washingtonpost.com  > Arts & Living > Theater > Features

Ever On Their Toes

Christopher Wheeldon's Dance Is in the Details

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2005; Page C01

So many details. So little time. Christopher Wheeldon, the understated and overbooked resident choreographer of the New York City Ballet, has only a few hours to get what he wants out of the Washington Ballet dancers who will perform his work "There Where She Loved" tonight at the Kennedy Center.

And in his eyes, nearly every step of one particular passage is just not good enough.

"Do you let other companies perform your work," New York City Ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon says, "or do you just keep all your ballets to yourself?" He has two works running here. (Helayne Seidman - For The Washington Post)

"You need to be juicier in your body, in your upper arms," Wheeldon exhorts dancer Laura Urgelles. "Dance your upper body." He demonstrates, arching back, reaching his arms to the far corners and presenting his narrow chest to the ceiling of the company's England Studio.

"You've got to make it delicious," continues Wheeldon. "It's so not delicious right now."

Urgelles nods, undaunted by the task of interpreting what "juicier" and "delicious" might look like. And the next time she stretches into the backbend and offers a beautifully curved, outstretched foot to her partners (she is dancing with not just one man but three), the effect is more fluid, more surrendering, more luxuriant. It is, indeed, delicious.

Wheeldon turns next to the men. "Guys," he says firmly, with some exasperation, "you have got to be sexier."

Understand that these are some of the first words they have heard from the choreographer, whose work has been taught to them by an intermediary -- Ashley Wheater, a ballet master of the San Francisco Ballet -- because Wheeldon is juggling so many projects in various time zones that he scarcely can keep up with which works of his are being performed where.

His attention to detail is both a distinction and a desperate inconvenience. Wheeldon frets over the placement of a hand, the width of a stance. It takes half an hour to parse a few bars of music. Yet watching him watch his work, you get a clear sense of what sets Wheeldon apart in the dance world.

It's not the height of the leg or the number of pirouettes that concerns him. There is scarcely a moment in this rehearsal that calls attention to technical prowess. What Wheeldon tunes in to, rather, are the little mysteries of human expression. How a series of steps colored by the right inflection of feeling can change the temperature of a ballet. How wistfulness, trepidation and heartache are communicated with a look and a gesture and, perhaps, a particularly expressive arch of the foot.

His is a singular approach -- a bit old-fashioned, perhaps, but with a contemporary sting. "He hasn't copied anyone," says Wheater. "I always feel that he's showing me something I haven't seen before."

Wheeldon's sensitivity to nuance, together with his works' simmering, unforced beauty, has propelled him to the forefront of ballet choreographers. For an art form still lamenting the deaths of George Balanchine, Sir Frederick Ashton and other 20th-century masters, an art form hungry for visionary new product, this boyish 31-year-old Englishman represents a banquet.

He has created nearly three dozen ballets. Ten of them have been made for the New York City Ballet -- the 11th premieres in May -- with others commissioned by companies including American Ballet Theatre, the San Francisco Ballet and the Royal Ballet, where he began his dance career.

The trouble is, as Wheeldon becomes more desirable, with requests to stage his existing ballets or to create new ones taking him across the country and overseas well into 2006, he has less time to spend tweaking the details that are his trademark.

"You can't cover everything. It's really choosing your battles wisely," Wheeldon says over a mug of tea in an empty office at the Washington Ballet's Wisconsin Avenue headquarters after his rehearsal. ("No milk," he sighs in disappointment, scanning the tray a staffer brought in. "How un-English.") Wheeldon thinks back on his efforts to adjust one of the dancers' positions, and how he finally gave up micromanaging that moment in order to move on to another one.

"There's enough there to really work hard with them all day for a week," he says. "And I would love to -- it would be fun for me. But I can't. . . . But then you have to decide, do you let other companies perform your work, and let it go a little bit and be okay with the fact that things are going to be a little bit different, or do you just keep all your ballets to yourself?"

There are choreographers who have chosen the latter route, such as Martha Graham and Jerome Robbins, unwilling to trust others to convey their intentions. As a result, one rarely sees their work outside of the entities for which they created them, Graham for her eponymous company and Robbins primarily for the New York City Ballet.

But Wheeldon, like many in his field, has chosen to sell his talents on the open market. He says the New York City Ballet expects two works a year from him, in addition to rehearsing repertory works of his. Otherwise his time is his own. He's made impressive use of it, choreographing for film ("Center Stage") and Broadway ("Sweet Smell of Success"). While he favors the one-act ballet, last year he took aim at "Swan Lake," creating a provocative version for the Pennsylvania Ballet that began as a rehearsal in a Degas-era studio and included a striptease in a cabaret show-within-a-show. That production wasn't entirely seamless, but it left the strong impression of a daring and creative mind.

Until now, his work has been scarce in Washington. The next two weeks will constitute something of a Christopher Wheeldon festival here, with the Washington Ballet's program running tonight through Sunday at the Eisenhower Theater. (Also on the bill will be Balanchine's "Stravinsky Violin Concerto" and Trey McIntyre's premiere of "The Rite of Spring.") Then, as part of its March 2-6 engagement at the Opera House, the New York City Ballet will perform Wheeldon's "Polyphonia" on the March 4 and 5 evening programs, which will also include Balanchine and Robbins works.

You couldn't chart a much swifter rise in the dance world than Wheeldon's. After only about a half-dozen years of professional commissions, he now conveys a distinct cachet. When the Washington Ballet was looking to acquire a work of small enough scale to be tour-friendly (the company travels to Italy this summer), "There Where She Loved" seemed a perfect fit. It requires 11 dancers, two sopranos and a pianist for the Kurt Weill songs and Chopin selections that accompany it. But for Artistic Director Septime Webre, the Wheeldon name was an asset in itself.

"I certainly hope it's helpful not just for ticket sales but also for the prestige of the company," Webre says. "This adds to the luster of our repertoire, and is a testament to the seriousness of our company."

For all the expectations heaped on him, Wheeldon is an unassuming savior. Slim and small-boned, with delicate features and sandy hair springing up in a cowlick, he could likely keep passing for twentyish years from now. He supervised the Washington Ballet rehearsal in socks and frayed jeans, with an olive-drab jacket zipped over a T-shirt.

From the beginning, he says, putting steps together came as naturally as dancing. As a child in London's Royal Ballet School, Wheeldon says, "I enjoyed being the center of attention, being bossy." He used to corral chums in the neighborhood into productions while home on summer vacation. He continued to create pieces even as he was distinguishing himself as a dancer, winning Switzerland's attention-getting Prix de Lausanne competition in 1991, dancing one of his own works.

Wheeldon joined the Royal Ballet later that year. Just two years later, fate -- or at least a really good gift-with-purchase -- intervened. He pounced on an offer of a free flight to New York with the purchase of a Hoover vacuum, becoming one of the lucky few to actually get tickets; the marketing ploy ended up costing Hoover millions and landing it in a court battle with thousands of disappointed customers. Wheeldon got more than free airfare out of the deal: While in New York, he popped into the New York City Ballet and asked to take a class. After a few more classes, he was hired.

By the time he decided to stop dancing in 2000, Wheeldon had been promoted to soloist. But he wanted to devote his time to creating dances. He had showed his tapes from England to City Ballet's director, Peter Martins; Martins asked him to create a work for the company's school, and after that came a request for a new ballet for the pros. In 2001 Martins made him the company's first-ever resident choreographer, under contract through the 2007-08 season.

It was in 2000 that Wheeldon created both "There Where She Loved" and "Polyphonia," which Wheeldon dubs, without a trace of irony, two of his "early" works. Nearly polar opposites, they neatly encapsulate a split in his approach.

"There Where She Loved," originally made for the Royal Ballet, sprang from a period "when I was announcing to everyone that I was a romantic, which I think I still am," Wheeldon says. "At that time I was still very interested in romantic themes, being in love -- all sorts of things that I wasn't at that stage particularly well experienced in." Its complicated, jigsaw-puzzle partnering -- in several sections, Urgelles is rippled like a banner through the air by four men -- bears the mark of the Royal Ballet's signature choreographers, Ashton and Sir Kenneth MacMillan, known for sweeping, complex lifts.

Wheeldon says he still enjoys watching this series of vignettes exploring light and dark sides of love, but he now views it as "naive." It was soon afterward that he created "Polyphonia" for the New York City Ballet as a test of whether he could make anything of music that he says terrified him: Gyorgy Ligeti's abstract, discordant "Musica Ricercata."

"It was a conscious decision to take the Balanchine perspective -- leotards, empty stage -- and see if I could progress, use that as a starting point and say something different."

What he ended up with is what he calls a "sketchbook" of unrelated little dances, linked as a suite.

Since he brought up the Balanchine name, we wonder: What does Wheeldon make of the comparisons to the revered neoclassicist that some have, perhaps too hastily, applied to him?

Not much, apparently. "The mantle of 'the next Balanchine' is just so . . . it's a little boring now," he says. "To hear it over and over again. And I don't mean to be ungrateful for that, it's wonderful that people have an interest, but no one can be the next Balanchine. And I think if you set out to be that, you're probably heading down the wrong track."

To hear Wheeldon tell it, his own track is a rather unremarkable, workaday one. "I'm not trying to set about to change anything," he says. "I think at this point in time, ballets need to be made in order to excite the public about current work and to build a repertoire of the future."

The repertoire of the future. Back in the studio, part of it is being hammered into shape little bit by little bit, myriad details taking form. With his window of time for the Washington Ballet fast closing, Wheeldon is working with company member Maki Onuki. As she runs across the room, he wants her to skid part of the distance on the slippery satin edge of her toe shoe.

"Go for it," he urges. Onuki runs, slides, falls.

She tries it three times, falls three times. The room goes quiet.

"All right," Wheeldon says, with a hint of resignation. "Let's not obsess about that too much."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company