Razing the fourth wall
Vail, CO, Colorado
During rehearsal, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon calls people by name. From the intern running the sound machine ” Adriel ” to his many dancers ” Wendy, Gonzalo, Craig, Aesha ” he says their names into the space again and again, even when he’s looking directly at them. And he’s always looking at them.
It’s a small detail, but a significant reminder that everyone involved in his new company, Morphoses, is an individual. He doesn’t have a roster of dancers, he has Wendy Whelan, Craig Hall, Aesha Ash, Gonzalo Garcia, Edward Liang and more. And he asks them to move in ways specific to their bodies, yet within the context of his vision. Watching a rehearsal is like watching the miracle of birth. It’s mind-bogglingly beautiful the way an avalanche, a wild mustang or a river is.
Though he clearly has a vision, he encourages his dancers to approach the work collaboratively. If they need to add a step here or there, then by all means. Instead of making them adhere to rigid counts of the music, he asks them to be fluid. They move across the floor like water with bones.
The dance world is a-buzz with news of Wheeldon’s company. The New York Times called it an audacious move, but one that might save American ballet. Whether or not American ballet needs saving, Morphoses is certainly shaping a new direction for the classical art. It’s accessible.
Wheeldon is debuting his company at the Vail International Dance Festival this week. Tomorrow at the Vilar Center, he’s hosting a visual discussion about the concept of Morphoses. Attendees will watch snippets of dances, and Wheeldon will give a behind the scenes look at the dances. It’s an unusual opportunity for the community to see more than a performance. Friday is the big debut. The program will include classic Wheeldon pieces in addition to new work developed in Vail during the company’s week-plus residency.
In between rehearsals at the Ford Amphitheater, Wheeldon sat down and answered some questions:
Christopher Wheeldon: In many ways we’re bringing a lot to Vail in terms of the attention. But I think we’re getting a lot from Vail by giving us a place to come. This is a prominent festival, so it’s not like we’re being hidden “out of town.” But I wanted an environment conducive to camaraderie, somewhere the dancers could relax.This is a nerve racking experience for everyone, to have the attention and pressure. And it’s so beautiful here, we’re having a really good time. And that helps the working process. I knew it would be this way, I’ve been to Vail before. And I’ve had this dream of a residency for long time, surrounding even the nature contributes to the creative process. And because (festival Artistic Director) Damian’s a great friend. He asked and I said yes.
CW: Yes. We’re only performing twice here. We’re using the 10 days leading up to the performances to develop new work. With the other residencies we’ll be performing work that’s already done. We’ll be using residencies there to fine tune things. A lot of what the audience here will be seeing is finished, polished work of mine that exists within the repertoire of other companies, and then some new work that’s been created here. So the audience here is getting a sneak peek of what’s going to be performed in other places.
CW: Oh yes. The beginning process of a dance is very exciting. It’s terrifying as well, because you never know if it’s going to actually happen. There’s uncertainty always. We did it the last time, can we do it again? But once the ball starts rolling …
CW: Who knows? At this stage, if someone had told me two years ago that I’d be starting a company, I would have laughed.
Even from the few days I’ve had here I’m starting to realize how dancers respond to a nurturing, creative atmosphere. That’s what I want. I think that may even start to branch out into a school eventually. Who knows? American has a big school, the School of American Ballet, and it has other schools, too, PNB and San Francisco. But I think I have a very definite point of view of how I want dancers to dance. The more I work, the more I understand the kind of movement that I want. That’s really a combination of my classical ballet training ” the grace and refinements of that training ” melded with the legwork and freedom of Balanchine. They’re both beautiful aesthetics, and I think we separate them too much, there’s too much emphasis on one or the other.
CW: Yes, I think I’m finding it, I’m discovering what that is. I don’t know if it’s the Wheeldon style, but it’s what I expect from dancers. I suppose that would translate into a school. I’m so humbled by my dancers, I have to say. No matter what else comes out of this, I will definitely feel like I assembled the best group of dancers I possibly could.
CW: I will eventually hold auditions, but not until we’re really set up with the proper financial infrastructure. This is high-level stuff. I can’t expect to have this kind of caliber of dancers in the company at first, but I’m certainly looking at having a high level of dancers. I don’t want to cut myself short. So we need to raise the money to do things properly.
CW: I see a lot of potential in Ed. I wanted to see something on the program that was commissioned by me, that wasn’t my work. That’s the direction Morphoses is going. I want to commission a lot of young choreographers, even though this year we don’t have the finances to do more of that. It was a way of telling people this is not just a Wheeldon company, this is going to be a company that will include Wheeldon’s work.
CW: I trust my dancers. Dancer like to find their own way into a piece. It’s a little bit like giving them a map. You don’t drive them to their destination, you tell them where to go and they find their own way. I prefer that, then they’re able to shape themselves around the music, rather than just telling them, “OK on 8 you reach on 9 you fall.”
CW: Working and trying to sleep. It’s been nice because we’ve been getting to hang out and gather as a group.
CW: I hope that we’ll be an accessible company to people People in the Vail Valley can come and feel that we’re going to enrich them and challenge them, we’re also about inviting them in. I think that people are often afraid of ballet, that there’s something about it they should be understanding. And that we need to make it more accessible. Which is why we’re doing this Vilar program, and Damian is doing a certain amount of that here too, welcoming people in. I think we have to go further with that. We have to pull the audience over the footlights on the stage.
CW: Yes, take out the fourth wall. A lot of people don’t agree with that, they believe the fourth wall is supposed to be there. But at times it is, but I think you only truly fall in love with this art form if you’re transported by it, and you’re only transported by it if you’re drawn into it. So there goes the fourth wall.