Ironically, Wheeldon had so much freedom under Peter Martins, the artistic director of New York City Ballet, that at times he found himself wishing he had less, hungry for colleagues to knock ideas around with and a creative environment that was not premised on the modernist idea of the artist as a lonely figure grappling with existential quandaries in solitude. (It’s probably worth noting that Wheeldon’s sense of isolation had been unpleasantly enhanced at the time by the breakup of a long-term relationship.)
“People at City Ballet never questioned my artistic vision, and maybe that is one of the reasons I wanted to leave,” Wheeldon said. “Peter feels artists need the freedom to discover for themselves and learn from their mistakes. The schedule is such that it’s hard to interact with other artists. Forsythe was telling me what it was like to be in a smaller group of dancers and to work collaboratively.”
And of course, as ever at City Ballet, there was Balanchine’s long shadow. After the debut of his January 2006 ballet, Klavier, set to the slow movement of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata, Wheeldon had been particularly irked by the critics who rushed to point out that Balanchine considered Beethoven’s music unchoreographable.
“I’m so tired of people telling me you can’t do this and you can’t do that,” Wheeldon told me. “That whole stuff about how Balanchine said you can’t dance to Beethoven so nobody should bother choreographing to Beethoven really ticked me off. I wanted to shout, ‘Think for yourselves, people! There’s more than one way to do things!’ It was part of what made me want to have my own company.”
Exasperated by orthodoxies and spurred by Forsythe’s injunction, Wheeldon went to see Lourdes Lopez, a former City Ballet principal dancer who had retired from the stage in 1997 after a 23-year career. Lopez, who was born in Havana and fled with her parents when Castro took over, had co-founded the nonprofit Cuban Artists Fund and served as the executive director of the George Balanchine Foundation. Wheeldon’s seven-year tenure as a dancer at City Ballet (he was a soloist when he gave up performing to concentrate on choreography in 2000) overlapped with Lopez’s. “I remember him taking class,” she recalled, “but Chris and I never touched each other onstage.”
What had left an indelible impression on her was a piece Wheeldon choreographed for a studio performance by School of American Ballet students in 1996 (Danses Bohemiennes set to the music of Debussy). “I called my husband and said, ‘Holy shit’—excuse my French—‘I think we have here the next great choreographer. He was like 19 or something.” (Twenty-three, actually.)
Meeting last year, they discovered they shared the same ideas about dancers and the direction ballet ought to take. “Dancers are like horses or children,” Lopez said. “They have to be nurtured and led and guided and reprimanded and inspired. It’s the nature of the art. I remember when my moment came, Mr. Balanchine gave me a very important role in Violin Concerto—I was in the corps de ballet, and I was going out there with Peter Martins in front of 800 people. And I said to Mr. B., ‘I don’t know what you want!’ and he said, ‘I want you to be Lourdes!’ Dancing is not just something you do onstage on Sunday afternoon. It’s an entire career. ”
She signed on in September 2006 as the new company’s executive director.
With the family parrot, Chagall, frequently consulting from his cage, Lopez and Wheeldon worked out of the dining room of the Fifth Avenue apartment she shares with her husband, George Skouras, and their 5-year-old daughter, Calliste. The goal was to have a completely independent, fully operational ballet company by the end of 2009. They had to establish a board of directors, draft a business plan, design a logo, set up a Website, apply for tax-exempt status from the IRS, and name the company. Morphoses, Greek for “processes of transformation,” was the title of one of Wheeldon’s more innovative ballets. It seemed aptly suggestive of the troupe’s artistic ambitions.
Which, of course, required dancers. Morphoses wasn’t in a financial position to hire dancers away from companies where they had jobs, so Wheeldon planned to assemble casts on a pickup basis. More important was to drum up business, even though he had nothing to sell at the moment but his reputation. The first person he called was Alistair Spalding, the artistic director and chief executive of Sadler’s Wells, the premier dance venue in London. They met for a glass of wine in November. Spalding immediately offered a three-year contract for a two-week residency and four or so performances annually. Arlene Shuler, the president and CEO of New York City Center, which has a partnership with Sadler’s Wells, was equally enthusiastic and committed to a similar deal through 2009. And Damian Woetzel, who had danced in the debut of the ballet Morphoses in 2002, agreed to book the debut of the company Morphoses at the 2007 Vail International Dance Festival.