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British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon is one of the most important dance-makers currently working in the ballet world, but he has also broadened his range to directing and choreographing musicals. His latest venture, MJ The Musical, opens on Broadway on February 1, 2022. ICONS spoke to Christopher Wheeldon about his creative process and his current projects.


ICONS: You started to dance at 9 in Somerset, England, where you grew up. When did you first think about choreography?


Christopher Wheeldon: Almost from the beginning. When I moved from my little local ballet school to become an associate with the Royal Ballet School, a teacher there, Shirley Lucking, would set aside a little time in the class for us to create our own dances. I was a bossy only child who didn’t have anyone to take the bossiness out on, and I took to being in charge and telling the others what steps to do like a duck to water!


Then when I became a full-time student at 11 at White Lodge, there was quite a focused part of the curriculum devoted to choreography. You enter an annual competition and have time in the studio to make up dances. I loved it, and in my first year, I made a piece called The Syncopated Clock, to music by Leroy Anderson, which was chosen to be shown to Princess Margaret at a private presentation she attended at the school. That was a big moment of affirmation, and it propelled me into entering the competition every year.


When I got to the Upper School, I entered and won the Ursula Moreton choreographic competition. The director, Norman Morrice, was instrumental in guiding me away from the more popular music I was drawn to. He was very fatherly and gentle in his guidance and such a strong influence for many of us. He was the closest to a mentor figure that I ever had as a choreographer.


Choreography was something I enjoyed doing – it felt like a hobby, and I really didn’t have any other hobbies! But I don’t think I was confident enough in my abilities to think about it as a profession at that point. And I was also really focused on being a dancer.



ICONS: You were a remarkably talented dancer, winning the 1991 Prix de Lausanne gold medal at 18, and joining the Royal Ballet the same year. Which influences from that period impacted you most as a choreographer?


CW: I think Kenneth MacMillan was the biggest early influence. The Prince of the Pagodas premiered when I was at the Upper School, with this young star, Darcey Bussell, and I was called in to learn the baboon dance in the first act. It is deeply flawed as a full-length ballet, but the score is so rich, and there were moments that choreographically made a huge impression on me. I loved the fairy-tale aspect, and I admired how MacMillan had modeled it on Petipa’s big classical ballets— a central pas de deux, the wedding in the last act. It felt like a very contemporary take on that. I remember listening to the score over and over again; in hindsight, I was really studying it.


Frederick Ashton’s Scenes de Ballet was also hugely influential. There is nothing like being in a ballet to really study the structure, particularly when you are in the corps de ballet. It’s a really great education. It was also one of the more soloist-type roles I did at that stage because there are only four men in the piece.


I was in the company the first time the Royal did William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, and I was desperately disappointed not to be chosen. I remember watching it slightly begrudgingly but loving it; I had never seen anything like it before, and that also influenced me. I was fascinated by how emotional I found it, even though it’s ostensibly the most unemotional thing you could watch. There was a sexuality about it we certainly hadn’t seen at the Royal Ballet, bodies moving in a way I had never seen before.


ICONS: In 1993 you joined the New York City Ballet, famously because Hoover was offering free trips to New York if you bought a vacuum cleaner. Which you did.


CW: I did! I had always wanted to go to New York, and I asked City Ballet if I could do a class there. Peter Martins happened to be teaching, and he offered me a corps de ballet position.


The pure physical manifestation of music in the Balanchine works and the more human, socially interactive world of the Robbins works were incredibly important experiences. Also working with Robbins was huge for me. I was in 2 +3 Part Inventions when it came to the company, also West Side Story Suite, and in the original cast of his final piece, Brandenburg.


Structurally and musically, Balanchine’s works are probably more influential for my abstract work. But when I am making narrative work, I sometimes play the “what would Jerry have done? What might Kenneth have done” question out in my head. I flip through memories of both dancing in their works, and of what I heard them say in the room. Sometimes they are guides for me.



ICONS: Did you express your interest in choreography to Peter Martins?


CW: Yes, when I joined the company, I was very upfront and took a couple of videos to show him, and he must have thought there was something there because he gave me a few opportunities to make pieces for the School of American Ballet. Then in 1997, he asked me to make a ballet for the Diamond Project, a festival of new work that City Ballet put on every two or three years. The ballet was called Slavonic Dances, to music by Dvorak.



Funnily enough, I was quite confident at that point. I didn’t really begin to feel nervous about my work until about the third piece for City Ballet, by which time people were starting to say, “he’s good” or “he’s not so good.” By the time I made Polyphonia in 2001, I was almost crippled by fear. It was Jock Soto who pushed me on, saying you have done well so far, there is no reason not to go ahead. It turned out to be a breakthrough piece and established a real rapport with Jock and Wendy Whelan, which became an ongoing creative inspiration for me.


Polyphonia was very important because it taught me to lean into my fear. I knew I was looking for a way to break out from a romantic, classical mold. I was very comfortable choreographing to a straightforward score with a lovely melody. I found the Ligeti music uncomfortable, but strangely beautiful, with a kind of dark magic. It felt not me, but also me. It was a good lesson in being afraid but doing it anyway. It’s a philosophy to live by.


ICONS: You stopped dancing in 1998, although you had been promoted to soloist at that point. What made you decide to devote yourself to choreography?


CW: I had a very honest moment with myself: I am a soloist, but I am not going to become a principal. City Ballet has always been a tough place where either you had it or you didn’t. I didn’t want to become bitter about my career as a dancer. I remember being down to learn the Cavalier in Nutcracker for the eighth year in a row—I had never actually danced it onstage—and going to the ballet master, Sean Lavery, and saying, I’m not staying for the rehearsal. The next day I tell Peter I was leaving, and he pretty much offered me an artist-in-residence position right away. Later I became the resident choreographer.


It was very lucky to have choreography up and running as a second career at that point. I had a way of living out my fantasy through creating work. Part of me feels maybe my dance career would have been different if I had stayed at the Royal and been more nurtured as a dancer. But I have no regrets.



ICONS: You started out with abstract pieces at City Ballet, but you have made many narrative ballets too, many of them full-length. Does one form feel more natural to you than another?


CW: I would say neither form comes very naturally! There are varying degrees of challenge in everything. Sometimes the process that feels most fluid and easy ends up delivering uninteresting work, and sometimes you have weeks of anguish and anxiety but get perhaps a more interesting result. It’s a crapshoot, honestly.


I actually struggle more now with melodic and easily understood musical structures, because it’s easy to get swept up in the beauty and ease, whereas you might find some more interesting responses by exploring a counter-attack to the music. It’s difficult because you usually have a time crunch and it can be tempting to go with the flow.


I would also say that even with abstract work, a thematic or narrative idea can emerge from the process, from being in the room with dancers. That’s the beauty of working in the moment, with music and people.


ICONS: What sparks your creativity, and how do you prepare for a new creation?


CW: It’s often the music, but sometimes it’s a story. If the piece is going to be a narrative work, I do a lot of preparation around story structure, and if there is commissioned music, there is a lot of work to do with the composer. We build a synopsis, then break down the sections into a duet, a group dance, roughly how long things are. If it’s a pre-existing piece of music, I spend a lot of time listening to it before rehearsals begin.


I am so mercurial in my process, but I do usually create a count structure, or at least my clumsy version of that. I do read music, but I often respond more to what I am hearing and the space around the notes rather than the strict musical structure. Then I section it off: this feels like it could be a man’s solo, this a corps section, and so on. But I never stick to that plan. The notes are just about reassuring myself that I have some sort of plan.


I have had moments when I have found myself in the studio with a piece of music, and it just isn’t right. For Within the Golden Hour, I actually changed the music on the first day of rehearsal. I had been working with French psalms and was swept up by their beauty and lyricism. By 1 pm, I decided no, it’s going to feel like one giant perfume bubble, and I found the Ezio Bosso score that afternoon.


I never go in knowing what the movement language is or with sequences I have prepared in advance. I used to think that was perhaps a problem, because I’d see other choreographers knowing what they wanted to do when they walked into the room. But I feel if I make the work in advance on my own body, it will always look the same; I need dancers in front of me, and a lot of what I do depends on who they are; it’s quite instinctive. I have come to terms with the fact that’s the way I create. I guess I am less hard on myself artistically these days. But I am still as rigorous once I am in the room; in the process, it’s all or nothing.


The process always feels like a shot in the dark to me. Ballets only begin when you start making them, and sometimes the first day will be a complete mess and a struggle, sometimes the steps cascade out and feel inevitable. There is no rhyme or reason, it’s a very fluid process and each thing can provide something interesting. Some works are more successful than others, but there is always interesting artistic growth that comes from each process.


I struggle less now with angst-ing over every step, because I realize now that not every step has to be fascinating. Brilliant, innovative choreographic ideas don’t add up to a great ballet by themselves; it takes much more than that.



ICONS: Is your preparation somewhat different when a ballet is based on a literary work, like The Winter’s Tale, or the upcoming Like Water for Chocolate?


CW: To some extent, because then your structure is more clearly defined by a story, and if you are working with a composer, the ideas for different sections have to be more specific.


For Water for Chocolate, I spent a lot of time with the book and with the film, and I went to visit the author, Laura Esquivel, in Mexico City. She cooked me a recipe from the book—the greatest moment of choreographic research ever!


Then I sat down with Joby Talbot, the composer, and Bob Crowley, the designer, and we created a roadmap. It starts with the story, how we will structure the music around our version of it, and we whittle down what will work and what won’t. We presented a version to Laura, she massaged it a bit, and then we worked on it again.


So much in a project like this has to be done in advance, and that’s not always good because there is a huge amount of time between the genesis of the project, the writing of the music, and the creation of the dance. You have to think yourself back into the project.


ICONS: How collaborative are you with your dancers?


CW: I know what I want, but it is a conversation. Dancers might suggest alternatives to what I am showing, or comment about how a character might move. But I am not asking them to write their names with their bodies backwards in space, although I am not against those choreographic ideas at all. But I don’t think they work unless it’s an integrated practice.

I love working with dancers who approach work in different ways, with the Ballet Boyz for example, where I need to look at them differently, shape their bodies in a different way to ballet dancers. And I love working with the dancers at the Hamburg Ballet because John Neumeier has trained them to work in a very specific way; they are very collaborative and offer up ideas, which I try to encourage everyone I work with to do.



ICONS: Are there creative figures who inspire you?


CW: I think you can learn a lot from every discipline, every art form. It can depend what I am working on. When I am making a ballet, I go to the theater a lot. At the moment I am working on MJ, and I went recently to the Twyla Tharp evening at New York City Center. It was a breath of fresh air to sit in a dance house and look at a spare and empty stage full of dancing bodies, in works that felt so fresh and modern even though some of it was made in the 1970s. It was great not to be in a darkened theater thinking about cues!



ICONS: The experience of working on MJ the Musical, hasn’t been straightforward, between the pandemic and the accusations that emerged about the pop star’s life.


CW: It has been interesting and challenging in so many ways. To work with someone like Lynn Nottage has been extraordinary; we are unlikely partners on paper, but it has been wonderful. We started working on the show almost three years ago. I spent a lot of time in the studio with some Broadway dancers, slowly developing a movement language, helped by two brothers, Richmond and Anthony Talauega, who danced for Michael. They are an encyclopedia of his physical language.


From that perspective, there is a tapestry of both Michael’s work and my work; these two guys have brought an authenticity and knowledge to the work that I couldn’t have. So my work is curatorial and choreographic, and as I director I have to pull these ideas together.



ICONS: How do you see ballet evolving in the coming years?


CW: I think we are heading in very interesting directions and I think the next generation of choreographers will be focused on different thematic ideas and ways of working. We are fortunate to be living through a revolution of sorts that is affecting how artists make arts. The questioning of gender roles affects ballet, for instance. I wonder how much longer we will revive classics like Swan Lake, or how those classics will start to look in the future.


I can’t help but feel a little insecure. Perhaps my artistic ideas will get left in the dust? But I am sort of ok with that too, because you can only be true to yourself as an artist. If you start trying to fit social norms, and it doesn’t come from an organic place, maybe it’s time to think about making a new type of art.


But I am very encouraged by how everybody seems to be jumping into action. Space is being made for female choreographers, for BIPOC choreographers and leaders. Maybe there is a little too much haste in some cases, but change is happening and that’s exciting. At Maria Kowroski’s retirement performance, to give a small example, all the women had their hair down, and it was their natural hair. Feminine beauty of every race, represented naturally in a very unnatural world. That struck me as really rather beautiful.


ICONS: What advice would the you of today give to the young you?


CW: I would tell me to worry less. Young Chris was very concerned about what people thought, and that quite often held me back from stepping into more interesting artistic territory. Stay true to yourself, believe in yourself, don’t let the opinion of others sway you from your path. I wish I’d had someone around to tell me that.    




Excerpt from Within The Golden Hour:




This Bitter Earth:




Annoucement of MJ The Musical:




More about Christopher Wheeldon and his biography can be found at:



 Photography Credits:


Photo © Angela Starling, Christopher Wheeldon, 2018.

Photo © Tristram Kenton, The Winter’s Tale, Christopher Wheeldon, ROH, 2018.

Photo © Tristram Kenton, The Winter’s Tale, Christopher Wheeldon, ROH, 2018.

Photo © Tristram Kenton, Within the Golden Hour, Christopher Wheeldon, ROH, 2019.

Photo © Tristram Kenton, Within the Golden Hour, Christopher Wheeldon, ROH, 2019.

Photo © Tristram Kenton, Within the Golden Hour, Christopher Wheeldon, ROH, 2019.

Photo © Tristram Kenton, Within the Golden Hour, Christopher Wheeldon, ROH, 2019.



Interviewer: Roslyn Sulcas

Content Editor-in-Chief: Camilla Acquista

Executive  Assistant: Charles Scheland

Executive Director: Vladimir Angelov 

Dance ICONS, Inc., January 2022 © All rights reserved.