Christopher Wheeldon on Ballet Life, Balanchine, and His Hoover

by on September 23, 2011
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Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Carla Körbes with company dancers in Christopher Wheeldon’s Carousel (A Dance), from ALL WHEELDON (Photo © Angela Sterling)

Pacific Northwest Ballet soloists Rachel Foster and James Moore in Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain pas de deux, from ALL WHEELDON (Photo © Angela Sterling)

Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers in Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyyphonia, from ALL WHEELDON (Photo © Angela Sterling)

Characters from Christopher Wheeldon's Variations Sérieuses, from ALL WHEELDON (Photos: © Angela Sterling)

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His childhood was “very Billy Elliott,” said choreographer Christopher Wheeldon from the corner of the McCaw Hall stage, responding to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Peter Boal. The son of two arts-loving parents, Wheeldon started ballet training at eight, but very early on was trying out choreography as well. At a time other kids were dreaming up their own versions of, say, Star Wars, Wheeldon was working out a prequel to Swan Lake.

Wheeldon is in Seattle for PNB’s All Wheeldon program (through October 2), and has been working with the dancers on his choreography for Carousel (A Dance), After the Rain pas de deux, Polyphonia, and Variations Sérieuses. Wednesday night, after a conversation with Boal, he and Boal watched as the dancers performed excerpts, then commented on what they’d seen.

Wheeldon, in his late thirties now, is the choreographer who, as Boal put it, has the choreographic oeuvre of a 100-year-old, but looks 25. Dressed in an unbuttoned black V-neck, black jeans, and shiny silver sneakers, Wheeldon  was a little uneasy in his seat, craning his neck to watch the dancers instead.

For the amusement of the audience, he told “the story” of how he came to America: Laid up from an injury, he saw an offer for a flight to New York with purchase of a “Hoover 5000,” which he immediately took advantage of. (Along with thousands of other eager Britons–it was a disaster for Hoover.) Wheeldon swears he just mean to take a peek at New York City Ballet, but his visit resulted in a job offer, and the rest is dance history.

At NYCB, his exposure to Balanchine deepened, and he dove into the “joy of just dancing.” He also danced for Jerome Robbins: “Jerry was pretty fiercesome…and supportive.”

“I learned my craft through [dancing Balanchine's] ballets, and Robbins,” said Wheeldon. “Balanchine never pulls your eye the wrong way.” The mention of Robbins brought to mind that he and Boal had both danced in Brandenburg. (More synchronicity: NYCB will present their All Wheeldon program on January 28, 2012.)

Carousel, he declared, is his favorite Richard Rogers score–breezily, he called his work “a little bit of a splice-and-dice deal.” Dancers emerged from the wings, the corps who form the central carousel visual motif, and among whom Seth Orza and Carla Körbes flirted, in a catch-and-release way. Wheeldon has a knack for decrypting the dance move, so that it becomes human movement–a little hesitancy before Orza reached in for a lift gave the moment emotional heft.

Polyphonia‘s pilfering of ten works for piano by György Ligeti was, Wheeldon said, an attempt to choreograph for “music I knew was great but was terrified of.” He added that he likes to joke that they are piano pieces for both hands…and feet. He played the Ligeti while he was riding in the car with his father, he said, and his father nearly drove off the road.

Think of etching your moves in space, he told the dancers. Think of mathematics. Don’t think this is going to be easy. Though the notes can come in a turbulent torrent, you notice that Wheeldon is following a statelier, subtle rhythm buried in the works. He called one of the excerpts the Eyes Wide Shut duet, since the Ligeti music music appears in the film. Moves are fluid, spiky, locking–miles away from Carousel.

There’s a gravitas to the movement in After the Rain as well, a deliberateness that can be read as fondness or regret. The dancers twine arms into a large O, caress faces. The woman drops into a deep back bend, freezes, and is lifted like that, set down again like a statuary bridge. She’s carried, arms and legs static, like a doll. Later the male dancer will slip underneath her arch, as if she’s Nut, his sky. Wheeldon professed to be so engrossed in developing the work that he was unprepared for how moving people would find it. Audiences were unprepared, as well.

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