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Christopher Wheeldon

Artistic Associate, The Royal Ballet

interviewed by David Bain

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 17 March 2014.

DAVID BAIN WELCOMED CHRIS who began by telling us something of his background. He was fortunate enough to grow up in a family interested in the arts. His parents had met doing amateur dramatics in a play about Samuel Pepys directed by his father and in which his mother played Mrs Pepys. She always wanted to be a ballerina having a great physique and beautiful feet but her father was strict and felt this wasn’t quite appropriate. Chris’s father belonged to a choir and music societies while at Cambridge and as a family they often went to theatre and pantomime when Chris was young. One day he saw La Fille mal gardée with Michael Coleman and Lesley Collier on TV and knew he wanted to be a chicken! Asking his mum how he could do that, she explained they were dancers who had to train and go to class and so he was enrolled in ballet classes in Somerset where they lived. It was a bit like Billy Elliot – 20 or 30 girls and no other boys – and he recalled sitting on a chair in the middle of the room while the girls were at the barre. After six weeks the ballet teacher told his mum that he was talented but she didn’t feel equipped to take him forward, suggesting he was of an age to go to Junior Associates at the Royal Ballet School. So he came to London to audition and at the age of eight he joined JAs which involved spending a lot of time travelling from Somerset twice a week, eating picnics in the car. The family then moved to Guildford and Chris progressed into the junior school.

 Suddenly he was in a lead role on the Covent Garden stage with the Royal Ballet…

Chris, suggesting he called his psychiatrist, said he found White Lodge quite terrifying. He was a very young and sensitive 11 year old and really missed home. Those first two years, he was always first out of bed and first in the queue for the telephone. His mum said these were the worst days of her life, and she had lived through the war. Sometimes he couldn’t talk at all for fear of breaking down and so she just spoke to him. Even so Chris knew that he wanted to be there as he wanted to be a dancer. He gradually settled in and began making friends and his second Christmas was cast as Fritz in Nutcracker. Suddenly he was in a lead role on the Covent Garden stage with the Royal Ballet, though this wasn’t in fact his first experience on the stage as he’d been in Rigoletto as a JA. This helped settle him in but it was all very pressurised being in such competition and away from home living in a grand and imposing building with quite a strict regime. If you didn’t jump high enough they pulled you up by your hair, or illustrated by drawing with a biro on your body to demonstrate what position they should be in! This has obviously changed as all schools are now less formal and government controlled. Competition was tough and every year there was a general assessment and a few kids had to leave which was sad. So during those formative years from the age of 11 to 16 it was a period of intense education and upbringing.

The Upper School was a whole new ball-game. From living in a very protected environment focussed on academics and ballet with everything done for you, you were suddenly launched into the world, moving into digs, having to shop and cook and do your own laundry – and open a bank account. White Lodge was a good preparation for academic and balletic education but not life skills – he ate a lot of baked beans! But it was exciting and in his first year, Chris was the solo boy in the pas de six in Napoli. He felt very comfortable with the Bournonville style and it was even suggested he join the Royal Danish Ballet but he decided he wanted to be in London and in his second year he went to the Prix de Lausanne and won the gold medal dancing La Sylphide. The previous year the medal had been won by Carlos Acosta and the year before that by Teddy Kumakawa so no one was more surprised than Chris though he thought it a nice statement about dance not always needing to be about virtuosity, it was also about style and artistry. Even so, competition was a horrid experience and it felt like a backward step but he won so that was OK! Soon afterwards he got a contract with the Royal, just before the graduation performance, when he danced Les Sylphides in Holland Park, and Balanchine’s Valse Fantaisie. This was Chris’s first Balanchine work and he felt windows and doors had been flung open for him. The lady who came to stage that piece was brassy and wonderful and encouraged them to move and enjoy and let the music carry them forward, not necessarily in a particular style but just inhabiting the music, and Chris felt great in the part. But he knew he wanted to be in the Royal Ballet and got the job where he’d always dreamed of being. He also danced in the second movement of Symphony in C, in the first year it was in the rep, but had a really heavy girl and he wasn’t very strong. Nor was he very good at partnering and he just couldn’t get the shoulder lift at the final pose! All the other girls were jumping but his partner just stood so he had to climb under her but never actually achieved lifting her right onto his shoulder. As a result of all this he put his back out and that problem is still with him now. His first year in the Company he did the usual first year corps boy roles but Kenneth Macmillan picked him as Benvolio which was his first soloist role. At the time Chris had started making small pieces for the Royal Ballet Choreographic Group (RBCG) and after a performance at the Riverside Studios Kenneth said he showed talent and should take every opportunity to hone his craft to see what worked and what didn’t. This was the first time Chris had been singled out as a choreographer and that encouraged him to go on with it.

Describing the RBCG, Chris said it was run by Norman Morrice and David Drew who were the choreography teachers at the Upper School and occasionally on Saturday mornings at White Lodge. Even further back while in JAs their teachers Shirley and Justin had encouraged them to have a go and Chris had made a prequel to Swan Lake with the girls hatching out of eggs. Norman came once a week. He was gentle and never forced any opinion but would find an elegant way of directing you. When Chris chose a piece of music which was unsuitable he very gently guided him away from it and towards Stravinsky. David was much more of a character and a stronger personality so they balanced each other well and encouraged the students somehow pointing them in the right direction. The RBCG did one performance a year and they made pieces in their own time, rather like Draft Works, but much lower key.

Chris went to all their shows and day after day watched a treasure trove of work which he’d never before experienced and saw their great principal dancers…

Chris didn’t stay long at the Royal Ballet as purely by chance, possibly fate, he got a job with New York City Ballet (NYCB). In his second year at the Royal he was entered for the annual Erik Bruhn competition in Canada involving two young dancers from several companies, but during a performance of Cinderella he twisted his ankle and couldn’t get back in time for the competition. While sitting at home resting his ankle, he saw an advert which offered a return flight to the US on Virgin if you bought a Hoover. Having never vacuumed in his life, he decided to buy the cleaner and got a ticket to New York which he used while recovering from injury. He always read the dance magazines during Benesh class (a subject he didn’t like at all!) and became interested in American Ballet Theater (ABT) and NYCB so when he was going to the US he wrote to NYCB asking if he could take class with them, and they agreed. Having landed at Newark one evening, he travelled into Manhattan and spent a sleepless night looking out of his friend’s apartment window at the wonders of the Empire State Building and New York skyline, and set off next morning to the Lincoln Center to take class amongst the great dancers of the company, trying to concentrate while all the time checking everyone out. Peter Martins came in during class and afterwards invited him to his office where he asked why Chris wanted to leave the Royal Ballet! Chris said he was only there for a week’s holiday and was quite happy at the Royal. Peter explained they were about to have a big Balanchine celebration involving 60 ballets and were auditioning a boy and thought incorrectly that Chris was that boy. Peter said if he didn’t want the job, he should just enjoy New York, but Chris said he’d like to see some performances, go to class again and get to know the company better. Peter suggested he came back at the end of the week with his decision as they were looking for some more classical, lyrical young men. Chris went to all their shows and day after day watched a treasure trove of work which he’d never before experienced and saw their great principal dancers along with the corps who were in all of the works. By the end of the week he was ready to join up though he had to work through his contract which ran to the end of the summer. He came home to talk to Anthony Dowell who said it was what he had himself done and although he couldn’t guarantee him a job if he wanted to come back, encouraged Chris to go for a year.

For his first six months in New York, Chris felt as if there were heavy weights tied to his ankles as he moved much slower than the Americans. The training was totally different from what he was used to and was about quick movement and creating the ability to make the legs work with scissor-like precision. The energy too is in a different place – in Vaganova training it’s more even – but Chris was really pleased to have had different methods of training. Vaganova was about ease and beauty of placement and this, with the English schooling, and speed and attack of the lower leg in Balanchine, made for a complete technician in Chris’s opinion. Everyone including the youngsters and principals took class – Baryshnikov, Jack Soto and Fernando Bujones amongst others – and he took classes with Stanley Williams which was an experience. He didn’t speak so Chris didn’t know which way to go and it must have been comic to see him always three beats behind! But Stanley was sweet and quiet and worked in a certain way and gradually Chris found a bit of a pattern. It was all about phrasing (here Chris did a few demonstrations) and so much more than a set way of dancing so there was a built-in artistry to every combination. After nine months he began to feel he was getting the hang of it. He began to love the energy of learning ballets quickly. Jerome Robbins had choreographed the West Side Story suite in which Chris danced and Jerry liked him as he came from more of a dance drama background. Even in his abstract work it was about connections between dancers. Jerry would set wonderful pictures. He explained that in Dances at a Gathering there are beautiful, peaceful groupings of people, and they are coming back to an old fairground which means a lot to them as they knew it as children. Chris also learned a lot about choreography from Jerry – the importance of setting the scene even in an abstract work, creating an environment and an atmosphere that it isn’t just about steps and costumes.

Chris’s first choreography in New York was Le Voyage, set to Poulenc’s double piano concerto. Peter Martins asked him to make a ballet for the School but Chris said he’d rather make one for the Company! However, he started with the School and gradually moved upwards. Most people start choreographing for about to four or five dancers but Chris had 17 girls, a trio, and two principal couples. He was very eager to move up to the main stage so he pulled out all the stops and people were excited and impressed. Jerry Robbins, who was present, never said well done but he used to come up behind and pinch you. This he did to Chris so he felt he’d done all right! He made something for the school performance the following year and then in the second year of the Diamond Project (showcasing works by new young choreographers) he created his first ballet for the company, the Slavonic Dances to Dvorak.

Audio clip - Polyphonia:

Asked for a highlight from his time in New York, Chris said it must be the opening night of Polyphonia. It was very exciting because everyone seemed genuinely to love it which was very encouraging and he’s never been more proud than on that night. He overcame a lot of demons. The music was very hard, and he set himself a seemingly impossible challenge, but wanted to push himself, taking something he was scared of, and have a go. He was given a lot of opportunities early on and still feels he’s experimenting and although he’s so lucky to be making ballets for great companies, he feels he perhaps missed the slow build. He thought he was in way over his head and it was too hard but it challenged him in a new way. Before that he’d used romantic and melodic music, getting swept up in a good tune, and it was tough not to take something you are secure with and experiment on the big stage. In some performances everything clicks and it’s magical and that night was one of those nights when everyone danced the way he imagined it. The general public may not always appreciate that sometimes it’s hard for him to enjoy a performance as he’s driven crazy, looking for everything that’s wrong, but at other times he relaxes and it just happens. This was a magical night and he thought how lucky he was. You just hope it happens again but if not, you’ve had one great night.

 In setting up his Morphoses company, Chris said he wanted to experience having a group he liked to work with constantly, picking them for their skills, personalities and artistic and collaborative nature, and many other reasons.

In setting up his Morphoses company, Chris said he wanted to experience having a group he liked to work with constantly, picking them for their skills, personalities and artistic and collaborative nature, and many other reasons. He wanted the group to grow and create together in a contemporary dance-type atmosphere. It really helps when you like a dancer but sometimes they can be a nightmare and it’s really hard. Interestingly though you sometimes get the best work from the nightmare! So he made his plans but the world economy crashed just before the first season. He knew it would be hard and was eager to persevere but spent a lot of time with potential backers most of whom didn’t work out. He perhaps had unrealistic ideas about people being excited about investing in a small, up and coming company in New York. People are generous but happy in their establishment and he wanted to cultivate the young, giving circle but had to spend so much time over three years doing that and not enough time with the dancers. None was with him permanently. Some came from a distance but they couldn’t all come back when needed as they had other commitments so he was working with different sets of dancers on the old rep. He decided to count his blessings and move on as it didn’t end up being the creative environment he sought. He really thrives in the studio and not as a fund-raiser or marketing person. But he’d had an interesting group of dancers from different companies and as well as young, unknown dancers. Beatriz Stix-Brunell came to audition the first season of Morphoses in New York. He needed six corps de ballet girls and put a notice in the paper asking for professional ballet dancers. Amongst a motley selection there was a tiny, beautiful rose, feet too big and long legs but with a glow and natural stage presence and a way of moving which was mature beyond her years. In her second year, Leanne Benjamin and Wendy Whelan were coaching her and Beatriz danced with Leanne in Commedia. Leanne said ‘you must be kidding – are you making me dance next to a 16 year old?’ But they bonded and something wonderful came out on stage and although Leanne was horrid to Beatriz it was in the best kind of way. He feels quite protective of Beatriz and uses her when he can but genuinely she has a very special quality and he loves to watch her.

Although he had done Pavane for the Linbury, Chris’s first big ballet for the Royal was Tryst. He was really interested in working with a living British composer. James MacMillan is a Scot and an important composer of our time whose music Chris admires. It was challenging and multi-textured with a vast panoramic sound and he thought he could make something interesting with it. Chris was listening to the music while travelling on holiday in the Highlands with his parents, watching grasses moving in the breeze and clouds moving rapidly across the sky and something about the landscape and the music inspired him. It provided a contrast between the frenetic energy of New York City and the pastoral beauty of the Highlands. Some orchestras had difficulty with the score and Chris said that was one of the reasons he doesn’t like touring – sometimes the orchestra can’t handle the music or the crew can’t handle the scenery. At the Bolshoi he recalled a stunned silence at the end. It was perhaps not to everyone’s taste but he felt it was a good first piece and it was sufficiently successful to be invited back.

David commented that one of Chris’s great strengths is the use of the corps de ballet although he had been told that the large corps in DGV was an afterthought. Chris said DGV evolved as a choreographic process. Originally it was intended as celebrating romance and the engineering of travel and this comes through in the music which was composed for the inauguration of the French TGV train. It was conceived with a principal couple dressed in Edwardian fashion but in a modern setting, moving through the ages to present day, but when Zenaida wore a long lacy outfit it didn’t look right. They decided to enlarge the corps from the original four couples which such an epic piece of music coming thundering into the Opera House seemed to warrant, and it built up as they went along.

Alice was a joy to create and great fun in the studio. Monica Mason had been asking him for a full length ballet for some time and he’d not done it. Chris had had an idea of making Alice for Colorado Ballet using music of Berners, Elgar and Stravinsky but it had never come to anything and he thought it might work for this project. He discussed it with Joby Talbot whose musical fantasy world excited him with its percussion and crashing instruments, and he set about creating the ballet.

Chris found Alice far easier to make than Winter’s Tale has been. Winter’s Tale is a much harder story to tell.

Chris found Alice far easier to make than Winter’s Tale has been. Winter’s Tale is a much harder story to tell. Alice is episodic in nature, which seems to bewilder some people, though that’s how it’s written, and it offers quite a lot of freedom. Now there’s no consistent rehearsal period: you have to jump around, making it piecemeal, and grab your dancers when they’re available. Principals can’t dance the day before or the day of a show and are often needed for rehearsals elsewhere. It’s about real people who can forget the choreography when you come back to it weeks later so it’s been quite difficult. The Winter’s Tale is a great story but a tricky, late Shakespearean play with challenging language which is very hard to read. Nick Hytner has been a great friend and support who’d said he shouldn’t worry about understanding all the language. Boil it down and it’s a terrific story with great contrasts but everything comes together in a redemptive ending. Chris chose it because he liked it. He’s left out some sub-plots as there’s too much to do it all, and some characters including Autolycus have had to go. Even with the cuts there’s still a lot of story and it offers terrific roles for the dancers. Asked how he casts a ballet, Chris said he looks for those who are right for the characters. Leontes has to have great acting ability, and he wanted to make a big role for Ed Watson who was wonderful as White Rabbit in Alice with just the right amount of bad temper. Then there’s Lauren whom he adores (it was devastating she had to endure a long period of illness and injury) and he believes hers might be the greatest English Aurora since Lesley. Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae are Perdita and Florizel. Chris said there are two dancers he’s worked with who have the same coordination, an immediate and photographic memory who improve on what they’re given – Tiler Peck in NYCB is one and Steven the other. He has a genius sense of how to move. Sarah has an ethereal exoticism which works well for Perdita. Zen is Paulina and Federico Bonelli is Polyxenes. Chris is looking for character and more, as well as the ability to handle the steps and the parts are quite well shared out.

In any full length ballet, design becomes very important. He’s working with Bob Crowley again on Winter’s Tale, but it’s far more spare and minimal than Alice. They have a good working relationship and talk a lot together. Chris’s mum recently produced from her attic a dilapidated toy theatre he’d made as a child and it was great to see it after so many years. He now has it in his London home and intends to fix it. Chris recalled the excitement of seeing Starlight Express when he was 11 which inspired him to make his first set with Scalextric. The design aspect is really interesting and exciting for Chris so he and Bob spent many hours making slightly more sophisticated sets though Bob does have a brilliant team around him who do the work. Bob said that Alice was liberating as he had to make a visual statement and create a world off the stage level to leave space for steps. In Winter’s Tale there’s a lot more space and the sets are like beautiful, poetic art installations with a real wow factor.

For Alice, Chris invited Joby, Bob and Nick Wright, who wrote the scenario, to his New York apartment where they worked long hours together, deciding there was plenty in Alice in Wonderland without using Through the Looking Glass. They began building the structure of the synopsis, and created a time chart for the length of each musical section – you have an idea of what you need but there’s an element of guesswork. Joby creates musical motifs and passages which Chris listens to and there’s a lot of toing and froing. You would imagine that, with a living composer, you could lengthen or shorten considerably but this isn’t the case. Once the score is written, has been orchestrated and published you can repeat and cut a bit if it works musically but you can’t ask for a whole new section of music so it has to be right the first time. You must have faith in the process and trust yourself and your collaborators.

There was no time to talk at all about Chris’s works for other companies such as the Bolshoi and San Francisco Ballet or his projects over the next few years but in thanking him very much for a delightful evening, David asked that Chris return soon and tell us more.

Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Christopher Wheeldon and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2014.

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