How New York and London created style of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon
Wheeldon has created more than 90 works for American and British ballet companies, and the precision and fluidity in his style reflects a life spent on both sides of the Atlantic. Catch his energetic ballet Rush this June
Ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon lives between two worlds, and that’s helped to forge his unique style, he says.
British-born Wheeldon – whose short ballet Rush is being performed as part of the Hong Kong Ballet’s Wheeldon, Ratmansky, McIntyre and The Beatles programme next month – began his career as a dancer at the Royal Ballet in London. Then in 1993, at the age of 19, he moved to the US to dance at the New York City Ballet, where he became the resident choreographer in 2001. He currently choreographs for ballet companies around the US, as well as the Royal Ballet, where he is the artistic associate.
“I’ve spent a lot of time living in the US,” Wheeldon says, “but I’ve also been back to the UK for long periods, working for the Royal Ballet. I think that my style is an amalgam of my years in New York at the New York City Ballet and my upbringing in the Royal Ballet.”
The audience will notice this blend in Rush, he says: “There is a lot of quick footwork in Rush – it’s very fast moving – and that’s a quality I have picked up from living in New York. Living there, you are always going somewhere, you are always on your way to a place – there is a flow of people as soon as you go out of your front door. Those qualities have crept into my work,” he says.
Although Rush reflects the fast pace of New York’s streets, it was inspired by laid-back California, the 45-year-old choreographer says.
“I like to give myself new challenges, and when I was commissioned to make a new piece for the San Francisco ballet, I wanted to capture some of the Californian spirit of the company,” he says. “Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu ů wroteSinfonietta La Jolla when he was living in the US, and it has breezy energetic brightness to it. I’m trying to capture some of that openness in the movement of the dancers.”
Other influences creep into the mix as the dance progresses: “There is an underlying darkness to the third movement. People like the way that the sweetness goes with the darkness,” Wheeldon says.
The 24-minute, neo-classical Rush, which is a non-narrative work, was created for the San Francisco Ballet in 2003.
It’s a good introduction to Wheeldon’s overarching choreographic style, which has a both a precision of form and a fluidity – it’s orderly, but packed with bursts of excitement. The elegant, minimalist stage setting, designed by John Morrell, references the work of abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko.
“We talked a lot about Rothko,” Wheeldon says. “I wanted there to be a set, but I didn’t want something big at the back. What he came up with lends itself to the sunny, expansive qualities of the music, as well as the darker thread that runs through the work. Jon’s costumes capture the sunnier colours of California,” he adds.
Wheeldon has also choreographed full-scale story ballets such as Alice in Wonderland and A Winter’s Tale, both of which he created for the Royal Ballet, but the abstracts have a certain appeal, he says.
“The beauty of an abstract is that you are launching from nothing. You are going into a room and starting to build something that is driven by music. Sometimes my abstract ballets have a theme, and I go in with an idea of what I want to say,” he explains.
“But most of the time, a short work like Rush really does come from the music. I often say I like to paint with music – I am using bodies to make a piece of music a visual experience for an audience. It’s a lovely, very free process.”
Story ballets demand a different approach. “In some ways they are even more exciting, as you have to build the characters. There is also the challenge of clearly communicating the story to an audience. It’s a lot harder and it takes a lot more time,” he says.
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Choreographing Shakespeare, as he did in A Winter’s Tale, is hard work, he says: “I’m not a Shakespeare scholar, so I only take what I need from the text. I look at the story, and decide if it’s too complex to work as a ballet, and whether the characters will serve the full company. If the story won’t lend itself to dance, it’s not worth doing.”
Broadway, he says was an even greater challenge. In 2015, Wheeldon was asked to direct a version of An American In Paris, a stage adaptation of the 1951 movie, in New York’s famed theatre district.
“The Broadway producers were looking for some really substantive dance, which is why they asked me,” he says. “Working with actors, rather than dancers, was terrifying for me at first, because they use a very different language and I had to develop new skills. But it was a very interesting journey.”
Such challenges are a part of keeping a fresh approach to his work, he says: “I’ve made about 90 ballets now, and I’m still keeping my work inventive. Challenges help me bring a new perspective to the choreography.”
Wheeldon, Ratmansky, McIntrye and The Beatles, Hong Kong Ballet.
Jun 1 and 2, 7.30pm; Jun 2 and 3, 2.30pm
Cultural Centre, 10 Salisbury Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui, HK$140-HK$1,000 Urbtix. Inquiries: 2573 7398