How to make a ballet

Prolific choreographer Christopher Wheeldon shares the inside info on how to manipulate bodies beautifully

Photo: Bill Cooper

Brit choreographer Christopher Wheeldon is only 39 but he has already made more than 60 ballets, so it's safe to say he’s an expert at putting bodies into motion. Formerly resident choreographer at New York City Ballet and now Artistic Associate at the Royal Ballet, Wheeldon is famed for his gorgeous, abstract, contemporary classicism as well as his recent reinvention of 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'. Here he tells us how he does it, in five easy steps.

Choose the tunes

‘The process usually starts with picking the music. I like rhythmic diversity and usually a beautiful slow movement – it’s difficult to sustain interesting choreography over a long period of time if there’s just one dynamic from beginning to end. For “Aeternum” I’m using Benjamin Britten’s “Sinfonia da Requiem”. It has a very beautiful last movement, and the second movement has this demonic attack to it which I love.’

Pick your dancers

‘In this case I knew I wanted to make a ballet for [Royal Ballet principal dancer] Marianela Nuñez. She has a very natural instinct for fusing movement with a sense of emotion; she finds drama in everything you give her. And she’s a workhorse. She’ll dance until she drops, on a daily basis. I love dancers with an imagination, who are capable of taking what I give them and making it personal to themselves. If they do exactly what you ask that tends to be the least interesting outcome.’

Make it up as you go along

‘I don’t usually work on steps until I get in the room with the dancers. I like to discover as we go along. I’ll take one phrase of music, eight bars, and make some movement and then use that as a catalyst. Sometimes I’ll have an idea of an image I want to convey, or a shape, so we’ll start with that. It’s tricky because sometimes I get backed into a corner because I haven’t done a great deal of planning. You have to trust your own process and not freak out when that happens. The short timeframe there is for the creation of a new ballet can put the pressure on. This time I’ve had a little bit over a month. It’s only 20-minutes long, but it’s quite a big piece. I have to do a ballet in two-and-a-half-weeks in Seattle soon and I’m dreading that. We’re all forced to work quickly because the schedule is so jam-packed. Companies say: “That’s your slot, get on with it.” Gone are the days when choreographers like Kenneth MacMillan and Frederick Ashton could spend months on end thinking it through.’

Film, edit, film, edit

‘I love the iPad. I just hold it up and film the dancers then take it home. You can almost edit your piece together as you build it, especially if you don’t work in chronological order, which I haven’t done with this ballet. Sometimes you run out of ideas but I try not to sweat it too much. It’s better to go: You know what guys? We’ll call it quits for now. ‘This piece hasn’t been a very easy creative process. Sometimes it just pours out and that’s great – but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve made a good work. More often than not, when you struggle you end up with a more interesting piece of choreography. I’ve had quite a few angst-ridden moments trying to figure out how to get through this piece. The last couple of minutes of a ballet always feels like a kind of void that sucks the energy out of me.’

Cross your fingers

‘When the curtain goes up I’ll be sitting sweating in my seat. The only time I didn’t watch a premiere was when I did a “Swan Lake” in Pennsylvania and they repainted the floor at the last minute and the dancers were slipping all over the place, so at the five-minute call, the crew decided to dust the floor with rosin. Every time the dancers moved their feet they squeaked! I couldn’t watch, I had to leave; it was torture. Of course nobody else noticed.’

‘Aeternum’ is performed at the Royal Opera House, Fri Feb 22 - Mar 14.