Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company performs Friday |

Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company performs Friday

Ruth Moon
Vail CO, Colorado
Kristin Anderson/Vail DailyWendy Whelan and Craig T. Hall with Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company perform "After the Rain" during opening night of the Vail International Dance Festival at the Ford Amphitheater in Vail.

BEAVER CREEK, Colorado ” “That was really good, guys,” Christopher Wheeldon calls as the lights come up after a dance rehearsal Wednesday.

“Can I just have a little more …” Wheeldon’s voice trails off as he bounds down the steps toward the stage in the Vilar Center.

Dressed in cargo shorts, a polo shirt and sneakers, the 35-year-old choreographer looks more like he belongs on the slopes than inside the Vilar Center perfecting a ballet for a performance.

But don’t let the look deceive you; Wheeldon’s new company, Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company, premiered last year with a critically acclaimed inaugural season, and is back in Vail to kick off its second season.

Damian Woetzel, Vail International Dance Festival artistic director and former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, is looking forward to their second season.

“We’re calling it Morphoses 2.0,” Woetzel said. “I went to all the shows in New York. It was just wildly popular and is moving forward tremendously.”

Local resident Joanne Morgan, who taught ballet in the valley for 28 years, saw the Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company premiere last year and is looking forward to Friday’s performance.

“I’m so happy that they are coming back ” I was afraid last year would be a one-shot deal,” she said. “I love it that they’re coming back, because they’re incredible.”

As part of his residency, Wheeldon participated for the second time this year in an UpClose event designed to give the audience a better idea of what happens behind the scenes before and during a ballet performance.

Wheeldon and three other choreographers’ works were performed, then the choreographers spent time on stage answering questions from the audience about the process of creating a dance.

“It can make it more interesting, I think, if you just go to a regular ballet performance, to know that the choreographers are freaking out because they don’t have enough time, or they’ve been completely inspired by this, or one movement that a dancer does might create a whole chain reaction that would then change the entire shape of the ballet,” Wheeldon said. “All these little things that audiences don’t usually get a chance to see ” that’s the idea behind (Wednesday’s) program.”

Back onstage in the rehearsal, a male and a female dancer are rehearsing “Liturgy,” a piece Wheeldon choreographed in 2001 to music by Arvo Pärt. The technical term for Wheeldon’s choreography is “neoclassical,” he says, meaning it combines classical positions to create new movement.

The female dancers wear pointe shoes, and the dancers use traditional ballet positions and steps. The tutus and sparkly costumes are missing, though, and side lighting and unique arm movement emphasize the body in a way traditional ballet usually does not.

“I would call it musical sculpture,” he said. “And, of course, when you put a man and a woman together, you’re always going to have some kind of chemistry.”

‘Can we give them sandwiches?’

Wheeldon, who left New York City Ballet to start Morphoses last year, said he’s faced several challenges getting off the ground. The transition was particularly difficult financially.

“When you work in a big company you have a huge infrastructure of support,” he said. “You’ve got this massive corporation ” you just walk in and say ‘I want this, this and this,’ they’re like, ‘fine.’ Now I’m working for every dollar … even down to what kind of connections the plane flights will have, whether they can have a direct route, can we afford this dancer, can we give them sandwiches at lunch time?”

He’d like to hire some permanent company dancers, but first, he needs the funding.

“The process usually goes: You ask for money, you either get it or you don’t, and you’ve got to take it from there,” he said. “I’d rather be able to do this kind of dance on a very high level than to have to cut back on either the level of dancing or the amount of repertoire that we do.”

Wheeldon said he also faced some tough criticism as his company toured last year.

“I felt it was important to make a strong statement and to say we’re world class,” he said. “You set yourself up for people to knock you down a little. So there was a bit of that, but that makes you stronger and more determined, in a way, to keep pushing and make it better.”

Further up and further in

Tonight, Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company will perform “There Where She Loved” and “Fool’s Paradise,” both choreographed by Wheeldon, “The Dream Pas de Deux,” choreographed by Frederick Ashton, and “One,” choreograhed by Annabelle Lopez Ochos. “Fool’s Paradise,” a dance to a Joby Talbot string piece, “Dying Swan,” is a piece Wheeldon worked on in last year’s UpClose event.

“It feels like it’s come full circle in a way,” he said. “We started the ballet here last year, we finished it in New York, we premiered it in London ” it was very, very successful ” and now we get to bring it back to Vail and show the final product. It’s nice, because it feels like there is a part of Vail in that piece.”

After leaving Vail, Wheeldon’s company continues to a season at the City Center in New York City and Sadler’s Wells in London. This year, the company adds a stop in Sydney in January to its tour calendar.

Wheeldon hopes to expand his company in the next year by adding five or six permanent company dancers. At present, his dancers are visitors from the New York City Ballet and London’s Royal Ballet.

“It’s a nice dynamic, and kind of a new model for a ballet company to have a group and then to have guests that come in and perform with us,” Wheeldon said; the typical model “can become a little complacent. In some ways, by having these other dancers bringing in perspective, it keeps the environment learning and developing.”

Wheeldon appreciates the opportunity he’s had to launch his own company.

“It just gives you a whole new appreciation for how much you have to fight for arts, particularly in this day and age when the arts are suffering in so many ways because it’s so easy to sit at home and get Netflix and watch a video, or go on the Internet and be on Facebook all night,” he said.

“I feel at this point in my life, even if this doesn’t work out, at least I’m fighting the fight. At least I’m trying to make a difference and bring dance to people in a slightly new way, in a fresh way. … I felt compelled to at least have a go.”

Staff Writer Ruth Moon can be reached at

We’ve seen bits and pieces of Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company since the Vail International Dance Festival began its 2008 run two weeks ago.

Wendy Whelan,Craig Hall, Tiler Peck, Tyler Angle, Leanne Benjamin and Adrian Danchig-Waring all danced for either opening night or International Evenings. Some danced for both.

Dancers have watched other companies from the lawn, drinking rose and relaxing into the evening. But Wednesday night the company took the Vilar stage in earnest, and there’s no turning back now.

Christopher Wheeldon, artistic director and choreographer, provided little snippets of behind-the-scenes looks at the choreography process for Adam Hughland, Edwaard Liang and Pontus Lidberg. It was a tease, really, opening the door a smidge before closing it and sending us home. Who didn’t leave wanting more?

As it is for Wheeldon, the young choreographers’ work is informed by the specific bodies with whom they’re working. Wheeldon is famous for cherry-picking dancers from other companies, arranging his season so they’re able to work in both groups. “There are no duds in Morphoses,” he explained to the audience. He must have been referring to the choreographers, too, because they captured an essence similar to Wheeldon’s own.

Morphoses’ dance is a crossroads of high art and lowly humanity. Wheeldon reminds us what it is to yearn. The company of dancers is so well honed, it’s almost folly to single out two.

But there’s something about Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall, who partner together. Whelan’s body is a river, and Hall rides the current. He never makes her look small, though his arms are larger than her legs. Their sense of equality is worth striving for; it’s a gift to watch.

Morphoses takes the stage tonight for a true lights-camera-action performance. Don’t miss it.

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