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  1. Photograph: Paul Kolnik
    Photograph: Paul Kolnik

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

    Christopher Wheeldon

  2. Photograph: Paul Kolnik
    Photograph: Paul Kolnik

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

    Wendy Whelan and Robert Fairchild

  3. Photograph: Paul Kolnik
    Photograph: Paul Kolnik

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

    Christopher Wheeldon

Christopher Wheeldon

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


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.

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.

And you'll continue making it there? 
Yeah. I'm very lucky in looking at it now. I get the best of both worlds: I get to stay home and work with this wonderful company, which I know will continue because Peter [Martins] and I have a wonderful relationship, and I know he wants me back. And now I have this association with the Royal. Kevin and I are going to work very closely, and he's excited about my ideas for the company as well—he's more my generation. I can still see myself having a place in the future of the company without having to sit behind the desk.

Do you have a specific role? 
Kind of. It's not really been announced yet.

That's great. And what about NYCB?
Nothing here as of now.

Is that by choice? 
A little bit. There have been some offers, not just from City Ballet, but from around and the companies that I work with in the States. Everyone's ego [is] to have resident people, you know? But at this point, I've stepped away from that a little bit just for now. Rather than attaching myself permanently to a company in Europe and dividing my time—even though I will probably be creating in New York, if not for ABT than for City Ballet, as much as I will be in London. I think it's enough to have one position somewhere for now.

You got that resident ball rolling, didn't you?
Yeah, I kind of did. And never say never because I do love this company, but I've done that here, and as long as Peter still invites me back to make ballets, I think he's happy with that. He's been very generous and, obviously, it was difficult when I left to go and start Morphoses, but we've never had a contentious relationship. It's always been good. He's always been very supportive.

I've never spoken to you about Morphoses: How did you get over that experience of deciding to leave the company as artistic director? 
There was that tumultuous period, which was relatively short when I had to make the decision and accept the consequences of having made that decision. All the muddy water that's passed under the bridge since then, none of it has colored the experience that I had with the company, and I still very strongly believe in my reasons for starting it. We did some really terrific things in those three years: We toured to some great places; I worked with a lot of beautiful dancers; the Royal Ballet is going to do Fool's Paradise next season. So some of those ballets live on. In the end, I made the decision to leave—maybe it was impatient of me—because I felt we were in the same place three years down the road as we were when we started, and I don't think that was anyone's fault. Terrible economic time. Huge ambitions. And I needed to stand up and be really realistic. It was a tough decision to make, but I don't regret having made the decision at all. I really don't. Great things have happened for me since. I got to work in the opera. I made Alice. I'm going to be working in the theater again. My personal life got better. I was back doing what I was really supposed to be doing. I realized that a lot of people felt that they were a little bit left in the dust by my decision, but quite frankly everybody dusts themselves off and gets on...and [the company has] subsequently toured and had a season. I don't know what the future is for the company, but I've only ever wanted to wish Lourdes [Lopez] and the company well in moving forward. It's a very different Morphoses from our Morphoses.

I would think that having it be the same name would be weird. 
The name is a little odd because it's the name of one of my ballets. But it's still the name of one of my ballets. I'm able to separate enough. It seems like they've gone down a far more contemporary route now anyway; we set up as a contemporary ballet company, and it's now not a ballet company. That's very clear.

Which dance of yours most resembles you?
I've never been asked that question!

How cool. 
Yeah, that's super cool. Probably the one I'm making now. Whatever it is that I'm making is the closest representation of me, today anyway.

What does the word tradition mean to you? 
I would say it's the root of everything. I still very much believe in classical ballet as a language, so it's a departure point. It's something that I hope I'm not a slave to, though.

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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