Wunderkind ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon tells a story with ‘Alice’


Christopher Wheeldon in rehearsal for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (Sian Richards)

In his first decade as a full-time choreographer, worldwide wunderkind Christopher Wheeldon refused several tantalizing offers to create new story ballets. Instead, he jet-setted from company to company, creating mostly short, abstract works set to contemporary classical music. Then along came the Royal Ballet’s Dame Monica Mason, holding out a cupcake labeled “Eat Me.”

Wheeldon couldn’t resist, and as a result he has grown enormously as a choreographer.

“I thought, ‘You know, Chris, it is probably time to bite the bullet and have a go,’ ” Wheeldon recalled, speaking in a clipped English accent from an airport in Texas. “The Royal Ballet hadn’t had a new story ballet in something like 17 years.”

“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” opens at the Kennedy Center on Friday. The presenting company is not the Royal Ballet but its co-commissioner, the National Ballet of Canada, making its first appearance in Washington in more than a decade. The movement remains all Wheeldon’s, though, with an original score by Joby Talbot and a storyline developed with help from playwright Nicholas Wright. The ballet premiered in London in February 2011 and in Canada a few months later. Both companies revived the ballet to sold-out crowds last year. In Toronto, fans lined up at 3 a.m. hoping for turn-back tickets. And in the newpapers, on both sides of the Atlantic, the critics raved.

“This production has to be the best dance adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s beloved children’s classic on the planet,” gushed Paula Citron in the Globe and Mail. “Alice” is a “monumental achievement,” she wrote, but it is also, she added in the next paragraph, “a cash cow.”

Wheeldon wasn’t surprised by the qualified praise. “Our intention was to make a ballet that would encourage people to come in, enjoy themselves and then, God forbid, come back,” he said. “There is room in our little tightknit ballet world for ballets that do that, that excite people who haven’t been to the ballet before. So what if it is entertaining. Who said that entertainment was something that we shouldn’t be thinking about in ballet?”

Good question. But survey the works in Wheeldon’s oeuvre, and you’ll find few to describe as entertaining. For example, the focal points of both “After the Rain” and “Liturgy” are mournful pas de deuxs set to somber music by Arvo Part. “DGV: Danse àGrande Vitesse” is a post-
apocalyptic rush for ensemble and orchestra. And “Polyphonia,” with its frenetic Ligeti piano score, is all about bringing technical precision to musical chaos.

All these works are in the vicinity of 20 minutes long, and they were created after Wheeldon retired in 2000, at the youthful age of 27, from dancing at New York City Ballet. He then served as the company’s resident choreographer for seven years and accepted commissions from the likes of the Bolshoi, San Francisco and Royal ballets.

“Certainly, I was lauded, for a long time, for being extremely young to be making the kind of work that I was making on such a level,” Wheeldon said.

Then, in 2010, hubris appeared to catch up with him. The choreographer announced that he was resigning as artistic director of his own troupe, Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company, to again focus on freelance choreography. He had founded Morphoses just four years before, with the idea of running a chamber company that would be based in London and New York.

But if failing to get his own troupe off the ground, and turning out a few rushed-looking works, tarnished Wheeldon’s reputation, the success of “Alice” has revived it to a sheen that sparkles like the Swarovski crystals covering the caterpillar’s 25-foot-long costume. Karen Kain, artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, cannot say enough good things about Wheeldon and his new ballet. It was the choreographer himself who suggested that the National Ballet co-commission “Alice,” after he saw the Canadian dancers perform “Polyphonia” in 2009. Kain called Mason, and soon the companies were partners.

“We love having ‘Alice’ in our repertoire,” Kain said. “It has been hugely successful, and the dancers love it. It is still ballet. It is what they trained to do, but they get the chance to be outrageous and funny.”

Outrageous and funny. Two words an artistic director would never have associated with Wheeldon’s works before his trip down the White Rabbit’s hole. Wheeldon knows this, and he says the experience of devising movement for characters — a tap-dancing Mad Hatter, the cleaver-wielding Duchess, the free-floating Cheshire Cat — has changed his dancemaking for the better.

“I have a lot to learn still, with storytelling and with dance,” he said. “I had been making a lot of work, and a lot of abstract work. . . . Describing characters through movement was something that I hadn’t done very much of. It was refreshing, like throwing all the windows open and airing out just a bit.”

Wheeldon had choreographed story ballets to existing music before: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for the Boston Ballet and “Swan Lake” for the Pennsylvania Ballet. But when he went to create a new “Cinderella” last year (a co-production for the Dutch National and San Francisco ballets), his approach was different. He took liberties with the fairy tale, was more adventurous with the characters and thought more carefully about how to use Prokofiev’s music. And there is more storytelling in his future. The Royal Ballet has commissioned another made-from-scratch ballet by Wheeldon and Talbot. (He can’t reveal the title, but it’s Shakespeare.) Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet also has a full-length work in progress, and Wheeldon hopes to direct his first Broadway musical in 2015.

“There is a demand from the audience for story work,” Wheeldon said. “And it is definitely time to fill that need.”

His transition to longer work may be coming at a fortuitous time. Wheeldon turns 40 this year, and a new crop of 20-something wunderkinds is turning up on global ballet stages, debuting the sort of 20-minutes-of-genius dances that made Wheeldon famous. In March, the Royal Ballet will debut a trio of new works by Wheeldon, established Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky and 26-year-old Royal Ballet dancer Liam Scarlett. Last October, Justin Peck, who is 25, stole the spotlight from Wheeldon’s “Les Carillons” with the debut of his “Year of the Rabbit” at City Ballet. The New York Times’s Brian Seibert called “Rabbit,” which is set to music by indie-folk-pop raconteur Sufjan Stevens, “a triumph” and “a true coming out party.”

It seems fair to wonder whether the Royal — where Wheeldon trained for seven years — and City Ballet would be taking such chances on young dancer-
choreographers now if the risks they took on Wheeldon hadn’t paid off. He doesn’t make the connection himself, though he conceded, “That’s nice to think of.”

“It seems like younger choreographers are getting big, mainstream opportunities faster, but we also live in a world that is kind of youth-obsessed,” Wheeldon said. “I think what’s exciting is that there is a wave of young, classical ballet choreography happening on stages all over the world.”

Peck, for his part, is quick to credit Wheeldon with his own rabbit-leap from corps dancer to choreographer. “Christopher has been a huge influence,” Peck said. “His presence has always been an important presence. He has taken classical ballet into the 21st century, and he’s an essential voice.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

National Ballet of Canada

Jan. 18-Jan. 23 at the Kennedy Center

www.kennedy-center.org

202-467-4600

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