The buzz surrounding the New York debut of Christopher Wheeldon’s new company, Morphoses, drew a large opening-night crowd. Wheeldon’s mission being to make ballet sexier, fresher, and more accessible in hopes of enticing a younger audience, it’s not surprising that he resigned as New York City Ballet’s resident choreographer to work more collaboratively with a smaller group—at present a pickup one, rich in stellar dancers with other affiliations.
To promote accessibility, artful film clips of rehearsals by the British duo Ballet Boyz (Michael Nunn and William Trevitt) precede some of the dances. You can see Darcey Bussell, Royal Ballet luminary,
in all her sweaty glory, muffing, then acing, a tricky moment in Wheeldon’s
Tryst Pas de Deux, and then recognize that step when she performs it onstage. Live music by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, led by Rob Fisher, revs up the excitement.
In the end, though, making or acquiring fine work and programming it wisely may be the best marketing device. There Where She Loved reveals Wheeldon’s strengths: interesting musical choices, lovely steps, and an imaginative structure. Accompanied by pianist Cameron Grant, soprano Kate Vetter Cain and mezzo Shelley Waite alternate singing Chopin songs with ones by Kurt Weill. In the first section—to Chopin—Gonzalo Garcia, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Tyler Angle, and Craig Hall play elaborate pass-the-ballerina games with the glamorous, expressive Anastasia Yatsenko of the Bolshoi Ballet and then exit together; later the scene begins again to Weill’s “Nana’s Lied,” and Wheeldon amplifies how four men can work a willing woman and leave her sorrowing.
While Waite provides a heartbreakingly beautiful rendition of Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny,” Hall manhandles and then discards, one by one, NYCB’s Ashley Bouder, Ashley Laracey, and Teresa Reichlen. Later, to Chopin, the same women visit Garcia (formerly of the San Francisco Ballet, now an NYCB principal) for brief, flirtatious duets (Bouder is charmingly playful—also in a solo that precedes these). This time, the women are the ones who leave the man. In the end, they and Sterling Hyltin (featured earlier in an ecstatic duet with Garcia) rush around him like butterflies. There’s also a handsome slow pas de deux for Maria Kowroski and Nunn. (If Wheeldon wants to get away from the preening danseur noble image, Nunn sets a good example—an ordinary bloke, delighted by this cool princess with mile-long legs.)
By the time the three-hour evening ends with Fools’ Paradise, my attention is flagging. The ballet involves so many duets and trios that echo or replace one another and so much passionate athleticism by Kowroski, Reichlen, Aesha Ash, Wendy Whelan, and the four men from There Where She Loved plus Edwaard Liang that my head begins to swim. Sometimes Wheeldon’s fluency gets him into impossible situations: Hall and Garcia hold each other’s shoulders and walk backward; Ash, seated between them, her arms braced across their thighs, drags herself along on her butt. That kind of awkwardness occasionally crops up in Tryst, in which Bussell is partnered by Jonathan Cope, and in Prokofiev Pas de Deux, performed by the National Ballet of Canada’s marvelous Tina Pereira and Nehemiah Kish. Tryst is all about what Cope can do with Bussell’s magnificent silky legs and preternaturally flexible body; Prokofiev is a more ecstatic version of extreme geometry. Both duets pale slightly beside William Forsythe’s Slingerland Pas de Deux, danced with full-bodied ebb and flow by Whelan and Liang. No “check this amazing pose” here; the man’s more of a person, and the steps unfurl like a dialogue.
Wheeldon’s Dance of the Hours for the Metropolitan Opera’s production of La Gioconda is an elegantly constructed trifle that falls just short of camp. In Holly Hynes’s bewitching Second Empire–style tutus, four women in peach and four in blue track, echo, or frame Garcia and Bouder—posing like pinup girls and breaking into cancan steps while prince and princess sprint and twirl magnificently.
Who wouldn’t wish Wheeldon and Morphoses well?