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Guest Blog: Christopher Wheeldon talks to Sarah Crompton

| Tue 16 Apr 2019

BalletBoyz are presenting their new double bill, Them / Us, at artsdepot on Thu 25 Mar. Christopher Wheeldon, Tony and Olivier Award-winning choreographer of Us, speaks to Sarah Crompton about his career and his connection with the internationally acclaimed dance company.

“I have never found it hard to turn a corner and walk down a new pathway without a map,” says Christopher Wheeldon, with a grin. “I know most people like to know where they are going, but I struggle with that notion. It’s not who I am at all. Maybe I will turn the corner and there will be a precipitous drop that I’ll step off, but the risk-taking and the potential for disaster in the end is actually quite good fuel for creativity.

“And maybe too that’s why I enjoy working with the BalletBoyz because they’re that way too.”

He laughs. When you first meet him, Wheeldon is the man least likely to be branded a risk taker. He is calm, polite and – despite years living in New York – still has the demeanour of the nice boy from Somerset that he is. But in more than 20 years as a choreographer and a director, he has changed directions numerous times. This means he has built a body of work that is essentially uncategorisable from the Broadway musical An American in Paris, to pure classical ballet works for the Royal Ballet and New York City Ballet among other companies, to more contemporary pieces such as Us for the BalletBoyz.

It all started in 1993, when, at the age of 19, he defied his destiny. Having trained at the Royal Ballet school and seeming to be on track to spend his entire career with the company, he used the airline flight he won in a competition to go to New York and talk his way into NYCB. Four years later, he became their first resident choreographer. 

Since then he has been constantly busy, but his career has taken many twists and turns. He has founded his own dance company and watched it fold due to lack of funds; he has won a Tony for best choreography, for his award-winning rethinking of An American in Paris, which he also directed and which has enjoyed worldwide success. He is an Artistic Associate of the Royal Ballet, where he made the hugely popular The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, a three-act ballet, as well as numerous smaller works.

“I love doing such different things and being all over the place. I have to use my brain in different ways, and I think that’s what’s stimulating about being able to jump between different forms of dance and theatre.

“I think that is probably what allows me to work as much and as consistently as I do without getting exhausted. I have quite a lot of belief in my ability to achieve things.”

Wheeldon is also capable of working at incredibly high speeds. For his new piece for the BalletBoyz, Us, he is expanding a duet to the music of Keaton Henson, that took him 14 days to create. Its expansion has taken 10 days. “I have to say that there is a kind of excitement contained within that breathlessness. There’s no time to mess around. You just have to get on with it.”

He has known the company’s founders, Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, since they were all at the Royal Ballet School together. “They were both seniors when I was a junior. And I love being able to say that now,” the 45-year-old says with another laugh.

They bonded when Nunn and Trevitt accompanied him to Moscow in 2006, where Wheeldon was choreographing his first piece for the world-famous Bolshoi Ballet. The commission turned into a saga of disaster, only retrieved at the last minute and the story was recorded in Strictly Bolshoi, an engrossing tale of triumph snatched from the jaws of defeat. Since then Wheeldon has been a regular contributor to the Boyz’s endeavours.

His latest piece will be presented in a double bill, alongside a piece called Them choreographed by the all-male company themselves. “I love the way that they are always thinking a lot about how to make their programmes entertaining. How can we make challenging, complex dance more accessible to a broader audience,” Wheeldon says.

“They are very creative in the room and really hands on in a way that I think contemporary dancers tend to be more than ballet dancers anyway. Ballet dancers wait to be told what to do, and there’s an etiquette and a politeness about rehearsals that doesn’t exist so much in the contemporary dance world and certainly doesn’t exist with the Boyz.

“Which is not to say they are impolite. I think they are about the most polite group of gentlemen that I have ever worked with, but they’re hands on and they like to roll their sleeves up and be part of it.”

Click here to see Them / Us on Thu 25 Apr.