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Juilliard Dance

Published: February 18, 2019
Category: history



A nostalgia for British conduct and customs is central to the song “An Englishman in New York” (1987). Created by the English popstar Sting and inspired by an afternoon of conversation with the eccentric English theater icon Quentin Crisp, the song’s most pointed lament is expressed in its refrain: “Oh, I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien. I’m an Englishman in New York”.  By the end of the twentieth century, Crisp and the English-born dancer Christopher Wheeldon had made their home in New York; while Crisp honored his outsider status, Wheeldon defied alienation in his adopted city. His experiences can be characterized by the enthusiasm in which the New York City Ballet (NYCB) and New York’s foreignness became known, embodied through his dancing, and then intrinsic to his creative self-understanding.[2]   

           Wheeldon joined NYCB in 1993, just as Crisp’s grungy 1980s New York was being transformed by slick glass towers and a surge of international tourism.[3]  The ballet dancer was at the expansive age of nineteen. He had departed from London’s Royal Ballet, where he had danced from 1991 to 1993. In the first seven of Wheeldon’s NYCB years, he performed the majority of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins’s active repertory. In 1997 he choreographed his first NYCB commission, Slavonic Dances; in 1998, he became a soloist; in 2000, Wheeldon retired from performing to concentrate on dance making, and NYCB anointed him its first artist in residence.[4] From 1997 to 2016, Wheeldon was prolific: he made at least twenty-one NYCB works.[5] He set his dances to the classical music canon (Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Bizet, Bartok), the American songbook (Gershwin, Rogers and Hammerstein), and to contemporary European composers (György Ligeti, Arvo Pärt). For the company co-founded by the choreographer George Balanchine, Wheeldon’s NYCB creations ranged in subject from spirited American musical homages, With NYCB dancers, Wheeldon’s capacity to produce variety revealed itself in his architecturally-driven, large ensemble works, Les Carillons (2012), in his comic, cartoon-like vignettes, Carnival of the Animals (2003), and in his intimate, ritualistic studies, Liturgy (2003). Because of the English choreographer’s longstanding and continuing relationship with NYCB, the company holds the largest repository worldwide of his works.

            Like Balanchine, another former legal alien, Wheeldon is celebrated for working quickly with unwavering concentration, and having a puzzle-master flair for problem solving.[6] Both choreographers are known for their devotion to, and defining interest in, the dance d’école.  Each choreographer solidified their choreographic careers while based in New York. And, of course, there is Balanchine and Wheeldon’s defining connection to NYCB. Yet that is where their shared identities mostly end. While Balanchine was already a seasoned choreographer upon arriving in New York’s harbor in 1933, Wheeldon was a novice dance maker the first time he watched a live NYCB performance in 1993. Balanchine’s penchant for cowboy shirts and Western string ties did not eradicate his perceived alien identity during the Cold War: His strong Russian accent and reticence for discussing dance shrouded him an aura of mystery.[7] Wheeldon, in comparison, comes across as open-spirited, familiarly Anglo-American, and desirous to communicate in contemporary New York.[8] Given that he was not, like Balanchine or other Cold War artists, formed through the historic tensions of the East-West geopolitical divide, the Czech choreographer Jiří Kylián said about Wheeldon in 2003 that he hoped his dance making would deepen when he “experienced a little trouble”[9] This slight arguably speaks to the myth of the creator as one who is better shaped by alienation, as it fosters eccentricity and in turn shapes artistry.

Punctuating and sensationalizing Wheeldon’s artistic development was the choreographer’s fourth NYCB commission, Polyphonia (2001). The New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselfgoff wrote, “Nowadays Balanchine’s own works make up the tradition that serves as a point of departure for current choreographers in the company. An astonishingly fresh example is Christopher Wheeldon’s ‘Polyphonia.’”[10] By 2007 nine ballet companies and a total of one-hundred and forty-four performers had performed Polyphonia for eight dancers, set to ten piano etudes by the Hungarian composer György Ligeti (1923-2006).[11] Wheeldon’s creative impulse for his hit ballet did not, he said, stem from trauma, as was arguably an inspiration for Balanchine’s post-war creation The Four Temperaments (1946).[12] Nor was the ballet merely a successful adaption of Balanchine’s spatial elongation, physical expansion, and multiplication of ballet’s codified steps. Polyphonia’s freshness could be understood in how Wheeldon embodied Balanchine’s neoclassical aura while departing from its neo-courtly heterosexual world, in which conflict and reconciliation of the sexes were its driving themes.[13]

Polyphonia derives from the word polyphonic, which means many voiced. Wheeldon began his ballet through intensive collaborations with veteran NYCB principal dancers Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto, whose partnership on January 6, 1999 in a performance of Balanchine’s Agon (1957) was described as, “two determined people who come to respect each other’s strength.”[14] Within the fabric of Polyphonia’s stitching are the interconnections between Wheeldon, Whelan and Soto, as artists and people, who respected each other, inside and outside of the theater. While Wheeldon and Soto identify as gay, became a couple, and were passionate about heteronormative ballet partnering, Whelan, a heterosexual, was perceived as a heterodoxic ballerina: some critics alluded to how her musculature and lack of curves were unfeminine.[15] These qualities and identities, both private, public, and genetic, of the Wheeldon-Whelan-Soto triumvirate are important. They pushed Wheeldon into new territory, beyond the heterosexual worldview that Balanchine delivered to the stage. Wheeldon described his departure from Balanchine’s ethos in terms of refusing the mantle of the autonomous, choreographic leader. In relationship to Whelan and Soto, Wheeldon characterized himself as a student, and even as a supplicant: “They were,” Wheeldon said of them, “my gods and goddesses […] my schooling, my upbringing.”[16] However, before discussing these statements, and the development of Wheldon’s choreographic identity, some of the key points in Wheeldon’s journey previous to his arrival at NYCB merits summary, and will be carried out in the first section below. The second section of the chapter will analyze how Wheeldon became a central figure in the “thick narrative” of the history of ballet in New York. Sections three to five discuss how Wheeldon sought out NYCB dancers Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto; how they helped to develop his choreography toward an aesthetic dimension that takes distance from Balanchine’s neoclassical legacy—while simultaneously drawing from it; and how Wheeldon’s collaborations with Whelan provided her with a more nuanced perception of her artistic identity. In the conclusions, Wheeldon will be considered in respect to the eccentric tradition in dance history, in that his recent forays into commercial-oriented projects are increasingly being inspired from tap and street dancing.[17]



Born 1973 in Yeovil, England, from parents who supported their youngest child’s fascination with ballet, Christopher Wheeldon entered at age eleven White Lodge, the lower school of the Royal Ballet School in London. That same year he discovered the music of György Ligeti, whose compositions inspired the development of Polyphonia. Both of Wheeldon’s parents were employed: his father as an engineer, his mother as a physical therapist. His introduction to ballet came via a telecast of Sir Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée (1960). Wheeldon then insisted upon studying ballet, and he was taken to the East Coker Ballet School.[18] At White Lodge, he then trained intensively for eight years. Part of his education included Dalcroze Eurythmics with Karin Greenhead, whose methodology included student-created movement studies to music.[19] White Lodge was ahead of its time by virtue of offering twelve-year-old ballet students, like Wheeldon, the task of interpreting music. Though Wheeldon did not speak of Greenhead’s class as formative, it might be considered important, given that ballet students of his era were not usually encouraged to dance freely. The experience with Greenhead could have provided Wheeldon with a sense that making movement phrases to music was within the normative realm of what it is to dance, given that Dalcroze integrates rhythmic exercises, ear training, and improvisation.[20]

At age eighteen, Wheeldon won gold at the 1991 Prix Lausanne and joined The Royal Ballet. In 1992, he told the Wall Street Journal dance critic Robert Greskovic that he received some “crucial and strong encouragement” from choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan (1929-1992) after the creation of his ballet Celestial Spaces, made for the Royal Ballet Choreographic Group. According to Wheeldon, MacMillan encouraged him to “take every opportunity” he could to choreograph.[21] He also told him to leave The Royal Ballet.[22] In 1993, a series of unlikely events made Macmillan’s suggestions plausible. First, Wheeldon won a free round-trip plane ticket upon purchasing a vacuum cleaner from the Hoover company that was offering travel vouchers. Wheeldon saw the Hoover television advertisement while recovering from an ankle injury. He was on temporary leave from the company that was mourning Macmillan’s death.

Wheeldon chose to travel to New York City, a place of his imagination but actually unknown to him where, he said, because of his injury he reluctantly arranged to take company class with the NYCB.[23] That day Peter Martins, then Ballet Master in Chief, was teaching; that night Wheeldon saw his first NYCB performance; he said George Balanchine’s Russo-American aesthetic enthralled him.[24] Soon after Martins offered Wheeldon a corps de ballet position because, the Englishman modestly explained, NYCB needed more men for the upcoming 1993 Balanchine celebration.[25] Wheeldon wanted to learn Balanchine repertoire, but he said that he chose to make NYCB his next professional home because Jerome Robbins was still staging dances and making new ones for the company.[26]



Wheeldon arrived at NYCB at an auspiciously good time for a budding choreographer. In 1992 the philanthropist Irene Diamond underwrote a generous choreographic initiative called The Diamond Project, which supported the creation of works by chosen dancers, most of whom were affiliated with NYCB. According to dance critic Joan Acocella, the project’s choreographic output in 1997, before the contributions of Wheeldon, was dismal:

Totally unlike Balanchine’s work, however, this new species of ballet seems to be about nothing. A bunch of thin people come out, haul each other around in ingenious ways, and then go away, leaving us with no new knowledge about their lives or ours. Many, many American ballets are like this today. The DP ballet is just more so.[27]

A decade later, Acocella wrote in The New Yorker that, “Wheeldon was the first really interesting choreographer to turn up in American ballet after the death of Balanchine in 1983.[28] Acocella’s statement historically points to Wheeldon’s Slavonic Dances (1997), his first NYCB commission, set to the music of Antonín Dvořák for four dancers. Balanchine had been dead for fourteen years, Wheeldon was just twenty-four years old. The New Yorker critic’s confident proclamation that Wheeldon was “the first” after Balanchine to make “interesting” choreography in America calls to mind an even more confident assertion, made by NYCB co-founder Lincoln Kirstein. According to Kirstein, the Russian-identified artists Marius Petipa, Michel Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Igor Stravinsky, and Balanchine had developed a secular religious dancing order that represented an “apostolic succession.”[29] As with the Roman Catholic bishops who carry on, in succession, the work of the apostles, these choreographers comprise a chronological brotherhood of the ballet. Was Wheeldon, as asserted by Acocella, the first choreographer after Balanchine to create ballets of interest in America? Of course not. Yet her statement buoys Kirstein’s theory of ballet’s canonicity, created through a succession of choreographer-apostles in that she suggests that Wheeldon is next in line after Balanchine.

Wheeldon began choreographing in New York following the American dance boom in which, from the 1960s to the late 1980s, ballet flourished and Balanchine’s NYCB made a permanent home at Lincoln Center, the country’s first large-scale performing arts center.[30] Unbeknownst to himself, Wheeldon became part of more than ballet history by becoming in 2000 NYCB’s first official resident choreographer, after the deaths of Balanchine and Robbins. He became part of a thick narrative about Balanchine, the New York dance boom, and a subsequent nostalgia for both.[31] Dance critic Clive Barnes stated in 2001 that: “There is not a step in Polyphonia that isn’t a progression from the step before it. The dance, prickly, angular, even cranky as it often is, moves with the force of nature, like wind.”[32] This description of Polyphonia as transformational in its orderliness, in its strict “progression from the step before it,” and as counterpointing the grace inherent in the classical tradition, with its “prickly, angular” movements, calls to mind Kirstein’s discussion of Balanchine’s contribution to ballet: “There are his caustic violations of the traditional canon-inverted feet, angular arms, jagged fingers, ‘ungraceful’ torsion, ‘ugly’ attitudes… Balanchine’s catalogue is a book of orderly rites, psalms, hymns.”[33] Whereas Kirstein described Balanchine’s works as akin to Christianity’s performative religious practices, Barnes described Wheeldon’s Polyphonia as resembling “the force of nature, like wind.” Wheeldon, Barnes intimated, could transform ballet’s dance d’école into states of nature.



When Wheeldon premiered Polyphonia on January 4, 2001 at NYCB, the dance felt symbolic: it absorbed and refracted moments in Balanchine’s revered neoclassical works Agon and Episodes;[34] it arrived at the dawn of the twenty-first century and featured the brilliant pairing of Whelan and Soto—dancers of fierce originality who had developed through the embodiment of Balanchine repertory. Wheeldon’s perceptions of Whelan and Soto’s prowesses began to incubate as soon as he joined the company. He watched the principals from the wings, in rehearsal, and with the audience.[35] Wheeldon’s keen eye was not lost on Soto. In his memoir Every Step You Take (2011), Soto recalled how in 1993, “I was dancing Robbins’s Afternoon of a Faun… When I looked over I saw a young dancer named Christopher Wheeldon…staring intently at me.”[36] Wheeldon’s fascination with the dancing of Soto, and Whelan, was shared by many New York critics. Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times described their 1989 interpretation of Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements (1945) as “heart-stoppingly vivid.”[37] In 1996, she reveled in the daring nature of their partnership in Balanchine’s Agon:

Ms. Whelan and Mr. Soto… poured out their dancing with a tornado force in the pas de deux. Within seconds, Ms. Whelan whirled into a pirouette and whipped her leg back, clamping Mr. Soto in a human vise behind her. Exceptional speed and dynamics colored this fantastic encounter.[38]

Jack Anderson of The New York Times noted how the two dancers evoked during the 1999 performance of Agon an equal contest of wills, and he defined their pas de deux as “fiendishly difficult,” and, furthermore, as “a struggle” of the two dancers.[39] Whelan and Soto’s dynamic brilliance, physical daring, and equality in difference became characteristics that Wheeldon further shaped in his collaborative works with them. But before Wheeldon created his first Whelan-Soto duets in Polyphonia, he had a small crisis. It concerned his doubts about his dancing. These fundamental doubts also contributed to shaping his choreographic aesthetic.

When Wheeldon joined the NYCB he had to learn, very fast, the company’s vast repertoire, of which the works of Balanchine and Robbins continue to be foundational. Many of the dances Wheeldon performed involved athletic partnering that requires enormous upper-body strength from its male dancers. “What I love about dance,” Wheeldon retrospectively told The Guardian dance critic Judith Mackrell, “the poetics of virtuosic partnering, I couldn’t do myself.”[40] This comment in part refers to Wheeldon’s struggle in what is informally called The Giggle Dance, a section in Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering (1969). For over a year, said Wheeldon, he failed to execute a complex overhead lift.[41] The person who he was trying to partner was Wendy Whelan. Known for her generous nature, Whelan never humiliated Wheeldon nor did the famously irascible Robbins. In fact, after each imperfect performance of the Giggle Dance, Robbins provided two uncharacteristically nice words to the young dancer: “Next time.”[42]  Another piece of luck was that Wheeldon found in Whelan a like-minded artist who loved process. They rehearsed the Giggle Dance again and again, and soon corralled Soto into the process of coaching the lift’s complex coordination. This interlocking set of fortunate circumstances led Wheeldon to persuade Whelan and Soto to work with him on their first collaboration.

In the space of four years, Wheeldon, Whelan, and Soto created four NYCB commissioned works: Polyphonia, Morphoses (2002), Liturgy (2003) and After the Rain (2005). Wheeldon underscored that “Jock and Wendy helped define me as a choreographer.”[43] Wheeldon then explained that in the studio, Whelan and Soto provided him with visionary material: “I always saw myths and legends and goddesses and gods, with the two of them. Often these hieroglyphic poses kept creeping into those works.”[44] Unlike Balanchine’s seminal, early work Apollo (1928), which only features one god and he is male, Wheeldon’s seminal, early work Polyphonia presented Whelan and Soto as equally powerful, unnamed divinities. The four works that the three artists made together can be seen as an extended dialogue in which their duets steer from the romantic heterosexual narrative of desire, conflict, and reconciliation and toward episodes about immortals, who in Greek mythology often behave outside of sexual norms (Diana is the goddess of the hunt; Dionysus grows up as a girl, after being born from Zeus’s thigh).[45] To carry this out Wheeldon put into greater relief Whelan and Soto’s capacity for lyricism, as expressed in their mellifluous, supported adagio dancing, so as to suggest that their dancing concerned the gods’ transformative, supernatural powers; that being the manipulation of earth, water, air, and fire. Wheeldon’s transparency about his choreographic indebtedness to Whelan and Soto is remarkable: “They were my schooling, my upbringing,” said Wheeldon “and I still work based on the work we did, which concerns the exploration in partnering, the poetics of partnering”.[46] Wheeldon’s statement breaks with ballet’s mythos in which the choreographer is foremost formed by another choreographer, a composer, or a historical event. Wheeldon said that Whelan and Soto were much more than his muses. They, like gods, helped to form him.

Wheeldon emphasized that it was Soto’s partnering skills that first inspired his intensive exploration of the supported pas de deux. In Soto’s memoir, he discussed his rapture as a young corps de ballet dancer with the abstract aesthetics of heterosexual ballet partnering: “The smoothness, the complexity of the movement, the way the lines between their two bodies blended and through a series of physical actions evoked a magical beauty.”[47] When Soto became a principal dancer, his interest in partnering only increased. He wrote how he worked to produce the effect of a ballerina who can “take off and float, landing effortless and silently” through a trick of the eye: Soto hid his hands behind the ballerina’s body.[48]  Inspired by Soto, Wheeldon’s choreographic signature became the vision of a soaring, gliding united male-female figure. At the point in which Wheeldon had collaborated with Whelan and Soto for three years, he told Mackrell that “They have become my blueprints of what is possible”. Wheeldon, the son of an engineer, had discovered through Whelan and Soto his three-dimensional diagram for the creation of poetic partnering in which they transformed, like a slow-cresting wave, into one undulating movement phrase.



Whelan’s performance in Wheeldon’s Polyphonia inspired dance writers to discuss her movements in allusions related to the transformations in physics and of matter. Sylviane Gold of Newsday wrote of Whelan’s “pure boneless line,” as if intimating that her limbs were formed from material different than our own; Kisselgoff perceived her as “taught and tensile,” as if she were flexibly unbreakable.[50] Gold and Kisselgoff’s analyses are both apt in that Whelan’s dancing in Polyphonia articulated a prima materia. The Jungian psychoanalyst Paul Kugler defined it in respect to the understanding of medieval alchemists: They have compared the ‘prima materia’ to everything, to male and female, to the hermaphroditic monster, to heaven and earth, to body and spirit, chaos, microcosm, and the confused mass; it contains in itself all colors and potentially all metals.[51]                                                                                                     

In an interview with Claudia La Rocco of The New York Times, Whelan said of her role in Polyphonia “I feel like a switchblade in that, like a very shiny, dangerous, elegant tool … and I feel like I’m being shown on velvet.”[52] Whelan described the act of becoming binaries: smooth as velvet, sharp as a switchblade. Her “morphoses,” which became the name of Wheeldon’s short-lived company (2007-2010), was one in which she divested herself of human-oriented traits without, she says, feeling dehumanized.[53] Discussing her experience dancing Polyphonia, Whelan said, “Chris put me on the map.”[54] Indeed, Whelan became Wheeldon’s foremost interpreter by originating thirteen roles in his ballet works. In Wheeldon’s choreography, Whelan did not dance historically standardized ballerina roles, such as, for example, the seductress, the naïve, or the comic ingénue. Consequently, Wheeldon helped to disrupt the perception around Whelan’s artistry as related to the standardized, and outdated, tropes of female ballet personae; she became a ballerina of an entirely different ethos. In Wheeldon’s works, it could be said, she was rarely dancing as a gender stereotype, male or female.[55]




Why should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by the skin?[56]

Reviewing Polyphonia in 2002, Kisselgoff enthusiastically described Whelan and Soto’s duets as evoking a “sci-fi humanism.”[57] Two decades earlier, Donna Haraway in her essay A Manifesto for Cyborgs (1984) optimistically discussed how sci-fi humanism could dissolve the dichotomies inherent in Western culture’s epistemology: “The dichotomies between mind and body, animal and human, organism and machine, public and private, nature and culture, men and women, primitive and civilized are all in question ideologically”.[58]

Although Haraway never described dancers in her essay on the utopian possibilities of the cyborg, it could be said that Whelan and Soto in Wheeldon’s duets blurred the aforesaid binaries of which Haraway argued are isolating, rigid dichotomies in Western culture. Village Voice dance critic Deborah Jowitt, for example, pointed to two standard dichotomies, between animal and human, primitive and civilized, when she wrote in 2001 about the second duet in Polyphonia: “In the silences between Ligeti’s notes, Whelan slowly climbs up Soto and clamps herself to him. There’s something touchingly vulnerable about this ungainly move and something spidery, as if the two were sucking love from each other.”[59] Jowitt described their “love” as resembling a host, which in biological terms involves an animal or plant that becomes tethered to a larger organism. Such a host relationship is how Haraway imagined the melding of man to machine.[60] These oddly romantic, unromantic images are evoked in Polyphonia. Wheeldon’s ballet discusses a world beyond human-centric blueprints, and, in the case of Whelan and Soto’s duets, beyond male-female gender categorizations. In the following, one of their duets will be discussed.

           When the NYCB pianist Cameron Grant begins to play Ligeti’s arc-en-ciel, premier livre, Soto and Whelan have already emerged from the upper right wing. They join hands with the sound of the composition’s first tentative notes.[61]  The dancers further connect their bodies together: hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder to ripple forward, as Whelan projects her legs outward and in a trajectory that emulates the shape of a rainbow. Immediately, Ligeti’s title arc-en-ciel (rainbow) is visualized. Soto’s and Whelan’s actions bring them farther down the diagonal of the stage, where Soto becomes Whelan’s fulcrum: she swivels, drops down en pointe to create a diamond-shaped grand plié, and then slowly ascends to standing, as if her legs are lengthening pistons. Whelan produces a développé à la seconde, as if to remind the viewer that this is still ballet. Yet, the full extension of Whelan’s arms and legs is momentary. She diminishes to a third of her size, when she bends low, clasps Soto’s thigh, and uses the tips of her pointe shoes to horizontally lob across the proscenium space. Her odd location, grip, and driving force takes Soto in a stage-right direction. Whelan and Soto become in this moment one body with four legs: hers scissors up and down, as if her surface is the curtain’s wing; his move in a careful line, from left to right, as if the cavernous stage floor has become a narrow passage. Space is divided into two dancing planes (horizontal for Soto and perpendicular for Whelan). It has become expansive for Whelan, whose lower limbs resemble the slicing action made by scythes, and circumscribed for Soto, whose legs reference Hercules carrying the weight of world. This perception of energetic extremes is built into Ligeti’s composition. Initially it evokes the sound of quiet footfalls. But when Soto and Whelan detour further from their diagonal pathway, with ever increasing lifts to produce the effect of flying higher and higher, Ligeti’s ominous composition becomes tonally and rhythmically complex. At this juncture, Soto turns Whelan again and again, and they orbit closer and closer to center stage. When Whelan and Soto lie down on their backs at centerstage, they physically separate just one time in the course of their three and a half-minute duet. The music’s tempo slows to the point that it sounds like it will die out. It continues, as a pianissimo whisper that builds to a roaring crescendo while Whelan bridges her spine into a rainbow arc; she draws her face directly over Soto’s, and he inverts her into a handstand. For the first and only time, their eyes connect. Whelan and Soto perform this acrobatic lift with breathless concentration.

The next part of their journey appears less fraught. Whelan again takes the lead, clasps Soto’s hand, stands on pointe, and draws a convex shape around the stage through her bourrées. Her action pulls Soto to standing and then well out of his upper body’s kinesphere, as if she is the moving planet that creates his gravitational trajectory. Reasserting their greater physical connection to each other, they repeat the first movement phrases: Whelan’s legs are rocket-like, the core of their bodies glide together. In the last moments, Soto inverts Whelan, and she disappears behind his torso. Sprouting legs out of his shoulders, Whelan slowly échappés, as if the ceiling has become her dancing surface. Morphing into another composite creature, this one being the most complex and strange of all, Soto’s legs carry them offstage as Whelan’s dance the sky.


In 2002, Wheeldon created Continnum for the San Francisco Ballet. The work is part of a series that began with Polyphonia in that it is a neoclassical leotard ballet with extended supported adagio choreography. Wheeldon recalls reading, and being rattled by, an online review in which the writer described Continuum as the best ballet that Balanchine never made.[62] Five years later, in 2007, Wheeldon launched his pick-up troupe, Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company. By doing so, he extricated his identity from NYCB and the Russo-American choreographer’s neoclassical legacy. Wheeldon’s sought-after goal of Morphoses becoming a small, full-time company that could rival the innovation of internationally-recognized ballet companies never materialized. Nonetheless, Wheeldon’s disappointment with the project’s development carried him out of NYCB’s aesthetic system, which was privileging non-narrative repertory works. When he left the directorship of Morphoses in 2010, he worked more intensively with The Royal Ballet and choreographed Alice in Wonderland (2011), a full-length, spectacle story ballet. In 2015 he transformed the 1951 Hollywood musical American in Paris into a Broadway show in his capacity as its director and choreographer. The work won seventeen awards on both sides of the Atlantic.[63] In 2018, the press announced that Wheeldon would direct and choreograph a new musical about Michael Jackson.[64] The late popstar’s androgyny, and his surgically-produced, shape-shifting physiognomy, likely fascinates a choreography whose early work with Whelan and Soto intimated how gender can be amorphous.  

Wheeldon’s forays into commercial-oriented projects bring him closer to the concept of American eccentric dancers.[65] They provided entertainment on the first commercial stages in the United States. They made a name for themselves by shaping their individual styles through eye-popping signature movements, honed over years of practice, as was the case with Michael Jackson, the most widely-recognized eccentric dancer of the twentieth century.  Because Wheeldon is steeped in ballet’s dance d’ecole, and because he is mild mannered, he will never be, nor could have been, identified as an eccentric dancer. Yet he has become something of an eccentric in the ballet world by taking on projects, as with the Michael Jackson project, that are potentially treacherous for his reputation.[66] Wheeldon, once considered the heir of Balanchine, is now in the possession of a pleasant alienation from the projected identity as NYCB’s ballet’s dutiful son. After a quarter century of making dance works, Wheeldon cannot be described as a carbon copy. A mid-career artist, he is much closer to the lyrics in the middle stanza of Sting’s “Englishman in New York”:

If ‘manners maketh man’ as someone said

He’s the hero of the day

It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile

Be yourself no matter what they say.




[1] Sting. Englishman in New York. For background about Sting’s interactions with and thoughts about Quentin Crisp see the Quentin Crisp Archive: http://www.crisperanto.org/recordings/sting.html.

[2] Wheeldon, Christopher. 2018. In-person interview with author. May 7.

[3] Holusha, Joshua. 1997. “Major acquisition in new era of global real estate.” The New York Times, May 11.

[4] In May 2000, NYCB launched an Artist in Residence program. The first person to be given this position was Christopher Wheeldon. See Tomalonis, Alexandra. 2000. “Christopher Wheeldon.” Interview 30(10): 179. 

[5] Wheeldon’s twenty-one NYCB ballet works, in chronological order, are: Scènes de Ballet (1997, Stravinsky), Slavonic Dances (1997, Dvorak), Mercurial Manoeuvres (2000, Shostakovich), Polyphonia (2001, Ligeti), Variations Sérieuses (2001, Mendelssohn), Morphoses (2002, Ligeti), Carousel (A Dance) (2002, Rogers and Hammerstein), Carnival of the Animals (2003, Saint-Saëns), Shambards (2004, James MacMillan), After the Rain (2005,  Pärt), An American in Paris (2005, Gershwin), Evenfall (2006, Bartok), Klavier (2006, Beethoven), The Nightingale and the Rose (2007, Bright Sheng), Rococo Variations (2008, Tchaikovsky), Estancia (2010, Alberto Ginastera), Les Carillons (2012, Bizet), Liturgy (2013,  Pärt), Soirée Musicale (2013, Barber), By 2 With & From (2014, Vivaldi remix by Max Richter, co-created with Alexei Ratmansky), American Rhapsody (2016, Gershwin).

[6] Liang, Edwaard. 2018. Phone interview with author. June 22. Liang originated roles in Wheeldon’s After the Rain, Mercurial Manoeuvres, and Polyphonia. He served as a ballet master and choreographer for Wheeldon’s pick-up troupe Morphoses, and is now the Artistic Director of BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio.

[7] Dunning, Jennifer. 2001. “Balanchine’s All-American Dedication.” The New York Times, November 20. https://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/20/arts/balanchine-s-all-american-dedication.html.

[8] Wheeldon, Christopher; Lopez, Lourdes; Garafola, Lynn. 2007. Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company: New Beginnings. Works and Process: The Guggenheim Museum. Digital copy of event is held at The New York Public Library. MGZIDVD 5-7971

[9] Mackrell, Judith. 2003. “A Conversation with Christopher Wheeldon.” The Guardian, August 18. www.theguardian.com/stage/2003/aug/18/dance.edinburghfestival2003.

[10] Kisselgoff, Anna. 2001. “The Breath of Balanchine Wafts Over a New Work.” The New York Times, January 06.

[11] Macaulay, Alastair. 2007. “Morphoses – Christopher Wheeldon – Vail International Dance Festival.” The New York Times, August 13.

[12] Wheeldon, Christopher. 2018. Interview with author by telephone, June 12. 

[13] Daly, Ann. 2002. “Classical Ballet, A Discourse of Difference.” In Critical Gestures, Writing on Dance and Culture, 288-293. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. For a discussion of the conflict and resolution of the sexes see: Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1999. The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Edited by Raymond Guess and Ronald Speirs, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. New York; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Original edition, 1872.

[14] Anderson, Jack. 1999. “Dance Review; Classic Balanchine, Pared of Distractions.” The New York Times, January 8.

[15] Chip Brown of New York stated that Whelan was “Criticized as too thin, too masculine, too undancer-like, Wendy Whelan went on to become perhaps the greatest ballerina of her time.” Cited in Brown, Chip. 2006. “In the balance.” New York, October 22. Is this a magazine? YES

[16] Wheeldon, Christopher. 2018. In-person interview with author. May 7.

[17] For a discussion of the eccentric dance tradition in the United States and how it served as the movement foundation for musical theater productions, see Robinson, Danielle. 2006. “‘Oh, you black bottom!’ appropriation, authenticity, and opportunity in the jazz dance teaching of 1920s New York.” Dance Research Journal, 38(1), 19-42.

[18] Greskovic, Robert. 2001. “Christopher Wheeldon.” Dancing Times, July, 899-905.

[19] Wheeldon, Christopher. 2018. Interview with author by telephone, June 12.

[20] “The Dalcroze method,” writes Selma Landen, “emerged and achieved widespread use in the early twentieth century. An approach to music education based on whole body movement, it was a seedbed of new ideas about how to move and how to make music with the original instrument, the human body. Working from the fundamental activities of listening, singing, breathing, walking, and beating time, Jaques-Dalcroze and his early students eventually explored more adventurous possibilities of connecting music and movement.” Cited in Odom, Selma Landen. 1988. “Jaques-Dalcroze, Émile.” In The International Encyclopedia of Dance, edited by Selma Jeanne Cohen. New York; Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 594-598. For more information on the Dalcroze technique see: https://dalcroze.org.uk/About-us/What-is-Dalcroze/

[21] Greskovic, Robert. 2001. “Christopher Wheeldon.” Dancing Times, July, 899-905.

[22] Wheeldon, Christopher. 2018. Interview with author by telephone, June 12.

[23] Wheeldon, Christopher. 2018. In-person interview with author. May 7.

[24] Wheeldon, Christopher. 2018. In-person interview with author. May 7.

[25] Wheeldon, Christopher. 2018. In-person interview with author. May 7.

[26] Wheeldon, Christopher. 2018. In-person interview with author. May 7.

[27] Acocella, Joan. 1997. “NYCB’s Balanchine Wannabes.” The Wall Street Journal, June 19.

[28] Acocella, Joan. 2007. “Second Look.” The New Yorker, October 20.

[29] Kirstein, Lincoln. 1975. Nijinsky Dancing. New York: Knopf, 22. Kirstein’s referred to apostolic succession in at least three of his texts about dance: 1) Kirstein, Lincoln. 1975. Nijinsky Dancing. New York: Knopf, 22; 2) Kirstein, Lincoln. 1991.“Aria of the Aerial.” In By with to & from: A Lincoln Kirstein Reader, edited by Nicholas Jenkins. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux. Original edition, 1976; 3) Kirstein, Lincoln. 1991. “A Ballet Master’s Belief.” In By with to & from: A Lincoln Kirstein Reader, edited by Nicholas Jenkins. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Original publication, 1984, New York Review of Books.

[30] Kisselgoff, Anna. 1990. “Dance View; Dance Booms Come, and Dance Booms Go.” The New York Times, January 28.

[31] The concept of “thick narrative” is developed in Geertz, Clifford. 1973. “Thick Description. Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.” In Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz. New York: Basic Books, 3-32. For Geertz, a thick description or narrative captures a strong cultural meaning that the actors themselves project upon a series of events. The development of dance in New York City, since Balanchine, was invested by artists, critics, the media, and other actors, with strong aesthetic and political significance, expressed in the seminal notion of “apostolic succession” by Kirsten, quoted above.

[32] Barnes, Clive. 2001. “Miracles of Grace.” The New York Post, January 09.

[33] Kirstein, Lincoln. 1991. “A Ballet Master’s Belief.” In By with to & from: A Lincoln Kirstein Reader, edited by Nicholas Jenkins. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 21.

[34] Jennifer Dunning wrote that Polyphonia is “an homage to Balanchine with ‘quotations’ from his early leotard ballets ‘Agon’ and ‘Episodes.’” Cited in Dunning, Jennifer. 2006. “Scenes from the Future of Ballet.” The New York Times, February 19.

[35]  Wheeldon, Christopher. 2018. Interview with author by telephone, June 12.

[36] Soto, Jock and Marshall, Leslie. 2011 Every Step You Take. New York: Harper Collins, 213

[37] Kisselgoff, Anna. 1989. “Reviews/Dance; Sensual Applications to Music of the Intellect.” The New York Times, April 30. www.nytimes.com/1989/04/30/arts/reviews-dance-sensual-applications-to-music-of-the-intellect.html.

[38] Kisselgoff, Anna. 1996. “Dance Review; The Thrust of the Instant Makes All the Difference.” The New York Times, May 2. www.nytimes.com/1996/05/02/ arts/dance-review-the-thrust-of-the-instant-makes-all-the-difference.html.

[39] Anderson, Jack. 1999. “Dance Review; Classic Balanchine, Pared of Distractions.” The New York Times, January 8.

[40] Mackrell, Judith. 2003. “A Conversation with Christopher Wheeldon.” The Guardian, August 18. www.theguardian.com/stage/2003/aug/18/dance.edinburghfestival2003.

[41] Wheeldon, Christopher. 2018. In-person interview with author. May 7.

[42] Jerome Robbins cited in Wheeldon, Christopher. 2018. In-person interview with author. May 7.

[43]  Wheeldon, Christopher. 2018. In-person interview with author. May 7.

[44] Wheeldon, Christopher. 2018. In-person interview with author. May 7.

[45] As observed by classicist Susan Guettel Cole, Dionysus is often described in myth and poetry as dressing in woman’s clothing and acting like a girl.  Cole, Susan. 2007. “Finding Dionysus.” A Companion to Greek Religion. Oxford et al.: Blackwell, 328.

[46] Wheeldon, Christopher. 2018. In-person interview with author. May 7.

[47] Soto, Jock and Marshall, Leslie. 2011 Every Step You Take. New York: Harper Collins, 113-114.

[48]  Soto, Jock and Marshall, Leslie. 2011 Every Step You Take. New York: Harper Collins, 192.

[49] Mackrell, Judith. 2003. “A Conversation with Christopher Wheeldon.” The Guardian, August 18. www.theguardian.com/stage/2003/aug/18/dance.edinburghfestival2003.

[50] Gold, Sylvane. 2001. “Long-Limbed Lyricism/Music and Moves Become one in a Ballet’s World Premiere.” Newsday, January 6. Kisselgoff, Anna. 2002. “Ballet Review: Restless Partners, With an Odd Woman Out.” The New York Times, January 07. www.nytimes.com/2002/01/07/arts/ballet-review-restless-partners-with-an-odd-woman-out.html.

[51]  Kugler, Paul. 2003. The Alchemy of Discourse: Image, Sound and Psyche. Daimon Verlag, 112.

[52]  La Rocco, Claudia. 2012. “A Dancer Who Can Remember The Giants.” New York Times, January 22.

[53]  Whelan, Wendy. 2018. In-person interview with the author, June 1.

[54] Upon Wendy Whelan’s retirement from the New York City Ballet in 2014, she became the performer who had originated the most roles of any dance artist in the company’s history.

[55]  Brown, Chip. 2006. “In the balance.” New York, October 22.

[56]  Haraway, Donna. 2006. A Cyborg Manifesto, Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 61.

[57]  Kisselgoff, Anna. 2002. “Ballet Review: Restless Partners, With an Odd Woman Out.” The New York Times, January 7. www.nytimes.com/2002/01/07/arts/ballet-review-restless-partners-with-an-odd-woman-out.html.

[58] Haraway, Donna. 2006. A Cyborg Manifesto, Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 32

[59]  Jowitt, Deborah. 2001. “Counterpoints.” The Village Voice, January 23.

[60] Haraway, Donna. 2006. A Cyborg Manifesto, Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 36.

[61] My analysis of Wheeldon’s Polyphonia is based on live performances as well as a video filmed on June 1, 2001 by Sathya Productions, made available to me by the choreographer. A video of Polyphonia is also accessible at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center (MGZIA 4-5270).

[62] Wheeldon, Christopher. 2018. Interview with author by telephone, June 12.

[63] For a full list of awards won by Wheeldon’s American in Paris: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_American_in_Paris_(musical)

[64] Paulson, Michael. 2018. “Michael Jackson’s Estate Is Developing a Broadway-Bound Bio-Musical.” The New York Times, June 19. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/19/theater/michael-jackson-broadway-musical.html.

[65] For an in-depth discussion on the historical evolution of the American eccentric dancer Megan Pugh’s text is illuminating. Pugh, Megan. 2015. America Dancing, From the Cakewalk to the Moonwalk. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[66] On and after June 19, 2018, hundreds of posts were made on Facebook by individuals concerned, irritated, and angered by the appointment of Wheeldon, a white English ballet choreographer, to serve as the choreographer and director of a musical about the African-American singer-songwriter-dancer Michael Jackson.

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