Theater archives

Christopher Wheeldon, Not Quite Top Chef


“The mode of development of an organism or part” is how my dictionary defines “morphosis.” So when Christopher Wheeldon used the plural of it to title the ballet company he formed two years ago, he seemed to be suggesting growth in several directions. As a choreographer who has contributed some sterling works to other companies, he wanted not only to create a more personal setting for his ballets, but to provide variety by remounting small-scale classics and commissioning works by dancemakers who interest him.

The choices he makes in his own ballets are tasteful, imaginative, and full of feeling. His choices as they apply to the work of others can seem shaky. The first of Morphoses’ two programs at City Center offered the premiere of Australian choreographer Tim Harbour’s Leaving Songs to a richly variegated orchestral score by his countryman, Ross Edwards. Here’s an unsettling admission: Two days after seeing the ballet, I couldn’t at first remember it.

I recollected Harbour saying—in one of the brief films by Benjamin Pierce that knit the program together—that it was a “physical poem” having to do with endings and beginnings. The dismaying metaphoric white balloons involved also stayed with me; so did an exhilaratingly athletic quartet for four bare-chested men (Andrew Crawford, Rory Hohenstein, Matthew Prescott, and Rubinald Pronk). Then I remembered the nine performers in profile, undulating their spines to an unlikely degree, as if practicing for a West African rite. Later, a number of lovely and lively moments—in duets for Crawford and Gabrielle Lamb, Pronk and Danielle Rowe, Prescott and Melissa Barak, and in a trio for Hohenstein, Carrie Lee Riggins, and Ty Gurfein—also seeped back into my mind. The memory lapse may have occurred because I never sensed a through line in terms of the ballet’s structure or feeling/tone.

I have no problem remembering the duet Softly As I Leave You by Lightfoot Léon (the team of Paul Lightfoot and Sol Léon), shown earlier during the Fall for Dance Festival. Wheeldon was probably smart to take it into Morphoses’ repertory. Its virtuosic angst and the sight of the fabulous Drew Jacoby banging around in a symbolic, upright box and her partner, Pronk, elasticizing his formidable limbs in anguish drives audiences wild with excitement.

Alexei Ratmansky’s 2001 Boléro may not be one of this remarkable choreographer’s greatest works, but it’s masterfully designed and fits Wheeldon’s dancers beautifully. Unlike many choreographers who have tackled Ravel’s score, Ratmansky ignores the sexual aspect of its escalating fervor and casts the six dancers as the team of expert athletes that they are. From their beginning as a dimly seen crowd profiled at the back of the stage (lighting by Brian Njie), they come forward into the brightening arena, one by one, to show their stuff. The men wear sleeveless black T-shirts and interestingly cut black trousers by Marianne Nilsson; the women are in white with short, flaring skirts. All have numbers on their chests. But it’s not that you root for #2 (Wendy Whelan) or #5 (Edwaard Liang) or Barak, Rowe, Juan Pablo Ledo, or Lucas Segovia. You simply relish the bright steps and the clever way Ratmansky keeps the ensemble active in counterpoint to the soloists. He shows off the men in muscular preening, has two of them hold either end of a chain of women and swing it about, and, for several dazzling seconds, shows us all of these terrific people doing their individualized personal bests at the same time.

Wheeldon chats up audiences with a view to making dance seem user-friendly. Welcoming us, he gave a glowing introduction to the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas and its founder-conductor Alondra de la Parra (one of the opening-night highlights was the live video of the beautiful, vivacious de la Parra, leading the musicians in an overture—Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia: Malambo). The choreographer also reminded us that 2009 is the centennial of the first performances of Diaghilev’s Les Ballets Russes, and that Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite—to which he, Wheeldon, set his 2008 Commedia—was composed for a 1920 ballet by Leonide Massine.

When I saw Commedia last year, I relished the spicy encounters and patterns that Wheeldon devised, along with the ballet’s décor by Ruben Toledo and costumes by Isabel Toledo. I still do, but this time, I find myself wishing that all the excellent dancers were as alert and full of fun as Hohenstein and Prescott are. There are no “scenes” or characters like Harlequin and Pantalone, but ideally, the performers can enhance the subtle interplay of cockiness, trickery, and mournfulness rooted in commedia dell’arte masquerades.

I hope Wheeldon gets the mix of Morphoses’ repertory right. It’s not easy to be a master chef—balancing heat, sweetness, and texture when dealing with living, dancing ingredients.