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Revolution in Tights

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Christopher Wheeldon  

When Wheeldon announced the new company in January, Morphoses had locked up performance fees of $705,000 for its first season, and $3.4 million for the next two years. The fees were enough to give the venture a handsome start, but not enough to keep it going. The company was looking to raise $3 million to $5 million over the next few years. (The expense projections included $20,000 a year for pointe shoes.) Lopez and Wheeldon hoped to attract twenty “permanent founders” who could contribute $50,000 each to the cause.

In March, they took a train down to Washington, D.C., to see Michael Kaiser at the Kennedy Center. For more than two decades, Kaiser has given seminars on arts management, fund-raising, and marketing to organizations all over the world. He gave Wheeldon and Lopez a crash course.

“I was a little insulted it took them so long to call,” Kaiser joked. “I’ve known Chris a long time. What I told them basically was that the most important thing is the art, and the second most important thing is the marketing. To be successful, he has to create great art, and he and Lourdes have to market the hell out of it. It’s much easier said than done.”

By the end of April, Lopez and Wheeldon had raised $129,000, started a board, and ended Chagall’s lonely vigil by hiring an administrative assistant, 25-year-old Elizabeth Johanningmeier. The first gathering of dancers was a mock rehearsal in mid-May at the New 42nd Street Studios before a Bloomberg television crew producing a piece about Morphoses.

“We’re going to teach—Oh, what’s the name of my ballet? After the Rain,” Wheeldon said as the dancers were limbering up. “We’ll do a few moments where it looks like I’m correcting you all even though I never have corrections for you.”

The only trouble was the lack of traction on the studio floor.

“This floor is a nightmare,” Wheeldon said. “There’s not enough rosin on it. Does anyone have any Coca-Cola or something sticky?”

“The building owners will kill us if we put Coke on the floor,” Johanningmeier warned.

“That’s your job, Elizabeth. You’re fired—again.”

“It’s not a productive day if I haven’t been fired at least once,” she said, laughing.

“People at City Ballet never questioned my artistic vision,” says Wheeldon. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to leave.”

There were problems too with the company’s first event, a low-key cocktail party and fund-raiser in June. About 200 invitations were sent out, each with a little convex plastic lens glued on to convey the theme of taking a closer look at the new company. But the unorthodox square shape of the envelope triggered a minor budget crisis when a seventeen-cent-per-envelope surcharge was imposed by the postal clerk. Then, on the night of the party, the caterer couldn’t get into the space. “Plan B was to get sandwiches and soft drinks from a deli,” Lopez said. And Johanningmeier had to make a pre-party inventory of furniture scratches, as if it was a known fact that balletomanes would not attend a cocktail party without their cats.

But everyone was happy with the turnout—Michael Kaiser came up from Washington; Alistair Spalding flew over from London, as did Peter and Judy Wheeldon, parents of the wonder boy.

Lopez introduced herself. “I’m the executive director of Morphoses. That should explain why I look so tired.”

“And why I look so fresh,” Wheeldon chimed in. He was wearing a white shirt embroidered with blue butterflies. Butterflies figured in the company’s early logo ideas, but the sketches all came back looking like perfume ads, so they settled on an image of a crouching ballerina with splayed arms, and were not amused to hear from anyone who thought the logo looked a lot like an Amazonian tree frog.

“Our mission,” Wheeldon was saying, “is to create a ballet company for the long term. We want to break down the traditional boundaries of the fourth wall, and allow audiences to get to know the dancers so it’s not such a mysterious and strange environment. Tutus and tiaras are beautiful, but we want to show ballet is also sexy and young.”

Wheeldon’s father looked on proudly. “Chris has been his own man since he was 12 years old,” he said.

That was the year—1985—when Wheeldon, a student at the Royal Ballet School, appeared in a production of The Nutcracker at Covent Garden and was singled out by Clement Crisp, the dean of ballet criticism in England, as “a bright spark” and “a neat buoyant dancer.”

Wheeldon grew up in Somerset, England. His mother studied jazz and ballet before developing a career as a physical therapist; his father worked as an engineer but had a keen feeling for music as a clarinetist and a member of a choir. Wheeldon devised his first dance when he was 8 and continued choreographing on the side when he became a dancer in the corps of the Royal Ballet in 1991.

It was an ankle sprain the following year that led him to the U.S. He was watching TV in his apartment, with a bag of frozen peas on his foot, when he saw a commercial offering anyone who bought a Hoover vacuum cleaner a free ticket on Virgin Airlines. Wheeldon bought the vacuum and promptly flew to New York with a suitcase of clothes and tapes of dance pieces he’d choreographed. He got permission to take class at City Ballet and not long afterward was invited by Peter Martins to become a member of the corps de ballet. He was promoted to soloist in 1998 but retired from performing two years later to choreograph full time.

During that first year as artist-in-residence, Wheeldon was out of sorts after a gig choreographing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for the Boston Ballet. He hadn’t felt connected to the music. His friend, former City Ballet principal Jock Soto, told him to find a piece of music that wasn’t conventionally pretty or romantic—ideally something that frightened him. What came of the advice was Wheeldon’s Polyphonia, set to the tumbling, discordant piano music of the Transylvanian composer György Ligeti. (Wheeldon would always send his father a CD of the music he was working on to listen to in the car, and when Peter Wheeldon heard this, he nearly drove off the road.) The ballet Ligeti’s music had inspired was Wheeldon’s breakthrough, his first risk-taking essay in a choreographic voice entirely his own and, in many ways, the precursor to what he is undertaking now.


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