Not every young ballet choreographer gets a profile in Time magazine and a spotlight in Vanity Fair. Or gets hired to choreograph a major Broadway musical starring John Lithgow. Or has his work showcased in a popular teen movie. But then, Christopher Wheeldon is no ordinary talent.
A rising star in the ballet world, Wheeldon's combination of a reverence for the classics with a freshness of approach and a remarkable facility has artistic directors clamouring for his services. At 27, his fast-track career has already seen him create numerous works for Britain's Royal Ballet and the New York City Ballet as well as leading companies across North America. This month, he makes his Canadian debut with Alberta Ballet, which is presenting his full-evening version of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Edmonton (starting tomorrow) and Calgary (next week).
Critics and colleagues have been effusive in singing his praises. "No ballet choreographer of his generation can match his imaginative use of the classical vocabulary," writes New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff. Adds stage and film director Nicholas Hytner: "I know of no other young choreographer with Chris's blithe confidence in the classical tradition."
A tall, reedy Englishman with a wispy blond moustache and goatee, Wheeldon exudes that confidence in person. But as he takes a break from rehearsals at Alberta Ballet's Calgary studios, he admits all the accolades are beginning to be a bit much.
"I know it makes my mother very happy," he says, laughing. "It's very flattering to have the interest, but I don't know how I feel about it. The more people praise me, the more pressure is put upon me to live up to it.
But Wheeldon's work does set him up for comparisons. A Midsummer Night's Dream, set to the music of Mendelssohn, follows in the formidable footsteps of George Balanchine and Frederick Ashton, taking its cue from Balanchine's two-act ballet of Shakespeare's comedy and Ashton's one-act The Dream. "I owe a lot in this production to both Ashton and Balanchine," he quickly notes, "but I think I've followed the play a little closer." When Balanchine turned the Bard's tale of cunning fairies and clueless mortals into a ballet, he stuffed most of the plot into the first act, reserving the second for pageantry and divertissements. "It always bothered me that suddenly we were just swept immediately out of the story and instead we had this very pretty wedding scene," says Wheeldon. "I decided to continue the story after the intermission."
Wheeldon's the perfect man for Alberta Ballet, which has been vigorously remaking itself as a neoclassical troupe since artistic director Mikko Nissinen took the reins in 1998. The company has pulled out the stops for this lavish production, which features all 28 of its dancers plus a live orchestra and choir and 26 local children playing various fairies and sprites. Adding lots of kids "helps to appeal to a younger audience," says Wheeldon. "The ballet itself is a fairly adult story, but this encourages parents to bring their kids if they know there are children in the piece. It's an old Balanchine device."
The work was originally commissioned for Colorado Ballet, where it premiered in 1995, but Wheeldon says he's made "quite a lot of changes" for this production.
Wheeldon has been making dances since the age of 9 when, as a precocious student at the Royal Ballet School in London, he devised a little piece that stole unabashedly from Swan Lake. "From then on, the bug bit me and I was hooked."
He had begun dancing only the year before in his native Somerset. His artistic parents enrolled their youngest child in ballet classes at the local village hall after he was mesmerized by a production of La fille mal gardée on the telly.
His teacher immediately recognized his potential and urged him to audition for the Royal Ballet School. By 18, he'd won the gold medal at the Prix de Lausanne competition and graduated to the Royal's corps de ballet. A job with the corps of the New York City Ballet followed, but although he was promoted to soloist in 1998, he decided to quit dancing last spring to focus on his burgeoning choreographic career. This season, he became the company's first artist in residence.
Wheeldon clearly has more than enough on his plate these days. Aside from the ballet jobs (his next one is a Benjamin Britten piece for the Hamburg Ballet) he's choreographing The Sweet Smell of Success, a new musical version of the hard-boiled 1957 film classic, to star John Lithgow. With a book by playwright John Guare and a score by Marvin Hamlisch, it's due to open in New York early in 2002. "It's really a new thing for me," says Wheeldon. "I just hope I don't screw it up."
Wheeldon will be at the Edmonton opening of Dream, but will miss the Calgary dates. "It's a shame," he says, "but I need a couple of weeks off to plan the piece in Hamburg and get some sun. I haven't seen the sun in a long time." Alberta Ballet presents A Midsummer Night's Dream tomorrow and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton, and Feb. 22-24 at 8 p.m. at the Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary. Tickets at TicketMaster: 780-451-8000 (Edmonton), 403-299-8888 (Calgary).