the camera.

It's a whole other beast.
Yes. I was at the [Park Avenue] Armory today, and I was thinking—I really want to film After the Rain before Wendy retires. I want to have it properly, professionally filmed. And just to set up one huge circular track and to do it in one circular shot that enables the camera to move up and down at the same time, but just one big take. She needs to be captured.

New York City Ballet is at the David H. Koch Theater through Feb 26.

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