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Originally published March 15, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 15, 2007 at 2:00 AM

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Christopher Wheeldon on point: keeping the classical in ballet

While many young choreographers today are eager to kick off the pointe shoes, Christopher Wheeldon prefers his dancers to keep them on. The 33-year-old British-born dancemaker, currently...

Seattle Times arts critic

While many young choreographers today are eager to kick off the pointe shoes, Christopher Wheeldon prefers his dancers to keep them on.

The 33-year-old British-born dancemaker, currently resident choreographer at New York City Ballet (NYCB) and recent founder of his own company Morphoses: The Wheeldon Company, will this week be represented on the stage of Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) for the first time. Wheeldon, who began his career as a dancer at London's Royal Ballet before moving to NYCB in 1993, is rare among his choreographic peers in that he, for the most part, embraces the classical aesthetic. In the post-Balanchine era of ballet, his name is constantly mentioned as among the world's greatest working dancemakers, but in a telephone interview from San Francisco last week (where he's readying a work for San Francisco Ballet), he seemed to wear the mantle lightly.

"One of the reasons I pop up so much," he said, "is just because I'm one of the few choreographers to a certain point successful in continuing choreographing using the classical ballet vocabulary. I think the general direction is to take the pointe shoe off, and [the choreography becomes] much more about amalgamation of the contemporary dance vocabulary with some ideas from classical ballet. It's about distorting and breaking it down these days, rather than building on what I consider to still be a very beautiful and rich vocabulary."

Coming up

"Wheeldon, Duato & Balanchine" 7:30 p.m. tonight-Saturday and March 22-24, 2 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. March 25, Pacific Northwest Ballet, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $18-$145, 206-441-2424 or

Though Wheeldon says he admires many contemporary choreographers, he's noticing a trend that audiences are responding to: works that use high-energy contemporary music and feature a more industrial, edgy look. "Without sounding like I'm trying to degrade that — I have a lot of admiration for it — I think it's easier to thrill an audience with that kind of work than it is to create something poetic and perhaps a little bit more understated.

"Honestly, in my opinion, we can go further with the ballet vocabulary than it's possible to go with that soft shoe," he said. "I guess I'm kind of old-fashioned in a sense. I enjoy ballet still, and I enjoy making dances for classically trained ballet dancers. I'm perfectly happy to experiment — I've done some soft-shoe ballets. In the end, it comes down to what I do best."

Wheeldon's "Polyphonia," choreographed in 2001 for NYCB, will debut in PNB's repertory program beginning Thursday, along with George Balanchine's "La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker)" and Nacho Duato's "Rassemblement." A neoclassical ballet, "Polyphonia" is performed by four couples and set to the music of György Ligeti. "It's kind of my tribute to Balanchine," said Wheeldon. "It was my attempt to create a work in the New York City Ballet setting, that took off from my perception of the Balanchine aesthetic." He described the ballet as "a little bit of everything — a very romantic duet, an interesting couple of slightly more sensual duets, a jokey pas de deux. A little world of its own, I guess."

Wheeldon, who worked alongside PNB artistic director Peter Boal for many years at NYCB, is pleased that his work will finally be performed in Seattle. He remembered seeing PNB in 1996, when the company — then under the artistic directorship of Francia Russell and Kent Stowell — presented a Balanchine program at New York's City Center.

"It was the first of the other major American ballet companies that I'd seen since I'd arrived [from London]," said Wheeldon. "In came this group of dancers from Seattle, and it kind of blew me away." He spoke admiringly of watching the company perform Balanchine's "La Valse," featuring Louise Nadeau. "She absolutely cast a spell on me, to the point that I immediately ran backstage, having written a letter to Francia and Kent: 'My name is Christopher Wheeldon, I'm a young choreographer, I'm going to give you a videotape, I love this company.' "

Though Wheeldon did meet and talk with Russell about a few projects, the timing never worked out until after Boal took over in 2005. By that time, Wheeldon had retired as a dancer and had more time available for his choreographic career. Though he hasn't had much time to watch the company recently, he still vividly remembers those performances 10 years ago. "There was a clarity in their interpretation that I hadn't seen before," he said. "It sort of encompasses an American energy — an understanding of the repertoire, somehow less affected and more effective."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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