- The Washington Times - Friday, March 30, 2007

Christopher Wheeldon, undoubtedly the most sought after choreographer in the world today, was in town this week fine-tuning his 200l “Morphoses” for the Washington Ballet. The company dances the piece, together with Septime Webre’s “Carmina Burana,” through this weekend at the Kennedy Center.

Mr. Wheeldon’s rise in the dance world has been meteoric. Born in England, trained at London’s Royal Ballet School, first a member of the Royal Ballet, then of the New York City Ballet, he found his true calling seven years ago when he became the NYCB’s first resident choreographer. The arrangement called for him to make two ballets yearly for the company. It also allowed him to accept commissions here and abroad, most recently for the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. Companies stand in line to have him create for their dancers.

“Morphoses,” a work for two couples set to a spiky score by Gyorgy Ligeti, is a good example of his sensitive musical response, striking use of space and originality in creating arresting shapes that energize classical ballet technique.

“Morphoses” is also the name of Mr. Wheeldon’s next bold venture — starting a company of his own.

That announcement astounded the ballet world. He seemed to have an ideal life as a choreographer with the prestigious NYCB connection plus the freedom to work elsewhere. Why would he want to leave?

Watching him at work with the Washington Ballet dancers and talking to him after rehearsal reveals some of the answers to that question.

In the studio, he is supremely self-confident, clear and concise, communicating to the dancers in imaginative ways: “You should move like wet lasagne.” “If you think more about shape than energy, the whole ballet will feel a little juicier.” He nudges them to be more collaborative. “Don’t be afraid to create a little here.”

The atmosphere is demanding but collegial. The dancers, drenched with sweat, are met with words of encouragement. Mr. Wheeldon jumps up repeatedly to illustrate what he wants, his energy unflagging through four intense hours of rehearsing two successive sets of dancers.

When we talk afterward, his reasons for forming his own company emerge.

“One of the things I’d like to focus on as artistic director is the shaping of a dancer’s career,” he says. “That is more rewarding than seeing my ballet up there onstage, having the knowledge that I actually can help dancers grow as artists.”

Another area Mr. Wheeldon is anxious to tackle is shaping programs for audiences and audience education.

“I don’t believe one education program a year is enough. I think there are many inspirational artistic leaders who talk to their audience and help them have an understanding of what they’re going to see. I’ve reached a point where I have the urge to try and make a difference in those fields as well and not just in the field of choreography.”

There is huge interest in Mr. Wheeldon’s new venture, but he says not to expect too much too soon. Critics suggest that his company will be a pickup group, and he agrees that is exactly what it will be for at least the first two years — but a pickup company with some of the biggest stars from NYCB and the Royal Ballet, who will join him for three months during their summer layoffs.

The thorniest hurdle he thinks he will face as he moves from this model to a full-time company — and experts in the field agree — will be to find the money. He envisions a company of 20 to 25 and a yearly budget of $5 million, with funds in hand for the first two years before he asks dancers to take the risk of leaving a steady job to join his troupe .

Morphoses/ The Wheeldon Company makes its debut at an international festival in Vail, Colo., this summer, Sadler’s Wells in London in September and City Center in New York in October, with all three venues committed to the following year as well.

He cautions, “It’s wonderful that people have been supportive of me, but when I choreographed my first piece, I was called ‘the next hope.’ When I started to build a repertoire of works it was, ‘the next Balanchine.’ And now I read I’m ‘the next Diaghilev.’

“I’d quite like to be just Christopher Wheeldon, starting a ballet company and seeing what happens and not having such high expectations for it that we all crumble under the pressure.

“I’m in no hurry. I just turned 34 last week, so if it takes ten years to get this off the ground, I’m not going to rush it because everyone’s waiting with bated breath.”

It’s a nice thought, but being “just Christopher Wheeldon” already has created such a string of brilliant ballets that a quietly underplayed beginning hardly seems an option for this challenging artist.

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