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Revolution in Tights

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Probably the worst review came from Clement Crisp, the critic who had singled out Wheeldon 22 years ago for his “buoyant spark” and in the past counted Wheeldon among his small list of “life-enhancing” choreographers. In the Financial Times, Crisp professed himself fiercely disappointed by a “relentlessly pauperish show, its manner anxious, its costuming singularly hideous, its effects small-scale and morose. Will this bring in the new audience Wheeldon seeks? I incline to doubt.”

“Vail was our innocent time,” Wheeldon said last week, a note of weariness in his voice. He was worn down and running a fever thanks to the exhausting rehearsal schedule leading up to the City Center debut. “It was the time before we were judged. It was a wonderful supportive audience and a great creative coming together. Now, the heat is on. If the expectations weren’t so high, the pressure would be much less.”

It has been a hard lesson in image management. Wheeldon, who had set the bar high with his initial proclamations, now seemed to want to ratchet it down a bit. The invitation to next week’s inaugural gala at City Center includes some cautionary thoughts: “My fear is that some people may be expecting too much from us in the beginning. My vision is something that may not be fulfilled for five or six years … Dreams take time.”

I asked about the Crisp review.

“Over the years, Clement has been very supportive and completely destructive,” Wheeldon said. “I don’t think that it is easy for Clement to review contemporary work in his mid-eighties.”

I said I thought he was 76.

“Well he’s almost in his mid-eighties. It’s a different generation. He was brought up on Fontaine and Nureyev and the Royal Ballet. He has very different standards. He’s a very funny writer, but it’s become just about that rather than really looking at work. The only thing that really bothered me was the crack about reconsidering what a younger audience would want. I honestly think I know more about what my generation would like to see.”

He sighed. “We’ll continue regardless of Clement.”

The ability to withstand criticism is surely another of the elements of a successful ballet company. City Ballet might not exist if Balanchine had taken the New York Times dance critic John Martin to heart when he said that the nascent organization that had mounted Serenade on the Warburg lawn should “get rid of Balanchine … and hire a good American dance man.”

For Wheeldon it is an article of faith that the process is as significant as the final product. Much of what he wants to do with Morphoses is change how dances are made. “The last three or four months have been incredibly enriching in this respect,” he said. “My dancers felt they were part of the creative process, part of the vision. It’s easy to not feel this way when you’re in a big company. Even the critics who didn’t like some of the pieces could see that the dancing was extraordinary. It made me feel really good about my philosophy.”

This resolve is more important to Lopez than a couple of bad reviews. “I think there was a question in Chris’s mind whether it was possible to have a company,” she said. “Not just a gig, or a pickup group, but a real company. I think when he saw how everyone danced in Vail, and how they came together and grew, it cleared him of any lingering ambivalence. The bug bit him. He knows he could close the door and go choreograph anywhere in the world. But that would be a disappointment to him now.”

The company has made at least one major change in the wake of the London performances: Chagall, the parrot, has been moved out of the dining room, where he will not be able to interfere with important phone calls or indulge in various other counterrevolutionary acts. The future of ballet was too important to let it be sabotaged by a parrot.


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