Leap of faith
WALKING through the marbled halls of the magnificent foyer of New York's State Theater with Christopher Wheeldon, the blond Adonis of the dance world, is a bit like accompanying a rock star through a throng of adoring fans. Strangers approach the boy wonder and want to shake his hand, or simply say in their forthright Manhattan way, "Congratulations, Chris!"
Such are the New York City Ballet choreographer's perfect manners that he has time and a word and a smile for everyone, although he's desperately trying to find his parents, who have recently flown over from their Somerset home, in this matinee mle. It's a Saturday afternoon in Manhattan and Wheeldon is currently the city's idol. His latest work, a balletic take on An American in Paris, has just premired, and it's a red-hot ticket.
In only a few short years, Wheeldon has become ballet's answer to a posh Becks - a tall, blue-eyed Briton fted for his astonishing talent, his glamorous good looks and brilliant career. If only Beckham could bend it like wunderkind Wheeldon, who splutters noisily at the comparison. "No way! Anyway, I'm 32," he shrugs dismissively. "I'm getting rather too old to be an enfant terrible! Now I'm considered to have made it, as it were, I don't have the security of being the up-and-coming 22-year-old any more." In any case, he doesn't believe a word of his own publicity.
"I simply do not set too much store by the good reviews, because then I don't have to set too much by the bad ones.
"I've been right down there, in the lower depths, almost going under; then I've ridden on the crest of a wave. So now I steer a steady course - I don't trust hype."
An Olivier Award-winner, nonetheless, his life is a constant whirl, while the shelves in his home must groan beneath the weight of his many glittering prizes. He is NYCB's artist-in-residence, and in August he brings his wildly original, full-length version of Swan Lake for the Pennsylvania Ballet to the Edinburgh International Festival.
Wheeldon's return to Scotland is much anticipated since, in 2003, he created a sensational new piece for San Francisco Ballet, Rush, which premired here to universal acclaim in a Festival evening devoted to showcasing his talents. But then critics are mad about the boy.
In New York, more than one reviewer has asserted that he "could be the best thing to happen to ballet for 50 years". And when his immaculate masterpiece, Polyphonia - staged in Edinburgh in 2001 by NYCB - premired, another American critic wrote that "the breath of George Balanchine" was wafting over the company, a reference to its legendary choreographer and co-founder.
Wheeldon has gone from being one of his generation's most gifted dancers (it's just over a decade since he was in the corps de ballet at NYCB, before being promoted to solo status) to becoming the most accomplished choreographer of his generation as fast as he can execute a fouette. With commissions from just about every major dance company in the world, he effortlessly carries on making thrilling neo-classical ballets that are as intelligent as they are technically disciplined.
He still looks like the dancer he no longer is, after hanging up his tights in the spring of 2000. Since then, he has made more than 30 new works, although he says he has lost count of exactly just how many he has created.
Recently, he created a lushly romantic and inventive Carousel (a Dance), based on the 1945 musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein. "One hungers for more," salivated the New York Times, while his Carnival of the Animals, an enchanting ballet for children, won rave reviews and is soon to be made into a feature film. Last year there was VIII, a dance-drama based on the story of Henry VIII and his first two wives, as well as the new Swan Lake, and Tryst, set to music by the Scottish composer James MacMillan, for the Royal Ballet and NYCB.
This year, Wheeldon made another new piece, After the Rain, to mark the retiral of one of NYCB's best-loved dancers, Jock Soto, who was Wheeldon's partner for some time, although the two are no longer together. In addition, Wheeldon has staged his ambitious version of An American in Paris.
Yet, the day we meet backstage at the State Theater, he appears to have all the time in the world, despite a schedule that would have lesser mortals reaching for the Rescue Remedy rather than a glass of mineral water. It's the third time we've met and he's as generous as ever with his time. He has a bright, sunny smile and an easy laugh. "I'm not remotely angst-ridden," he says, adding that he definitely doesn't have a dark side. Rather, he insists, he's an unabashed romantic, hence his love of pointe shoes, tutus and luscious love duets. "I feel lucky because I'm doing something that I love very much, although maybe that's no longer quite enough for me."
Based in New York, he has an apartment in the Upper West Side (the ninth flat he has lived in during 11 years in the city); a second home in Barcelona, where he spends two months every year; a partner who travels extensively; and a private life that he likes to keep strictly private - although he wears a chunky silver ring on the third finger of his left hand. Yet, despite all these trappings of success and personal happiness, of late he has been questioning exactly where his own life is going.
FIVE years ago, Christopher Wheeldon received a series of thought-provoking letters from a woman he didn't know. He can't lightly describe her as a fan, since her missives were often highly critical of him and sometimes extremely judgmental.
At first he wondered, "Who does this woman think she is, writing me letters like this?" He didn't keep them, but they kept on coming. "And I have to say they were very intelligent, well written and cogently argued." In a nutshell, his correspondent told him that, since he obviously knew very little about the real world, he would not only be a far better human being but a much more creative artist if he were to go and work in a hospital for a couple of years.
"I thought, 'Me, work in a hospital? She has got to be joking! After all, I create beauty. I make work that moves people, that lifts their spirits. And I'm already giving something important through the arts.' Somehow, though, she planted this little seed of doubt which has niggled away at me." He hadn't thought about the letters for ages, but recently he became more convinced that he needs to take time out from the dance world.
Shrugging off a suede jacket, he says, "Don't get me wrong, I'll never give up ballet - I love it too much. But the dance world is hermetically sealed. As artists we're so protected from ordinary, day-to-day life," he says.
"In ballet, we exist in a perfect bubble. In many ways we have to, because it's a rigorous, very disciplined world that demands a lot of dedication; therefore, we know very little about the real world. It's easy to become self-obsessed, because ballet is a self-regarding art form - we spend so much time gazing at ourselves in mirrors, getting hung up on the way we look, on our imagined imperfections. Dance has been my way of life since I was a child and I'll never give it up - it really is my reason for living. But also I know that I need to escape from that precious ballet bubble for a while.
"I think the woman who wrote me those letters is right: I do need to give something back. Slowly, I've come to realise that I have to take time out, that I must find a more caring role, either in the Third World with, say, Save the Children, or with a New York charity such as Homes for Hospitals, which assists the terminally ill."
But surely many people feel like this from time to time. For instance, in the wake of the tsunami, who did not want to down tools and rush to Indonesia or Thailand to help in some small way? I certainly did.
"Well, in that case, perhaps you and I ought to backpack together," he jokes, before adding seriously, "I think I need time to breathe, time to recognise that there's a world elsewhere, to accept how very privileged my life is. That's why I feel I must make time to care for other people. I know that I would be good in the role of a carer, and I think my letter-writer probably recognised that in me, through my work. I don't think I've even got any of the letters any more, given the number of times I've moved house."
Making moves of another sort has always been Wheeldon's greatest gift. He has been dancing since he was eight, when he was the only boy in a class of 15 girls in the village hall in East Coker, Somerset. Unlike Billy Elliot, though, he did not have working-class parents. Wheeldon's father is a retired engineer - he's the one who most frequently comes up with the intriguing titles for his son's new ballets, ranging from Corybantic Ecstasies to Morphoses, through Liturgy and Continuum to Mercurial Manoeuvres. His mother is a physical therapist.
His parents have always encouraged and supported him wholeheartedly, he says. As a hyperactive child, he wore himself out dancing every day, much to their relief. The budding Balanchine was already in evidence - Wheeldon made his first dance when he was nine. "It was a total rip-off of Swan Lake, with eight cygnets hatching out of eggs," he reveals.
There are no such derivative moments in his new version of the ballet, which takes its inspiration from Degas's paintings of ballerinas in the rehearsal room and their sinister, top-hatted patrons who showered them with diamonds in return for sexual favours.
Despite his plagiarising of Swan Lake as a boy, his obvious talent was soon spotted by the late choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan. It was a major turning point for Wheeldon. But it's the story of how he took Manhattan that reads like a movie script. "Yes, I guess it is kind of 42nd Street-ish," he agrees.
At 18, he was in the corps of the Royal Ballet, and but for a quirk of fate he reckons he might still be standing in the wings at the Royal Opera House, holding a tray or skipping around a maypole. In London, he had suffered several ankle injuries, although he had also won prizes for his choreography, then heavily under the influence of MacMillan and Frederick Ashton.
In 1992 he had injured his ankle yet again, and was lying at home with a bag of frozen peas on his foot. As he idled the afternoon away watching TV, he saw an advertisement promising a free Virgin Atlantic flight to New York to anyone who bought a Hoover. He bought one, got a ticket, packed a suitcase with tapes of ballets he had choreographed, and flew to New York.
His ankle recovered, he requested permission to take a class at NYCB, which was granted. Peter Martins, the ballet master-in-chief, watched the class and immediately invited the 20-year-old to join the company. "I hadn't even done any of those touristy things, like seeing the Empire State Building, but I left the theatre that afternoon with a job," he says.
A charmed life, then? "I guess," Wheeldon hesitates. Nevertheless, at NYCB in 1993, he fell under the inspirational influence of the late Jerome Robbins, who cast him in his signature work, Dances at a Gathering. The NYCB repertoire was challenging, and Wheeldon often found himself performing three rigorous ballets in the same evening.
By the end of the first season he was thin and exhausted and still worried about his ankles - "though the Balanchine technique had helped and I was much, much stronger". But he was also being encouraged by Martins to make new work, beginning with ballet school projects and workshops. "I don't know how I knew I could choreograph; I just knew I could and that I wanted to do it more than I wanted to dance."
After staging Mercurial Manoeuvres and Polyphonia for the NYCB's 1999-2000 season, Wheeldon whooshed onwards and upwards, making sophisticated choices musically, ranging from the knottiest Ligeti scores to works especially composed by our own James MacMillan. In half a dozen years, he choreographed 25 works for eight ballet companies, as well as a piece for Nicholas Hytner's dance movie, Centre Stage, and the Broadway musical Sweet Smell of Success.
For the latter he received the first mixed reviews of his career. "See what I mean about not believing the good or the bad?" he says, adding that he really does want to make a big, toe-tapping Hollywood musical one day - he's an avid Fred Astaire fan.
"With these great big steps I've taken - and it's thrilling to be taking them - I sometimes wonder if I'm going to fail the next time, and indeed whether there's going to be a next time. Perhaps that's why I feel that the time has come to take a step in another direction. And I will; I will," he says firmly, stopping to accept graciously more words of praise from besotted fans.
Swan Lake is at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, August 15-19; to book, or for more information, see www.eif.co.uk, or call 0131 473 2000
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