On a sunny afternoon last week, something new was unfurling in a bright studio at Pacific Northwest Ballet, taking shape second by second, nuance by nuance. Christopher Wheeldon, one of the world’s most in-demand ballet choreographers, was creating a dance, to premiere as part of PNB’s “Director’s Choice” program opening Friday. In the studio, he worked closely with the dancers: demonstrating movement, suggesting tiny changes, encouraging (with a constant, calm “That’s it. Yeah”), pondering. Sometimes he consulted a well-thumbed spiral notebook, where he had meticulously noted the counts of the ballet’s music; most of the time, he seemed to be pulling ideas from the air, shaping them like a sculptor.
Later, the British-born Wheeldon (now based in New York) explained that other than the counts, he does little advance work for his ballets.
“I used to drive myself crazy over it — I would think I should have it all planned,” he said. “But that’s just not the way I do it. I like to create the movement on the dancers, because they all look different and they all move differently. I’m not too interested in being in a studio on my own, making movements that work for my body.” His process starts with the notebook, then moves to the studio and with the dancers “trying as hard as possible to lay out a structure, as quickly as possible, so I can then go in and start to really work it and play with the ideas and shift the movement and layer it.”
The new work, as yet untitled, is set to an excerpt from British composer Joby Talbot’s “Tide Harmonic,” and performed by eight PNB dancers. It’s the first time Wheeldon’s created a world-premiere ballet for PNB, but his work — ranging in style from neoclassical (“Polyphonia,”) to contemporary (“After the Rain”) to lushly theatrical (“Carousel: A Waltz”) — has been in the company repertory for some years. Artistic director Peter Boal, who knew Wheeldon from their mutual days in New York City Ballet, has been asking for several years for a new work, but Wheeldon’s perpetually full dance card made it challenging. Though excited by the prospect, Wheeldon said, “It was just about finding the time in my schedule.”
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Not much time, to be sure: The new ballet is being created in less than three weeks. Speaking at the midpoint of the rehearsal period, the choreographer said, “I kind of know how the structure of the ballet needs to build, but it really could go anywhere at this point. Which is slightly terrifying, as there isn’t much time to go!”
Working with costume designer Holly Hynes and PNB’s resident lighting designer Randall G. Chiarelli, Wheeldon said that he was “getting a sense” of the look of the ballet. The music is written about water, Wheeldon said, about its propulsion and shifting. “We’re not making a watery ballet per se, but there are certain elements and ideas coming from that that will inform the costumes and lighting.”
Next up for Wheeldon, currently an artistic associate at London’s Royal Ballet (where he recently premiered a new full-length “Alice in Wonderland,” with a score by Talbot), is a full-length ballet version of Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale” for the Royal Ballet. He’s also developing a Broadway musical which he will direct and choreograph “in the next two years.” (Wheeldon declined to name the project, saying it hadn’t been officially announced, but The New York Times reported last summer that it was a new stage version of the Gene Kelly movie “An American in Paris.”)
For now, he’s focused on his new ballet, for which he still hasn’t found something essential: the ballet’s mood and impact. “Often in an abstract work, that comes as the ballet unfolds,” he said. “Usually it’s not easy for me to see what that is until we’ve got something.” He noted that he didn’t realize that “After the Rain” would emotionally resonate with audiences until after it was performed. “I knew there was a nice flow to it, but I didn’t and still don’t see that in the way that other people do. But I love that, I love that everybody sort of sees their own story within it.”
With this ballet, “I kind of have to trust that will take some sort of shape. Sometimes it’s not, sometimes it’s just sculptural and interesting and doesn’t necessarily have an emotional core. But I think it’s better when it does.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org