The new company arrived in Vail the first week of August, dancers flying in from San Francisco, New York, Rome, and Hamburg. There were fifteen principals, plus eight young ballerinas from the Colorado Ballet who had been imported to dance corps roles in the Dance of the Hours, an upbeat, angst-free ballet Wheeldon had choreographed for the Metropolitan Opera production of La Gioconda and wanted to present at Vail as his closing number. The company was all billeted together at the Highlands Lodge in Beaver Creek. “It felt like summer camp,” Lopez said.
Every morning, there was class led by ballet mistress Olga Kostritzky, moonlighting from the School of American Ballet in New York. Kostritzky rode herd on the local girls, trying to sharpen their timing and attack. Their technique was more constrained than the featured dancers’. “They will never forget this,” Kostritzky said later. “For two weeks, they have tasted freedom. And when this is over, they will have to go back into their cage.”
Wheeldon rehearsed some of his old ballets and plunged into creating two new pieces he would show at Vail as workshop performances, then give official premieres at Sadler’s Wells in September and at City Center in October. Watching the rehearsals, Lopez was struck by the difference between the dancers of Wheeldon’s generation and the dancers she grew up with.
“My generation needed father and mother figures,” Lopez said. “The dancers of this generation need a friend. We had mentors. They don’t need mentors. Chris is like a brother to them—an older brother.”
Whelan, who is six years Wheeldon’s senior and often seems to act in the capacity of his big sister, thought the role he had carved out for himself was half a brother, half a dad, and started calling him “Brad.”
The critic Jennifer Homans perceptively put her finger on this theme in the New Republic three years ago, writing that Wheeldon’s aesthetic grips younger dancers in a way that Balanchine’s does not. “Balanchine embraced the elevated aristocratic moeurs of nineteenth-century ballet; his dancers had grace, manners, and above all style. They were fascinating and eccentric artists, and he gave their musical and theatrical instincts ample reign … Wheeldon’s dancers are an entirely different breed. Their bodies are opaque, stripped of social identity: not déclassé, but classless … They are not personalities but modeling clay—classically trained but tempered with a yoga-like, organic quality.”
The audience at Morphoses’ first show at the Vilar Center in Beaver Creek—a select crowd of 280—was so primed they gave Wheeldon an ovation just for walking onstage to introduce the night’s program. In keeping with the company’s goal of demystifying ballet, the lights came up on the dancers arrayed as if in their morning class, as Wheeldon, like a tour guide, explained the routine, condensing what would typically be an hour and a half of warm-up exercises, barre work, and jumps. The second half of the evening was given to performances: Wheeldon’s Polyphonia and After the Rain, along with excerpts from two of Wheeldon’s works-in-progress, a short duet by Edwaard Liang, and Wheeldon’s Dance of the Hours. After the show, Vicki Bromberg Psihoyos, who danced with City Ballet for a dozen years, had to catch her breath. “The thought I had,” she said, “was that we were witnesses to history, like the people on the Warburg lawn who saw Serenade”—Serenade being the first ballet Balanchine choreographed in America, using students from the School of American Ballet in 1934. The next night, at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater in Vail, Wheeldon took a bow as the crowd of several thousand fervently clapped and shouted.
Vail, as it turned out, was like the womb that delivers the new fawn into the mouths of the waiting wolves. British wolves for the most part, who were not much impressed by the sheer fact that a new dance company consisting of only four people—Lopez had just brought in a bookkeeper—not only had managed to secure three years of booking fees and raise (by this point) $300,000 but also had put on fourteen ballets (three of them world premieres) by six different choreographers with 30 of the world’s best dancers in a matter of months.
Some of the reviews from Morphoses’ run at Sadler’s Wells were exceptionally harsh. The Daily Telegraph called the evening “so prim and buttoned-up” that it turned “what was a white-hot ticket into a very lukewarm attraction.” London’s Daily Express said Wheeldon “is going to have to do better than this if he wants to grab the attention of young people untutored in either classical or contemporary dance.” The Sunday Telegraph compared one of the costumes Wendy Whelan wore to “a giant Pringle.”