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Christopher Wheeldon: Making Dances in a Pandemic

The last decade of Christopher Wheeldon’s career has gone by in a blur. The global nature of the ballet world means that he is constantly on the move, finishing one project even as another is taking shape somewhere else, demanding his attention. When the pandemic hit, he had two enormous projects on the way, a new evening-length ballet for the Royal Ballet in London, and a musical headed to Broadway. Both are now on hold until theaters open again. But he hasn’t been idle. In 2020, he took on several projects, most of them far less formal or elaborate than the sorts of productions he is normally involved in. There was a “Boléro,” made and rehearsed via Zoom with the dancers and musicians of the Royal Ballet, in June. (“It was a bit of a logistical nightmare,” he says of assembling all the film.) Then in August, he contributed to a dance film made by Benjamin Millepied for the San Francisco Ballet. His first time back in the studio happened around that time: a new duet for Sara Mearns and David Hallberg, close friends who had never had the chance to dance together. Hallberg was about to leave to take the reins at the Australian Ballet, where he is now. Mearns had some time on her hands. The moment, a respite from their usual hectic life, proved somehow magical. The result, “The Two of Us,” is a little jewel, a treasured memento from a difficult year.

Sara Mearns and David Hallberg in “The Two of Us” by Christopher Wheeldon. Photograph by Christopher Duggan

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Wheeldon and I spoke in late January, when he was in London working with the Royal Ballet. The U.K. was in a lockdown, following an alarming rise in Covid cases. At the same time, vaccines were beginning to be distributed in ever growing numbers. Fear and hope walked hand in hand.

We talked about the pandemic, about finding new ways of working, and about his optimism for the future of dance.

How are things there?

It’s a strange thing to be here. London is so shut down. It's like a ghost town. But the Royal Ballet seems to be okay to work. I'll be the only one working with the dancers, which never happens. I'm usually scrambling to steal an hour here, an hour there, from whatever production is on at the time. Which means I'll get some really good uninterrupted rehearsal time.

Did the company need a special dispensation from the U.K. lockdown to be able to continue to rehearse?

They’re considered elite athletes. I guess I kind of fell under that category too. Of course, I'm very happy to be called an elite athlete.

What is it you’re working on there?

It’s a new evening length that was meant to open last October or November [now likely 2022]. I started work on it exactly a year ago, but the process was interrupted by COVID. I left just before everything started to get really crazy. I called Kevin O’Hare and said, I'm going home because this is all looking a bit scary. I'll be back in a few weeks.

Little did you know! I wanted to ask you about the piece you made for David Hallberg and Sara Mearns for Fall for Dance, because I thought it was extraordinary. It came at a really interesting time in the trajectory of the pandemic, when dancers and institutions were finding new ways to make and present work. And it felt somehow very timely and very special. I wondered if you could reflect a little bit on how it happened.

Sara and I had been texting back and forth, trying to figure out what we could do together. We talked about doing something in Central Park. And then for whatever reason that didn't quite come to fruition. But then she called me and said, hey, City Center have asked me to do something. And I’ve always wanted to dance with David.

Was that the first thing you’d done for the stage since the start of the pandemic?

Yes. I love City Center and Arlene [Schuler], so I said yes right away. We started out working with some pieces by Samuel Barber. But after a few days I thought, this isn’t very interesting. One day I happened to be riding up to City Center on a City Bike—I’ve been riding around all summer—listening to Joni Mitchell and stressing out about Samuel Barber. And I thought, I'm just going to do it to Joni Mitchell. After that it went very quickly.

Sara Mearns and David Hallberg in “The Two of Us” by Christopher Wheeldon. Photograph by Christopher Duggan

I felt you got something very special out of Sara, something I’ve only seen when she did a program of Isadora Duncan dances. Almost like her inner flower child.

Yeah. I was trying to find her subtlety because she has it. You know, she’s this space devouring goddess with tremendous sex appeal and fearlessness. And I thought, let’s find the poet in there. There are so many layers to Sara.

So true. It sounds like you’ve managed to work quite consistently during this very difficult year.

I generated a lot of work for myself this past year, and ended up doing seven projects, which, even in a normal year, is a lot. A lot of it was self-generated, a lot of it was unpaid, for the dancers and for myself. But I wanted to take the opportunity to find ways to work differently.

Christopher Wheeldon and husband Ross Rayburn with Hattie in Central Park.

You’ve been a New Yorker for years now. How did your relationship to the city change over the course of this Covid year?

My husband and I spent so much time in Central Park with our puppy, from day one of Covid. An hour and a half at the beginning of the day. And because of that I have completely fallen in love with Central Park. It’s become such a huge part of my life. I discovered some of the true intricacies of the park, little corners I’d never been to before.

Are you excited about dance on film?

I'll make dance for the camera. I’ll make a dance for the stage. I'll do bar mitzvahs and weddings at this point.

It’s dance you’re excited about.

Dance and storytelling through movement. I just made a ballet for Pacific Northwest Ballet that goes back to my “Polyphonia” roots. [It will be shown online sometime in the spring.] It’s set to Ravel, Satie, and Edith Piaf. It was made under Covid restrictions, some of it through Zoom with me in one studio and the dancers in another. But they also have a big studio with a viewing platform really high up, almost like a gantry. I made quite a lot of the piece standing up on the gantry, with the dancers below, with no mirror. It’s the first time I’ve made a ballet without ever looking at myself in the mirror.

Silas Farley and Sara Mearns in in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

What’s happening with your Michael Jackson musical?

We were supposed to open in August of last year. We still have to go into the final rehearsal process. The marquee has been up for a year [at the Neil Simon Theatre], just gathering dust. It’s the longest I've had my name in lights on Broadway, without actually being on Broadway.

What a challenge that must be for the actor who plays Michael Jackson [Ephraim Sykes]. I mean, how do you play such a superstar?

We’re taking a very stylized approach. We went back and forth about whether to exactly recreate Michael or to do something more theatrical, just presenting somebody as Michael Jackson. And that’s what we went with. Because there have been endless impersonators through the years.

Are you using Jackson’s choreographies?

I'm working with people who are really skilled in that language, including some dancers and choreographers who worked for him. We’ve got great people working with Ephraim, schooling him in all of the Michael language so he's got that in his pocket. I wanted him to be so completely versed in that language that at any moment he could just ad lib. That’s what Michael was all about. He was the most prepared improviser who ever lived.

So, you’re drawing on the talents of your creative team.

With this project I'm as much curator as I am a choreographer in a sense. The overall sweep of the show and the musical staging, that's very much my language. Within that, I’m working with people to form a vocabulary, which I then arrange to create a number. It's a very different way of working.

Do you feel any discomfort about being a white, British artist from the world of ballet working in this more popular, African American music and dance form?

Throughout the process, I was always very sensitive and aware of that. The Black Lives Matter protests happened pretty much right in the middle of our creation process. The first thing I did was check in with all of my cast. I'd say that 80% of our cast is black. And I asked Lynn Nottage, our book writer [The Secret Life of Bees, Intimate Apparel] should I be stepping away? But there was such overwhelming support from everyone. I think that what we’re creating in the room is what we’re all fighting for. The floor is already open. It's already about how do we collectively as a group of artists tell this story.

Matthew Ball and Mayara Magri in rehearsal via Zoom in the pas de deux from “Within the Golden Hour” for The Royal Ballet gala, June 2020. Photo courtesy Christopher Wheeldon

What has this year taught you about your craft?

I think it's shown me that it's possible to be a choreographer even under these circumstances. That something interesting comes from the discomfort of having to figure out how to make something work.

You have to just throw yourself into it.

You do, don’t you. And I've always, for better or worse, been that way. Constantly working and shaping and making shit pieces and then making some good ones. And then finding things in the shit piece that were actually kind of good, and using them for the next piece. That’s one of the ways I got over my insecurities and my fear. I feel like there was a breakthrough moment where I realized, I don’t care as much about always being good or pleasing people.

How do you feel about the future of the theater? It’s a question that’s very much on my mind these days.

I am very hopeful, even though maybe things won't go back exactly to the way they were. Maybe they shouldn't. But I'm hoping that we'll be able to be back in theaters, and be able to watch shows again. I'm also hopeful that if that doesn't happen, we'll figure out a way to make something new. We’re not going to stop making art. We’re not going to stop making dances.

Marina Harss

Marina Harss is a dance writer in New York, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, as well as to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review. She is the author of a book about the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, scheduled for publication by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.



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