Christopher Wheeldon has whipped up more excitement in the ballet world than any dance-maker in decades. A natural dancer, the British-born choreographer joined his homeland’s Royal Ballet Company while still a teenager, and the New York City Ballet (NYCB) at age 20. At 25, he was promoted to the rank of soloist. Wheeldon looked like he had a successful career ahead as a principal dancer, the highest order of ballet performer, when his interests turned to choreography. In 2000, he retired from dancing and, Peter Martins, NYCB’s artistic director, named him the company’s first artist-in-residence. Wheeldon’s first ballet, “Polyphonia,” arrived the next year to universal acclaim. “The dance,” wrote Clive Barnes in Dance Magazine, “—prickly, angular—moves with the force of nature like the wind.”
With each new ballet, more than 30 in total (14 for NYCB), Wheeldon has extended his range and continually demonstrated his ability to satisfy even the staunchest classicist while regularly challenging ballet’s propriety. Now, the 34-year-old is taking the logical next step. He has announced his resignation from New York City Ballet to form his own ensemble, Morphoses: The Wheeldon Company. The new company will premier in Vail, Colorado, in August, and for the inaugural performance Wheeldon will borrow some of his favorite dancers from companies he’s choreographed for, including Wendy Whelan and Maria Kowroski from the NYCB, the American Ballet Theater’s Angel Corella, and Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg from the Royal Ballet. The program will include some of Wheeldon’s most beloved works, including his “Polyphonia” and the soulful “After the Rain.”
Before he departs the City Ballet, however, Wheeldon will unveil yet another new work for the company. His “The Nightingale and the Rose” is based on an Oscar Wilde fairytale, with a commissioned score by NYCB resident composer Bright Sheng. The ballet is scheduled to be performed during the company’s residency at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, New York, July 3-21. The three-week upstate run will also include Wheeldon’s 2002 “Carousel (A Dance),” set to the music of Richard Rodgers. www.spac.org.
Wendy Liberatore: What finally convinced you to leave City Ballet?
Christopher Wheeldon: It was a combination of factors. I’ve had a great run at the City Ballet; 14 years. As much as I love to choreograph there, there are aspects of the art form I’d like to explore that I can’t there—creating repertory, developing programs, overseeing the development of dancers. I like the idea of artistic directorship, but to work from the ground up. I don’t want to inherit the problems of an existing company or be responsible for a large legacy like [NYCB founder George] Balanchine’s.
Were there artistic restrictions on you at City Ballet?
Every now and then Peter Martins would ask me to work on a project. But, pretty much, I was given carte blanche. I was free. That has been fantastic. I was able to grow and make my own mistakes.
What aspects of City Ballet do you think you’ll most miss?
I will very much miss the dancers. I will also miss the security, although security can be stifling. There is uncertainty to starting something new. You can learn from that.
I heard you were offered the position of resident choreographer the Royal Ballet? Why did you decide to turn that down?
As much as I love working with the Royal Ballet, it was a side step. I would be going from one big establishment to another. They do have wonderful resources, fabulous dancers, and that’s my own country, where my family is. But I really wanted to strike out on my own. It was a difficult decision, but I think New York—America—is my home now.
Will you still accept commissions from other ballets companies once “Morphoses” is up and running?
Eventually, I think things will calm down for me. I will still work internationally.
Judging from your work, you’re something of a romantic. Is that how you see yourself?
I am, but it’s not a theme that runs through my work. I don’t hunt down romantic stories. But I do like them. For “Carousel,” I just loved the music, the Rodgers’ waltzes. A few years ago, we had the Rodgers celebration [at NYCB]. I made it for that. It doesn’t really touch the story. There’s only an underlying darkness, a feeling of something impending.
What attracted you to Wilde’s “Nightingale and the Rose”?
I was eager to tackle a story for this commission with Bright. I chose this story and read it to Bright. It’s a romantic tragedy that is bittersweet. Really more bitter than sweet.