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World Premiere Dance for the Winspear
by Jerome Weeks 14 Oct 2009

Lots of performances this week, of course, with all the galas at the AT&T Performing Arts Center. But only one is a world-premiere dance work. Acclaimed choreographer Christopher Wheeldon — formerly of the Royal Ballet and the New York City Ballet — is in town with his own company Morphoses, and we visited during a rehearsal of the new work he’s cooking up for Dallas.


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There are many performances being created for the opening galas this week at the AT&T Performing Arts Center. But only one is a world-premiere, modern dance event.

[Sound of music and dancers’ feet. Music stops.]

We’re in a dance studio at Southern Methodist University. Christopher Wheeldon is rehearsing his company, Morphoses, for Thursday night’s gala at the Winspear Opera House .

WHEELDON: “Good, OK, good.  The one thing you don’t want to do is rush it. Take your time.”

Two years ago, Wheeldon himself seemed to have extremely bad timing. The British-born choreographer has been called the best thing to happen to ballet in 50 years. The New York City Ballet, where Wheeldon had danced since 1993, had even created the position of resident choreographer just for him.

But in 2007, Wheeldon co-founded a new company. Morphoses was a hugely ambitious leap for the 34 year old. It is the first trans-Atlantic troupe – based in both London and New York.

Then the economic crisis hit.

WHEELDON: “We started at the worst possible time. So we had to find ways to kind of get around that. Still, we were supported by two major theaters, Sadler’s Wells Theater in London and City Center Theater in New York and it’s  been thanks to those two theaters largely that we’ve survived as well as we have.”

In fact,  Morphoses has managed to double the number of venues it’s toured to each season. This year, Wheeldon has been touring with a troupe of 17 dancers to six cities in Australia, America and Europe. Even so, he’s been re-considering his business model.

small wheeldonWHEELDON: “It’s becoming more and more evident that we need to start thinking clearly about having a home base, a real home base where we can spend six or seven weeks working on the new ballets because the emphasis with us, of course, is for new work. There are enough Sleeping Beauties and Swan Lakes to go around the world several times at this point.”

Wheeldon is celebrated for his commitment to new works and for his fusion of clean, classical technique with contemporary music. Wheeldon’s great mentor when he left London for New York was Jerome Robbins, and it shows. But what Wheeldon tackles that Robbins generally didn’t is the kind of modern music that many might consider “difficult”: minimalist, atonal, polyrhythmic.

The company name, Morphoses, even comes from a ballet that Wheeldon devised for a string quartet by the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti. Ligeti is still best known for his works in the soundtracks of Stanley Kubrick films like 2001. Wheeldon humanizes such compositions, critics say. Muscularizes them, gives them clarity.

WHEELDON: “I think dance sometimes can unlock the mystery of music. You know, you find ways to accentuate the rhythm or kind of sculpt a phrase using the body, and that way, what can seem inaccessible can then become accessible. A lot of people have said that about the work of Ligeti. I use a lot of Ligeti’s music. And his work is very atonal, often very polyphonic, lots of rhythms going on at the same time so you can’t actually  identify one. I think that’s fascinating.”

Ligeti is not on the menu for Thursday, but two of Wheeldon’s pieces at the Winspear are excerpts from full-length works that would fit the description of “difficult” music — one by Estonian minimalist Arvo Part. the other by the British soundtrack composer Joby Talbot, who was also a member of the pop-rock group, the Divine Comedy.

[Music begins playing, gets louder]

And then — there’s the world premiere he is preparing for Dallas.

[Music reaches its exultant stride]

Yes, it’s the cancan – or more precisely, it’s the Galop from Jacques Offenbach’s operetta, Orpheus in the Underworld. Wheeldon’s premiere is called Tales of Offenbach and in it, the dancers handle a trumpet, a telephone and even some silent movie slapstick.

WHEELDON: “Knowing that it was going to be a ballet and opera gala, I wanted something musically that would bridge the gap. So I chose Offenbach because most of these are pieces from operas that have been stitched together to make sort of an orchestral suite. But I wanted to do something light and fun because there’s a lot of very serious work that night.”

[Cancan comes back for a triumphant finish.]

And it is, after all, a gala.