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Revolution in Tights

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Wheeldon rehearsing with his dancers at City Center.   

Many obstacles await a young choreographer bent on having his own company. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the only way to spend money faster than founding a ballet company is to start a war. Classical dance is, with opera, the most expensive of the performing arts. Toe shoes alone, without which ballerinas could not achieve the empyrean effect of being on pointe and distinguish themselves from the sublime savages of modern dance, cost $70 a pair and fall apart after a few hours of hard use.

Apart from the prohibitive costs, there’s the conundrum of cultural mind-share—how to get the attention of the wretches in the media and rouse the enthusiasm of an ever more distracted and, where ballet is concerned, seemingly indifferent public. “There’s a fundamental cultural shift that’s affecting all performing-arts companies,” said Ken Tabachnick, the general manager who oversees New York City Ballet’s $58 million annual budget. “Younger people do not find the value in performing arts that older people do. We’re still trying to understand and analyze it. We spend a lot of time talking about our education programs.” Wheeldon believes the younger crowd will come if he can convince them that ballet is “sexy” and “accessible” and not off-puttingly pretentious. He’s taking his sensual, athletic choreography to the iPod generation by blogging about the company. Morphoses even has a MySpace page.

But the most difficult obstacle may be the impossibly high expectations of the ballet world itself. For nearly a generation now, the art of classical dance has been suffering a kind of massive creative hangover. The death of many of the colossal figures of the twentieth century—George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Frederick Ashton—has, in the words of Damian Woetzel, the longtime NYCB principal dancer who just completed his first season as the artistic director of the Vail festival, “left the ballet world gasping for breath in the absence of established genius.” Gasping for breath and entertaining messianic fantasies of a savior who might not only have the gift to rescue ballet from what critic Jennifer Homans has called its descent into “sickly pieties and terminal athleticism” but also possess enough press appeal, marketing wizardry, and general Gen-X glamour to renovate its geriatric demographics and dwindling audiences.

Like it or not, Wheeldon is the leading candidate for the messiah job, largely because he is very talented, “the most talented classical choreographer of his generation,” the New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff declared six years ago. It may be too soon to define his signature steps or say what is unmistakably the Wheeldon aesthetic—and it is certainly too soon to say whether his company will meet the critic Arlene Croce’s definition of a great dance company: “a vision of the universe and the individual’s place in it.” But to sit in an audience waiting for the curtain to go up on a Wheeldon premiere is to feel that uncommon crackle of anticipation. It’s the mystery of dance why some patterns of movement generate energy and communicate meaning while others send you to the lobby desperate for a drink. But where so much choreography seems about as interesting as watching a couple of aerobics instructors wrestle over a StairMaster at a tag sale, Wheeldon’s work makes you pay attention. His feel for music is keen; his steps are often witty; he paints vivid pictures full of inventive sculptural shapes and intricate sequences that don’t seem contrived. And the pas de deux for which he is acclaimed are exquisitely emotional, dancers unfolding in the glycerin of a dream.

It’s not as if it’s impossible to launch a successful new ballet company. The Miami City Ballet, founded in 1985 by Edward Villella, and Carolina Ballet, which began twelve years later, have enthusiastic regional followings, as does a group like lines Ballet, which was started in San Francisco 25 years ago and is dedicated to staging the work of its founder, Alonzo King. And of course small modern dance companies have proliferated in the last couple of decades.

But no one has attempted what Wheeldon is going for: a new, international ballet company with residencies in New York and London and an emphasis on the creation of new works. He hopes eventually to establish a collaborative group centered on some twenty world-class dancers, whose training and careers he would help shape, and that would also embrace artists from other disciplines (such as the fashion designer Narciso Rodriguez, who is designing the costumes for two new Wheeldon ballets being presented this week). The dance repertory would include classic works from contemporary ballet’s remarkably small canon and new pieces by choreographers other than Wheeldon.

It was, after all, another choreographer, William Forsythe, whom Wheeldon says helped precipitate his decision to leave City Ballet. The two men had bumped into each other in the summer of 2006 at the Lincoln Center Festival. “He told me in no uncertain terms, ‘It’s time for you to be on your own,’ ” Wheeldon recalled. “People are still confused about why I would walk away from City Ballet, where I had carte blanche. The press wants me to make it a big drama and say, ‘I couldn’t take another minute there,’ but it’s just not the case. It was just a question of me wanting to be in control of my own artistic destiny and of opening a new door.”


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