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A Choreographer's Sweet 'Success' at 28

Dance* Christopher Wheeldon's new musical pegs him as the next Jerome Robbins or George Balanchine, but just don't call him a wunderkind.

January 07, 2002|SID SMITH | CHICAGO TRIBUNE

You've probably never heard of him, but you will. Christopher Wheeldon, already something of a New York City darling, is poised to boost his already impressive resume.

He is now choreographing the new musical, "Sweet Smell of Success," on pre-Broadway tryout at the Shubert Theatre in Chicago, part of a team of giants that includes composer Marvin Hamlisch ("A Chorus Line"), playwright John Guare ("Six Degrees of Separation"), director Nicholas Hytner ("Miss Saigon") and set designer Bob Crowley ("Carousel").

Wheeldon, whose day job happens to be that of resident choreographer with the New York City Ballet, long home to George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, is all of 28.

"Thank you for getting my age right," he says upfront. "I've been given quite a range in articles all year, including 30, which was truly horrifying."

Yeah, horrifying. He's also over his natural role in the media as a promising newcomer: "I'm constantly mentioned as Balanchine or Robbins' successor, and it's getting tired. I've only been choreographing for five years, for goodness' sake. And please don't call me a wunderkind. That word now makes me shiver with horror."

Fair enough. The non-wunderkind is nevertheless one of modern choreography's most exciting success stories. "No ballet choreographer of his generation can match his imaginative use of the classical vocabulary," New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff pronounced in one review. His New York City Ballet boss, Peter Martins, calls him a meteor.

His comet-like rise began when he enrolled at age 7 in ballet class in the tiny British village of East Coker. By 11, he'd made it into the Royal Ballet School.

"It's all very 'Billy Elliot,'" he says of the obvious analogy to the movie's story. But, unlike the movie, his parents aren't working class--his father's now a retired engineer and his mother a physical therapist--nor are they opposed to his dancing.

"I think they were relieved, frankly," he says. "I was pretty hyperactive, and they were glad I had something that wore me out all day and left me tired in the evenings."

At age 18, he joined the corps of the Royal Ballet, but he spent only two years there. "It was really accidental," he says of his abrupt move to New York. "I had a lot of injuries, spraining my ankle because of my flexible feet. After a jump, I'd forget to put my foot down, and I'd twist the ankle."

After one injury, he gave himself a trip to New York, where he was well enough to take a class at New York City Ballet.

"Peter Martins watched part of the class, and at the end of the day, he called me in and invited me into the company. I hadn't seen the Empire State Building or anything on my tourist's list, and yet I left the New York State Theater that day with a job."

Wheeldon had already choreographed a little and had caught the attention of the Royal Ballet's Sir Kenneth MacMillan, who is now deceased. At New York City Ballet, he told Martins he liked to choreograph and fell under the influence of Robbins, who was still alive when Wheeldon arrived in 1993. (Robbins died in 1998.) Robbins cast him in his "Dances at a Gathering," for instance. "It was all such a rigorous repertoire, sometimes three challenging ballets in an evening. It's one of the reasons I took the job. I was tired of skipping around maypoles so much in London full-lengths.

"But at the end of my first season, I was thin and exhausted. I'd never had to dance that much in my life."

He worried constantly about his ankles, but the Balanchine technique proved helpful in that regard: "I became stronger."

Meanwhile, Martins gradually broke him in as a dance maker, through ballet school projects and workshops. He says his first big breaks came with "Mercurial Maneuvers" and "Polyphonia" in the 1999-2000 New York City Ballet season.

Last season, Martins named him the company's first resident choreographer (for at least the next five years, he says), and he created "Variations Serieuses," a slapstick ballet with a "42nd Street" scenario and a "Noises Off"-like set showing the dancers on and offstage.

"What's fantastic is that I'm getting to go all over the place, work with different companies, and still have a home with the company in New York," says Wheeldon, who has pretty much given up dancing for now. "And I can work on a Broadway musical."

That came about when he choreographed a short piece for Hytner's movie, "Center Stage," about the New York ballet world. "He called last spring and invited me to the summer workshop planned for 'Sweet Smell.' He warned me it was just a tryout and that I might not wind up with the job."

But Wheeldon arrived with his own intense beliefs about the show, inspired by the very dark, brooding 1957 black-and-white original movie--not something associated with dancing. Still, whatever the critical fate of the show overall, Wheeldon provides choreography both youthful and smart.

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