In February, the news broke that Christopher Wheeldon was stepping down as artistic director of Morphoses/the Christopher Wheeldon Company, the internationally acclaimed ballet troupe he founded just three years ago. Within the dance community, this was seismic: Many were shocked, but few were surprised. And although the company’s cofounder, Lourdes Lopez, quickly released a statement rebranding it as a curatorial venture (also called Morphoses), it is presumed that the company, which takes its name from one of Wheeldon’s ballets, will collapse in due course without Wheeldon at the helm.
The business of dance has always been organized around shifting collectives: Companies have formed, and inevitably disappear, when collaborators, directors, and dancers die or become irrelevant. Fleeting is the norm. What was remarkable about Morphoses/the Wheeldon Company is that it was spectacularly successful—but not as successful as Wheeldon on his own. Christopher Wheeldon was born in England in 1973, trained in London, joined the Royal Ballet in 1991, and two years later came to the New York City Ballet. He soon began choreographing, and in 2001 his first ballet for the company, Polyphonia, was a triumph.
Since the death of George Balanchine in 1983, New York dance audiences have hungered for an heir, and Polyphonia, the first of several Wheeldon ballets set to the music of György Ligeti, promised much in terms of geometry and musicality. Wheeldon was named resident choreographer, and more good work followed: In principal dancer Wendy Whelan, a sensitive performer in a thin, scoliotic physique, Wheeldon found his muse; in turn, Whelan’s idiosyncrasies added meaning to Wheeldon’s work. The artistic capital of the New York City Ballet was again on the rise, and everyone was happy.
Six years later, Wheeldon announced he was leaving City Ballet to start his own company. The excitement of a major choreographer directing a new ballet company overshadowed any questions about his departure. Morphoses/the Wheeldon Company (M/WC), however atrocious its name, was to be more than a showplace for Wheeldon’s dances: The company would perform the work of other choreographers as well. His long-term goal was to develop a repertory company of 20 full-time dancers, splitting residency between London’s Sadler’s Wells Theater and the New York City Center, birthplace of the City Ballet.
I first met Wheeldon last year at a lingerie shop in Soho. M/WC was teaming with La Perla for a fundraiser. It was an early spring evening, and the event was packed: Young professionals queued at the bar while dancers modeled couture in the shop window. Wheeldon made some brief, energetic remarks about the company’s upcoming season. As dance ambassador, he can be charming: Everyone turned to listen to the choreographer, and for a moment I forgot I was in a room full of bankers ogling women ogling expensive underwear.
“The New York City Ballet audience is dying,” he said to me later. Wheeldon has been ahead of the curve on the graying of the ballet audience. When the National Endowment for the Arts released its 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, it noted that attendance at public performances is down across the board. Ballet has been particularly hard hit, with attendance down nearly 50 percent since 1982, the first year the NEA began collecting data. The core audience for ballet in 2002, the year of the previous survey, was the 35-54 year age group; in 2008 the core audience was 65-74.
For years the press on both sides of the Atlantic has been proclaiming Wheeldon to be the “savior” of ballet, and he did his part to encourage them. In an interview in London’s Observer he suggested that he was the heir not to Balanchine but to Serge Diaghilev, and that Morphoses was a 21st-century Ballets Russes. On its website M/WC declared that its mission was to “broaden the scope of classical ballet by emphasizing innovation and fostering creativity through collaboration.” Without quite explaining how, the company would make ballet accessible to a younger audience, and a silly, splashy ad campaign declared the company was making ballet “sexy” again.
With the best of intentions, however, Wheeldon had walked into the big trap of postwar creative life: trying to reconcile artistic innovation with audience expansion. And in marketing for mass appeal, Wheeldon broke the cardinal rule of ballet: Always keep your mouth shut. Ballet in New York has a deep psychological need to feel important again—but only on its own terms. Self-promotion is anathema to the old guard, and by the time of M/WC’s overly ambitious New York premiere, there were signs of Wheeldon fatigue in the dance press. Its debut season sold well but was not a critical success.
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.