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Wheeldon’s Turn

The ambassador of dance reinvents himself—again.

Jun 7, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 36 • By NATALIE AXTON
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As it happens, I never caught Wheeldon fever. His work has always struck me as more than a little pose-y, and the choreographic project was disappointing. Too many of the non-Wheeldon ballets were duds, and artsy videos of dancers in and out of rehearsal connected the program elements—always a defeatist strategy. 

If Morphoses is to succeed as a curatorial project, its tastes need to be refined. But if you look at Morphoses as a formal experiment, it was going reasonably well: Last summer the company performed with singer Martha Wainwright in Central Park, attracting a large nondance audience, and next year it’s booked for the Kennedy Center in Washington. Donations were up, the press coverage was ongoing. Wheeldon the impresario was balancing the creative and the pragmatic. And then, without warning, he walked away.  

In the media, there were two reactions. Some thought that directing a company limited Wheeldon’s creative abilities; others insisted that he gave up on the only mission that matters: building an institution. The official reason for Wheeldon’s departure was that he couldn’t maintain a steady group of dancers. Cofounder Lourdes Lopez, who said that Wheeldon wouldn’t give the company enough of his time, hopes to mitigate such problems by turning the new Morphoses into a high-profile residency program. 

If you suspect none of this makes much sense, you’re not alone. And three-and-a-half months later, for Christopher Wheeldon, it’s back to business as usual. New York City Ballet’s spring season features seven world premiere ballets by seven blue-chip choreographers. Wheeldon’s new ballet premieres May 29, one of the five ballets for which the architect Santiago Calatrava designed a set piece. (This season, titled “Architecture of Dance,” is yet another way ballet is trying to save itself: The gala performance began with a toast to Calatreva from Ballet Master-in-Chief Peter Martins, and then a video explained who Calatrava is and how wonderful it is for all these ballet people to be working with him.)

Ballet may be in crisis, and its audience going gray; but Christopher Wheeldon has perfected the art of survival.

Natalie Axton is a writer in New York.

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