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Revolution in Tights

With the launch of the first major company since City Ballet, Christopher Wheeldon is upending the ballet establishment.


It seemed auspicious when a spectator who was not a candidate for angioplasty, and who was not especially fond of ballet either, slipped into the hall where Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company was rehearsing its inaugural performance at the Vail International Dance Festival in August. Her name was Marissa Miyamoto; she was 9 years old and had a green belt in karate. If her sports camp hadn’t been canceled, she would have been playing volleyball instead of hanging around the Vail Mountain School, where her grandmother worked and where, in the auditorium, the celebrated choreographer Christopher Wheeldon was setting new steps on fifteen of the finest dancers in the world.

At 34, Wheeldon is the boy wonder of classical ballet, having created more than 44 works for nearly every major ballet company. Last November, after six years as the first resident choreographer of the New York City Ballet, he announced he would not be staying on past the end of his contract in 2008 much less vying one day to run the company co-founded by the legendary choreographer George Balanchine. Two months later, he made an even more shocking announcement: He would be starting a company of his own.

The news made headlines—“Gambler Shakes Up Land of Tutus and Leotards”—because ballet in New York has been dominated for the last 50 years by American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet much in the way baseball in the metropolitan region is dominated by the Mets and the Yankees. As Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., bluntly put it, “How many great ballet companies have been started in the last 30 years? The answer is none.”

Wheeldon’s ambitious agenda was summed up on a T-shirt he was wearing during the company’s two-week residence at Vail this summer: STOP BITCHING AND START A REVOLUTION. Morphoses’ mission statement made so bold as to pledge the company would “restore ballet as a force of innovation.” And while self-effacing Englishmen are not by nature given to brash claims, Wheeldon has said the example he hoped to emulate was Diaghilev’s famous Ballets Russes, where the roster of collaborators included Stravinsky, Picasso, Balanchine, and Nijinsky.

“I never aspired to run City Ballet,” Wheeldon told me. “I’m not interested in inheriting a legacy; I want to create one of my own. There’s a big hole in the dance world right now. There’s not enough focus on bringing young people into ballet. One of the things I want to do is help audiences get over the idea ballet has some mysterious code they can’t decipher.”

In light of Wheeldon’s promise to cultivate “a broader, younger” following and embrace the paradox of democratizing an aristocratic art without debasing its refinements, Marissa Miyamoto was something of a preliminary test case. When the karate kid tiptoed into the auditorium, Wheeldon gave her a friendly hello.

“Do you take ballet?” he asked.
“No,” she said.
“Do you like ballet?

Still she stayed. Came back the next day. Lingered all week in fact. Wendy Whelan, the City Ballet principal who was moonlighting with Morphoses for the summer (and will be part of the cast when Morphoses makes its New York debut at City Center on October 17), signed a pair of pointe shoes and showed her how to tie them on. Marissa seemed keen on the former San Francisco Ballet principal (and recent City Ballet hire) Gonzalo Garcia, because Garcia spoke Spanish just like her favorite singing group, the Cheetah Girls. Occasionally, troupe members working on new choreography with Wheeldon asked Marissa the steps she liked, and Wheeldon, who has always preferred the collaborative approach to the dictatorial, incorporated her choices. He offered Marissa and her grandmother tickets to the first Morphoses performance at the Vilar Center in nearby Beaver Creek. During the performance, she watched raptly. Whelan found her in the lobby afterward.

“So do you like ballet now?” Whelan asked.
“No,” Marissa said.
“But you like ballet dancers?”
“And you like watching the ballet dancers dance?”
“Well then—you like ballet!”

Still a bit wary of the implications, Marissa allowed herself to smile. The revolution was under way.

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