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Preview: Pacific Northwest Ballet’s ‘All Wheeldon’

Written by Steve Ha

Just hours away from Pacific Northwest Ballet’s inaugural performance of the 2011–12 season, Artistic Director Peter Boal sat down in conversation with world famous choreographer Christopher Wheeldon to present excerpts of his works yesterday at McCaw Hall and preview the highly anticipated ‘All Wheeldon’ program set to open its run tomorrow night.
Pacific Northwest Ballet company members
in Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia.
Photo copyright Angela Sterling
Famously praised as “the best thing to happen to ballet,” Wheeldon has developed a unique perspective on ballet ever since graduating from the Royal Ballet School, which places emphasis on the art of storytelling through classical steps. The lineage of artistic directors for the Royal Ballet boasts geniuses like Sir Frederick Ashton and Sir Kenneth MacMillan, both of who created some of the most important narrative ballets in the history of the art, and, though he was just a student of the school toward the end of Ashton’s life, Wheeldon did have the great fortune of working with MacMillan as a corps de ballet member for the Royal Ballet before MacMillan’s untimely death. However, what separates Wheeldon from peers of his generation is an overseas leap that led him to become a dancer with the New York City Ballet. Under a completely different method of training and a vastly different repertoire, Wheeldon had firsthand experience working with yet another acclaimed choreographer in Jerome Robbins. Ironically, the most notable twentieth century titan to have eluded him is George Balanchine, even though it is the work of Balanchine that Wheeldon is quick to credit the most in enabling his understanding of his craft.

Though Wheeldon received “the golden touch” from a veritable pantheon of ballet masterminds, he is as courteous and good-humored as he is charming, exuding a relaxed demeanor as he discussed his choreographic process and introduced his works last night. With such an illustrious background, a great variety within his body of work is obvious; from abstract pieces to those with a cast of recognizable characters, the importance of the score is also apparent in each one, as Wheeldon draws heavy inspiration from music, just like Balanchine so famously did. Relying on the score, Wheeldon is able to weave intricate circular patterns in Carousel (A Dance), which despite its complexity flows like fine silk in a light-hearted, romantic fantasy set to selections from Richard Rodgers’s “Carousel.” PNB principals Carla Körbes and Seth Orza rehearsed the central pas de deux with a vintage Hollywood flair, and in the fiendishly difficult partnering one can see influences imparted by MacMillan.
In complete contrast to Carousel, company members performed a few movements from Polyphonia, an abstract work where Wheeldon sought to find structure in a wildly discordant piano score by György Ligeti. Wheeldon recounted many difficulties in creating Polyphonia, having known from the beginning that the music was something special, but also having reservations that it would actually work out as a dance. In the end, it was indeed the choreographic process itself that allowed him to unlock its mysteries, and the result is a stark, but fascinating series of pictures that Wheeldon described as “not about being fun, but etching the body in space.” Audiences can look forward to principal Maria Chapman in several casts of this piece, where her quiet elegance and diamond-cut lines inspire a mathematical precision.
The last work to be previewed was After the Rain, a “meditative” pas de deux that moves with viscous lyricism. Wheeldon mentioned choreographing the piece for NYCB principal Jock Soto’s farewell season, and clearly pays tribute to his infamous partnering skills. Much of the partnering is almost blind, as the two dancers must reach for each other without making direct eye contact, necessitating an extraordinary sense of trust. After the Rain maps the intangible, resulting in a spiritual work that defines the essence of tranquility.
Also included in the program (though not previewed) is Variations Sérieuses. Wheeldon himself said the four aforementioned ballets harmonize well for an evening of his works, rendering ‘All Wheeldon’ a must-see event to kick off PNB’s season. Not only does the program simply present a quartet of fantastic ballets, there is a sense of history that flows through Wheeldon’s work; it’s not Balanchine, Robbins, Ashton, or MacMillan. Yet by having known a few of the greats in their twilight years, Wheeldon has reaped the benefits of their wisdom without delving into mimicry, such that he has developed a perspective uniquely his own, and is already heralded as one of the current generation’s most brilliant choreographers. It is praise well deserved, and ‘All Wheeldon’ promises to be an intellectual feast of highly sophisticated ballet.
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s ‘All Wheeldon’ can be seen September 23 and 24, and September 29 through October 2 at McCaw Hall. Tickets are available on the company website, or at the door. 
For more information on this PNB program, notes are available at is also a video preview of Wheeldon’s humorous work, Variations Sérieuses.