Christopher Wheeldon: “Most people like to know where they are going, but I struggle with that notion”

“I have never found it hard to turn a corner and walk down a new pathway without a map,” says Sadler’s Wells’ Associate Artist 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 that’s why I enjoy working with BalletBoyz, because they’re that way too.”

He laughs.  When you first meet him, Christopher 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 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 New York City Ballet.  Four years later, he became the company’s 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 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.

Christopher Wheeldon in rehearsal with BalletBoyz.

Now, in collaboration with the Michael Jackson Estate, he is working on a musical about Michael Jackson, alongside the Pulitzer prize-winning American playwright Lynn Nottage. Called Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough, it focuses on the moment, in 1992, when Jackson was preparing for his Dangerous World Tour. It is due to open in Chicago in October 2019, before moving to Broadway in 2020.

He accepts he is unlikely casting for such a job.  “The first thing I said to them was, ‘Do you know who I am?’”  He is looking forward to the challenge, in the same way he did when he took the much-loved movie An American in Paris and put it on stage in a radical new form.  “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.”

Christopher is also capable of working at incredibly high speeds.  For his new piece for 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.  “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.”

Christopher Wheeldon in rehearsal with BalletBoyz.

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 Christopher 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; the story was recorded in Strictly Bolshoi, an engrossing tale of triumph snatched from the jaws of defeat. Since then, Christopher 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 we can make challenging, complex dance more accessible to a broader audience,” Christopher 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.”

BalletBoyz return to Sadler’s Wells with Them/Us on 5 – 9 March. Tickets are priced from £15. To book, call the Ticket Office on 020 7863 2000 or book online.

By Sarah Crompton