Wheeldon, Overstepping a Bit

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 6, 2008

NEW YORK -- For those who thought maybe his next act would include walking on water, here's the news: Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon -- surprise -- has feet of clay.

Some have gone so far as to lay the crown of "savior of ballet" upon the boyish head of the British-born, New York-based Wheeldon -- who in addition to being young (35) is also extravagantly gifted and ambitious. He is arguably the most coveted ballet choreographer on the planet. Certainly his finely crafted work is the equivalent of a Prada pump -- what all the best ballet troupes want to be seen in this season. (In the space of a few weeks this fall, the Kennedy Center will host two groups, the Washington Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet, dancing Wheeldon works.)

The hotly anticipated company Wheeldon started just over a year ago looked exceedingly handsome at Wednesday's gala opening at City Center. But the evening exposed weaknesses in his programming acumen and in his own output.

There were two hits and two misses on this program. Still, Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company, as the troupe is known, remains a promising fledgling venture, due to the firmness of Wheeldon's overall vision as well as the excellence of his 18 dancers. (It takes its name from one of Wheeldon's early works.) There's such an eagerness about the whole enterprise, it fairly jumps into your lap with the promise of easy companionship.

As the audience took its seats, a large screen over the stage showed video of a dancer in practice clothes with her drugstore accouterments strewn around her; she's taping her toes and tying on her pointe shoes, preparing herself much as we've seen other athletes do, with their bandages and rosin and cleats. No diva-on-a-pedestal here, just the ritualistic ho-hum-ness of a workout.

Soon Wheeldon, in a modishly slim-fitting suit, collar open, took the stage with a microphone and a warm grin: "Hello, my name is Christopher Wheeldon," he announced brightly; he was here "to talk you through the program." How condescending -- and yet we don't even mind! You can't help liking this guy.

What's clear is, he wants the audience -- those new to dance, especially -- to feel at ease with what's onstage. So like a good host he makes introductions, and in other unobtrusive ways he keeps popping in to make sure we're okay. As in: Before each piece, its title is projected on the curtains -- this is a good idea -- and a couple of works are preceded by artfully shot video of the rehearsal process and explanatory voice-overs by the choreographers.

For this series, which ended yesterday, most of Morphoses's dancers are on loan from the New York City Ballet, where Wheeldon was for seven years the resident choreographer, as well as the Royal Ballet, where he began his dance career, and the Norwegian National Ballet (Wheeldon got to know the Norwegians recently while creating a work for the company). Morphoses aims to be a full-time, salaried operation with 20 dancers by the end of 2010.

But if it is still in a temporary state, the company is doing just what a new troupe ought to do. Logically enough, it's primarily a showcase for Wheeldon's creations. There were two on this, the first of two programs, the scalpel-sharp "Polyphonia," which he made in 2001 for the New York City Ballet, and the new -- and disappointing -- "Commedia," which premiered at the company's show last month in London.

But Wheeldon, bless him, is also putting on great work of the past. Opening night featured "Monotones II," a touching and glamorous ode to the Space Age for three dancers, created in 1965 by the incomparable British choreographer Frederick Ashton. Unfortunately, plans for the pas de deux from Ashton's "The Dream" (1964) on a subsequent program were scuttled due to a dancer injury.

The third prong of Wheeldon's plan is to showcase new work by less well-known choreographers: Wednesday, the Canadian Emily Molnar contributed "Six Fold Illuminate," a pointless piece that felt like getting caught in a midday traffic jam to SoHo -- you were tantalized by the prospect of something sharp and fresh, but the journey wore you out. A second program featured "Shutters Shut" by Paul Lightfoot and Sol León of the Nederlands Dans Theater.

Also -- and importantly -- Wheeldon has said yes to live music. Indeed, the program's most consistent pleasure was the musical selections and the quality of the playing by the Orchestra of St. Luke's, conducted by Alan Pierson.

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