Lord of the dance

LIKE the proverbial bus, you wait two years for a Christopher Wheeldon ballet and then three come along at once. Wheeldon’s previous Festival offerings - shown under the banner of New York City Ballet’s Diamond Project - whetted our appetites and left us hungry for more. Now the man who brought Edinburgh Playhouse down with Mercurial Manoeuvres and Polyphonia plans to satiate us with a showcase solely of his own work.

To the uninitiated it may seem odd; triple bills are usually the domain of Balanchine, MacMillan and their ilk - legends with vast repertoires, not someone who has been choreographing for less than seven years. But those who have seen Wheeldon in action will appreciate the logic behind such a programme. He’s a modern-day Balanchine, destined to go down in dance history as one of the finest choreographers of his generation. And what makes Wheeldon even more special is that despite his current US connections he’s actually one of ours. A British dancemaker who has made a big splash on the other side of the pond.

Born in Somerset, Wheeldon entered the Royal Ballet School at the age of 11, eventually graduating into the main company. While there, he danced many Balanchine roles, scarcely imagining that less than a decade later he would follow in the great man’s footsteps.

Wheeldon’s relationship with New York City Ballet began in 1993 when he was invited to join its corps. At that stage, dancing was foremost on the agenda, but early attempts at choreography met with widespread approval. Finally, a choice had to be made. "I was having to divide my energy between choreographing and dancing and neither one was getting the kind of focus I was happy with," he says. "I was having to turn down lots of interesting choreographic projects because of my dancing career - which was levelling out anyway - so I just decided to stop."

His retirement from dancing allowed Wheeldon to build his career. Works for Boston Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, New York City Ballet and the Nicholas Hytner film, Center Stage, flagged Wheeldon up as one to watch. But it was his appointment as NYCB’s resident choreographer that really brought him to the fore. Officially, he’s their first one: the role was created for him. Unofficially both Balanchine and Jerome Robbins held the position for many years. To call them hard acts to follow would be an understatement. "I suppose there is a certain amount of pressure," Wheeldon admits. "But really it’s no different from being a composer and following in the footsteps of Tchaikovsky, or an artist following in the footsteps of Picasso. It’s par for the course; if you’re a young artist there will always be greats for you to follow. I try not to get caught up in the anxiety of it."

Wheeldon’s residency in New York accounts for just four months of the year; the rest of the time he’s off creating works elsewhere. Which is where San Francisco Ballet comes in. As a company, it’s something of a phoenix risen from the ashes of near-bankruptcy. Since its inception in 1933, the 71-strong ballet company has faced a number of financial challenges, but overwhelming public affection and professional respect have kept SFB firmly on the map. Artistic director Helgi Tomasson has been at the helm since 1985 and, like Wheeldon, he too spent many years dancing Balanchine at NYCB.

Arriving in San Francisco for his first commission in 1999, Wheeldon found that Tomasson’s Icelandic heritage and New York dance career had given SFB a distinctive shape. "There is a lot of international influence, brought by dancers who have trained all over the world," says Wheeldon. "But at the same time they have very much an American attack, because they’re under the watchful eye of a man who, although Icelandic, originally danced with the New York City Ballet - and I don’t think you can work there in any capacity and not be influenced by the uniqueness of their style."

Tomasson’s faith in Wheeldon is enormous: one of the works heading for Edinburgh is a world premiere, an unknown quantity set to music by Bohuslav Martinu which will be "large scale and upbeat" according to Wheeldon. The two remaining pieces are less risky, having already met with acclaim: There Where She Loves was choreographed by Wheeldon for the Royal Ballet, inspired by a selection of songs by Chopin and Kurt Weil. Continuum, on the other hand, was created specifically for San Francisco Ballet, so they should wear it well.

Like Polyphonia, Continnum uses music by Gyorgi Ligeti, a composer with whom Wheeldon has a great affinity. "Polyphonia was the first ballet where I’d gone out on a limb with music that was more complex, not so predictable," explains Wheeldon. "Working with Ligeti’s music was a very easy, open experience, so when Helgi asked me to create a new work for San Francisco Ballet I decided to tackle some of the more difficult pieces in the Ligeti repertoire."

Despite such assured confidence, Wheeldon says this is only the beginning: "It’s fantastic to have received all this acclaim, and I can certainly say that having just had my 30th birthday, I’ve experienced an enormous amount and been very fortunate. But I still look at myself as a fledgling choreographer and I think it’s necessary for me to continue looking at myself that way. There are still so many possibilities."

• San Francisco Ballet is at The Playhouse (0131-473 2000), August 28-30


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