Common Ground | What Makes Christopher Wheeldon Tick

The in-demand young choreographer, now a brand-new artistic director, talks about his work

By Cheryl Ossola

British dancemaker Christopher Wheeldon has been New York City Ballet’s first-ever resident choreographer for the last seven years—quite a coup for a guy who’s only 34. The former Royal Ballet and New York City Ballet dancer gave up performing to choreograph full-time in 2000, and since then he has shot to the ballet world’s top echelon. One of the most in-demand choreographers working today, he recently took another career step, founding Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company, which debuted at the Vail International Dance Festival last month. In 2008 he will relinquish his post at NYCB to devote his energies to creating work for his fledgling company and for other companies worldwide. This interview was compiled from conversations with Wheeldon held between 2002 and 2006, during rehearsals with San Francisco Ballet.

Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon in rehearsal with his new company, Morphoses. (Photo by Yaniv Schulman)

If I could choose only one word to describe your work, it would be “complex.” Would that describe you personally, too?
Christopher Wheeldon: I’m far more like that than I thought I was. I always thought I was an incredibly uncomplicated person—easy, carefree, simple—but I’ve realized that’s probably not the case now. When you reach a certain point in your life, you realize that you have developed issues, neuroses, insecurities, whatever. You start out as a lovely, clean piece of laundry, and by the end you’re all dirty and ragged. I’m starting to appreciate that more now. But no, I’m pretty easygoing.

You see things on so many different levels in your work, so I wondered if that’s how you look at everything.
CW: I think everyone is made up of two parts: their brain and their body. Some people have incredibly active brains that can assemble and disassemble and store, and that’s not me at all. My brain is always active, and clearly it’s able to process things in the moment, but it doesn’t store a lot of information. Ballets come pouring out of me, but if you asked me to teach a ballet [I’ve just created] in three weeks, I’d have no idea where to start. It’s a little bit like a parking garage up there—cars come in and then they leave. So I guess that makes me not particularly intellectual, because I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my work. But I think I have heightened senses. I’m a physical person—everything in me is perhaps a little sharper. When I’m working I can see everything; I instantly can pinpoint a problem. People are always amazed at that.

Where does the impetus for a ballet come from for you?
CW: The music. Sometimes you pick a piece of music because you really love it, and that’s your starting point. I suppose if you have an idea, some sort of literary starting point, obviously that comes first. That’s harder, though, because then you have to find a piece of music that fits your idea, or have one written. Whereas if you’re working on a plotless ballet you can pick your music and then just take off and see what happens.

Let’s talk a bit more about music. In referring to the György Ligeti score for Continuum, you once said that your intention was “to paint music; to show the complexity and the layers of music through the movement.” Is that always a goal?
CW: It’s always a goal, because I think a choreographer’s job is to communicate music through movement. In making Rush I found the second movement particularly difficult musically because it runs away at times and becomes almost panoramic and filmlike. It loses its formal structure. That was a challenge for me: What do you do with great big, panoramic, epic-sounding patterns in the orchestra when you’ve only got two dancers? We did all sorts of things with the pas de deux in this ballet. I realized that I had actually choreographed way too many steps, so we just edited away. I started the dance slower, and we played around, trying to find the right places for certain movements to hit the music as opposed to creating shapes that mirrored exactly what was going on in the music. I think there’s a danger of being too musical, of just choreographing what you hear on the surface. You have to dig a little deeper and pick out something that’s underlying.

‘Ballet can be intimidating—some of my ballets can be intimidating. But I always try to find a way to give audiences a spoonful of sugar now and then.’ —Christopher Wheeldon

What is most challenging about choreography for you?
CW: It’s hard to be simple. It’s much more difficult to be effective without trying to be clever or creating something that’s acrobatic or impressive. You often hear dancers talk about ballets because the boys are turning a lot and the girls are getting their legs really high—that becomes less and less impressive to me as I grow up. I used to just live for tricks. They’re fine every now and then, and the audience loves them. But I suppose as a maturing artist you strive to create magic through very spare means. You’d much rather have the audience hold their breath because she touches his cheek and he responds with a simple movement than because someone just stuck their leg up around their ear. Ballet is losing its magic a little bit just because the more technical dancers become, the more choreographers hone in on their physicality as opposed to their personality and artistry—and I’m in danger of doing that sometimes too. It’s tempting, when you’ve got someone who’s incredibly physically gifted, to use that, but I think you can use that and still say something about them as a person.

I think [ballet audiences] like to be allowed to imagine. They don’t need to be told every detail; they don’t need to see something that’s plain and simple, put out there in front of them. I suppose there’s room for that, because we all love to see a trashy movie once in a while, where we don’t have to think. You come out of it no more inspired than when you went in, but you had a good time because you didn’t have to think. So there is a place for that, but I like my audiences to have to think a little bit. I don’t like them always to come out knowing exactly what they’ve seen.

People are moved by music, by movement, or by the combination of the two. The last thing you want to do is frighten an audience. Because you can go so far as to create something that’s difficult to understand, and then make the audience feel stupid. I went to see a play in London and I sat through the entire evening feeling like an idiot because I didn’t get what was going on. And you come out of that thinking, “I don’t ever want to see a play by this playwright again, because he made me feel stupid.” That’s not what going to the theater is about. It’s about being encouraged to think and imagine for yourself. There’s nothing worse than walking out feeling like you’ve been laughed at. Ballet can be intimidating—some of my ballets can be intimidating. But I always try to find a way to give audiences a spoonful of sugar now and then.

You’ve said that the primary quality you look for in a dancer is musicality. But you also said something about their imaginative use of movement. When you’re watching company class to cast a ballet, how much imaginative stuff can you see?
CW: It is difficult to see how a dancer’s going to develop onstage. Quite often dancers who are very technically gifted are just being technically gifted onstage and not investing much more into the performance. Sometimes you can tell; you can see kind of a spark. But there are times when you pick someone because they look good in class and it turns out to be a complete disaster because they don’t have any creative input or they don’t look good onstage.

You often give dancers some creative input during rehearsals—have you always done that?
CW: It’s always been that way. I think then the ballet becomes far more personal to the dancers you’re creating it on. I believe it’s the only way you can convincingly draw out an honest personality through movement. You have to see a little bit of the dancers in the ballet, otherwise it seems very superficial. It’s kind of a superficial thing that we do anyway, if you think about it. We spend our days wrapping ourselves around each other, putting our bodies in unnatural positions. And that becomes in danger of looking like a physical, gymnastic display onstage unless you’re able to feel something, even in an abstract work—unless you’re able to connect with the people who are watching. And I think the way you do that is by allowing the dancers to be part of the creative process. Quite often I shoot them down—they’ll show me something and I’ll say, “I don’t think so.” But sometimes rehearsal can be slow or I’m tired or uninspired, and someone will come up with something that will be the starting point for a whole new series of movement.

I think the dancers appreciate that opportunity.
CW: As a dancer, it’s such a gift to be given that time in the room, not only to show the choreographer what you can do but to work with them to create something. For me, it’s about the process with them. They don’t realize it’s not just me giving them a ballet—it’s them giving me inspiration. They make me a better choreographer because they push me—maybe it’s by making suggestions, or even by being a blank canvas and being good enough to handle anything I throw at them. And because they’re open to the creative process, it then goes so much further. As soon as I feel that openness—as soon as I sense that someone is there to really work and to be worked with, it gives me the confidence to go further.

You once told a dancer, “You have to keep moving. If you just stand there, it’s boring—you’re like sculpture.”
CW: Yeah. Now I’m constantly talking about how sculptural my work has become. I suppose that all comes with maturing and understanding movement, and understanding that movement can be simple and complex at the same time. Sometimes a simple gesture says more than a thousand steps could ever say.

How much has audience and critical response mattered to you? If a piece works for you personally, is that enough?
CW: Yes, I think so, in the end. But I think everyone desires that pat on the back. I think there are people who genuinely don’t give a damn what the audience or critics think. But then, I feel, in that case, why do it? Who are you doing it for? Why are you doing it for yourself? It’s like dancers who dance for themselves. Well, you have to do part of it for yourself. That’s fine—then lock yourself away in a studio and don’t show it to anyone. But I think it’s a contradiction to say that you dance or choreograph for yourself [and then put what you do on a stage]. I make ballets for my audience, and I’ve been luckier than most to have a lot of good reviews. But there’ll be a time, no doubt, when that’ll change. And I guess I have to be prepared for that. That’s when your self-confidence has to kick in.

Do you ever worry about losing your inspiration?
CW: Un-huh. You sort of have to wait it out. It happens at the beginnings of most ballets, because you just don’t know where they’re going. You start out and it’s something very new; you’re working with new people, in a new environment, with a new piece of music. It always takes me at least a week to become comfortable with the music I’m working with, find the flow, start to build the momentum. It’s not really until you’ve got a nice chunky sequence of movement [that you see where the shape is].

How would you describe yourself as a choreographer?
CW: I think of myself sometimes as one of those mincemeat machines—you drop the steak in and chop it up, then you add the spices and cook it. And out comes something far more than just a piece of red meat.