Ballet or Broadway, he puts music in motion

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When Christopher Wheeldon crossed over from ballet to choreograph the dancing in "Sweet Smell of Success," he was warned about the challenges of Broadway.

"I felt that some people were trying to frighten me, because they were saying how tough a Broadway show could be," the choreographer says. "I was told that when things got rough, it can be unpleasant; that it's very rare that a team stays intact, and [that] it ends up falling apart at the end.

"It hasn't for us," he says, despite an unenthusiastic reception for "Sweet Smell of Success" from New York critics.

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Mr. Wheeldon, who is resident choreographer at the New York City Ballet, is considered the most promising of the younger ballet choreographers because of his musicality – his ability to hear the music and translate it into dance – as well as his versatility. He moves easily between abstract dance forms and storytelling dances.

The variety of the ballets he has made reflects his knowledge of the world he has called home since childhood, when he was a student at Britain's Royal Ballet School. He graduated with the choreography prize and entered the Royal Ballet Company when he was 18, crossing the ocean two years later to join the New York City Ballet. Even after he was promoted to soloist, he never stopped making dances.

To create a ballet, a choreographer studies the music and works with only his pianist and dancers – a far different process from the broader collaboration of artists for a musical. With "Sweet Smell of Success," Wheeldon admitted to being nervous when he read the book and saw the movie. "I wasn't sure how I was going to find ways for the performers to dance."

He conceived the idea of a 16-member chorus that could change character as the story progressed. "The dancing chorus is like a chameleon for me," Wheeldon says. "They represent different aspects – at times the urban energy or the conscience of the characters, at times a Greek chorus. I was trying to find an image for them to grasp. I told them to watch the raptors in the film 'Jurassic Park.' "

"Sweet Smell of Success" is based on a novella by Ernest Lehman and a 1957 film that starred Burt Lancaster as the amoral gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker and Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco, the press agent stuck to his side. The roles are played on stage by John Lithgow and Brian d'Arcy James.

Wheeldon is not the first choreographer to cross over from the ballet studio to the Broadway musical stage, but he is the busiest in recent memory.

After the mid-March opening of "Sweet Smell of Success," he stopped in Boston for a breathless weekend to tweak the final details of a revival of his "Corybantic Ecstasies," performed by the Boston Ballet. Then he boarded a plane for California to finish his ballet "Continuum," which had its première with the San Francisco Ballet April 4.

An abstract ballet for four couples set to 10 piano pieces by György Ligeti, "Continuum" refers to a progression of ideas from Wheeldon's 2001 ballet for the New York City Ballet, "Polyphonia," also set to Ligeti's music. The composer is best known for his film scores for "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "The Shining."

After a stop in London, where he is making an abstract ballet for the Royal Ballet, Wheeldon next heads back to New York, choreographing a two-act ballet version of "Hansel and Gretel" set to the Humperdinck score. And Broadway beckons again: He's been tapped to choreograph the coming stage version of the Gene Kelly film "An American in Paris."

Whether it's ballet or Broadway, Wheeldon says that, for him, "Where there's music..., there's always dance."

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