Theater archives

Christopher Wheeldon’s Exit, Morphoses, and the Lust for Choreographic Adventure


Coded into many modern dancers’ genetic makeup is the desire to choreograph and to form a company devoted to that work. That the enterprise may be small-scale and possibly poverty-stricken is no deterrent. For a ballet dancer to become a top-notch choreographer and venture to form a company is rarer. That’s why many dance lovers rejoiced when Christopher Wheeldon relinquished his position as resident choreographer of the New York City Ballet and, in 2007, formed Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company. But his decision—announced in the Times on February 23—to withdraw as artistic director of Morphoses, while very disappointing, wasn’t all that surprising.

Wheeldon’s mission was unlike that of Eliot Feld, who left American Ballet Theater in 1970 to found the first of a succession of companies devoted almost entirely to his own works, and unlike that of Suzanne Farrell, who formed a modest group to present mostly small-scale ballets by her mentor, George Balanchine. Wheeldon wanted to build a repertory company, in which his own ballets would mix with those of other contemporary choreographers who interested him.

This meant that he needed to make wise choices and develop programming skills, and he has gotten some flack for his decisions in both these areas. Yet some of his innovations (charmingly frank pre-performance speeches, films of rehearsals, etc., interspersed between dances) engaged spectators, and his own choreographic gifts are exceptional. Between March 2007 and December 2009, the company acquired funding, secured engagements, and drew audiences. According to executive director Lourdes Lopez, Morphoses netted $545,000 and had $1.3 million in the bank as of December.

One fundamental issue could be that Wheeldon, who danced in Britain’s Royal Ballet before joining the New York City Ballet, has something encoded in his creative genes too. He was raised on ballets with large casts and is used to working with stars. Ballet companies practically worldwide ask him to add works to their repertories, and he complies (it’s unclear whether these assignments fill weeks only when Morphoses has no dates, and whether his guest stints channel some money into his company). When a person has a lust for choreographic adventure, as Wheeldon seems to have, it’s been difficult to imagine him limiting himself to running a small company that’s not yet on completely sound footing.

 Making Morphoses a truly stable enterprise would probably involve Wheeldon grooming a cadre of maybe a dozen dancers to perform his ballets and those of others. But once a choreographer has built works on, say, New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan, how likely is he to be willing to forgo the pleasure of using guest stars of that ilk who are members of other companies? Not very. Granted, audiences are attracted by name dancers, yet it’s hard to believe—given the high level of training today and Wheeldon’s reputation—that Morphoses can only find five or six suitable performers willing (by Wheeldon’s count) to sign as permanent members, when the company’s touring programs require more.

Apparently, Wheeldon intended to resign as artistic director anyway at the end of 2010, and he and Lopez dispute many of the reasons for his early departure. She has said that she plans to continue the company. The sticking point may be that some of the very things that make the company difficult to maintain are also at the core of its success: Wheeldon’s name everywhere lighting up the world’s stages and the glistening presence in Morphoses of world-class performers.