Christopher Wheeldon was born in Somerset, England, and trained at The Royal Ballet School and performed with England's Royal Ballet as well as with New York City Ballet (NYCB) during his career as a dancer. In 1991 he won the Gold Medal at the Prix de Lausanne competition. In 2000 he retired from performance in order to concentrate full-time on choreographing, and was resident choreographer for NYCB from 2001 until 2008. He has received numerous awards, including the London Critics' Circle Award for best new ballet for Polyphonia (which premiered in 2001) and the American Choreography Award for best choreography in a movie for 2000's Center Stage. In 2007 he launched his own dance company, Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company. While here to create his ballet for the New Works Festival, he talked about his inspirations and his work with San Francisco Ballet.
BACKSTAGE: Your list of accomplishments is long, especially considering your age. Where do you hope to be in 10 years?
WHEELDON: Well, being as busy as I am at the moment it's hard to see beyond the next 10 minutes, but I don't know, I guess still creating new work and I've started my own company [Morphoses—The Wheeldon Company], and it's still very much in its infancy. So looking at the big picture, my dream would be that in 10 years we were established, and that I had a permanent set of dances and that I was choreographing more regularly and permanently for my own company but still having the option every now and then to come here or go elsewhere to make works outside. Because I think it's important still to have that kind of exposure to other companies, the way they work, other dances. So yeah, I guess just continuing to be happy and excited about doing what I do and making good new work.
BACKSTAGE: Do you have any ideas about what the world of dance will look like in 10 years?
WHEELDON: I have no idea what the world of dance is going to look like in 10 years. I hope that classical ballet is going to be healthy and alive and kicking, and I don't see any reason why it shouldn't be. And let's hope that by that stage we will have been successful at bringing new audiences into the theaters and that we'll have a healthy quota of patrons supporting the art form and enjoying the new work that's being created at that time.
BACKSTAGE: You've done quite a bit of work with San Francisco Ballet, creating Quaturnary and Continuum on the Company, as well as setting Carousel (A Dance) and the pas de deux from After the Rain, among other ballets. Does your level of familiarity with San Francisco Ballet influence your creative approach here at all?
WHEELDON: There's a wealth of fantastic dancers in this company and I can't work with them all all the time. So it's nice to be able to work with some on one work and then have the luxury of coming back and working with another dancer that I'm interested in, someone who I haven't worked with before.
BACKSTAGE: How would you characterize this company?
WHEELDON: Diverse, well rounded, creative—I'm talking about the dancers and also the way the repertoire is put together. It's a very broad rep that allows the dancers to experience different styles of choreography. They create a lot of new work. There's a lot of choreographers coming through, in and out, influencing the way the dancers move. And I guess with each new work they're being pushed in different directions and making them more diverse and more used to the creative process, which makes them very collaborative as a group.
BACKSTAGE: Who or what has inspired or influenced you as a choreographer?
WHEELDON: Gosh, there's been a lot of influence in my life. I guess choreographically it's very difficult of course to ignore the influences of the masters that I grew up under, Ashton and MacMillan in London, Balanchine and Robbins in New York. You know, I continue to be inspired by the work of other choreographers who are creating the classical ballet vocabulary, which is becoming more and more rare these days, but it's always exciting for me to see people using the pointe shoe, using the vocabulary that I love and that I think still has a lot of interesting things to say.
BACKSTAGE: Where did the inspiration for your New Works Festival piece come from?
WHEELDON: The inspiration for this new piece came from the music, wonderful sort of warm yet contemporary minimalist music by a composer called Ezzio Bosso. It has sort of an insistent drive to it but also within the ballet there are these very tender moments—very atmospheric, intimate moments. So that has been the main influence on how the ballet's been shaped and where the choreography comes from making the music visual, painting music in a sort of sculptural way. The dancers all contribute in their own way; their personalities start to emerge within the choreography and then you're left with, you know, with hopefully what adds up to a ballet.
BACKSTAGE: Among the 10 world premieres that will comprise the New Works Festival, what do you think yours will be remembered for?
WHEELDON: Gosh, that's a complicated question, one that's very difficult to answer as the creator of a work. You have no idea how an audience is going to respond, and everyone takes away something very different. The beauty of abstract work is that you interpret it your own way. It's a very individual experience so I think every one of those people that sit in the Opera House will come away with something different.
BACKSTAGE: Is this work a departure for you in any way?
WHEELDON: Well every work is a step towards being more mature and having a clear understanding of the craft and so they're all departures, you know. It's just a question of kind of stepping one foot in front of the other.
BACKSTAGE: When you were invited to create a ballet for the New Works Festival, did you think about any particular aspect of yourself or your choreography that you wanted to present?
WHEELDON: I think I approached this piece the same way I would approach any piece. You know, I approach it with the goal of creating something interesting and vibrant and fresh and exciting to watch. Of course it's a great honor to be choreographing for the 75th anniversary, but it doesn't mean I'm going to try harder because it's an anniversary or treat it really any other way than I would if I was choreographing for the regular rep season. I would just want to make a good ballet that has a place in the repertoire here.
BACKSTAGE: What was your response to the concept of this Festival?
WHEELDON: It's a huge benchmark and I think a very inspiring project, a great idea to have so much new work, 10 new works premiering as part of one season.