nobody movie_ Christopher Wheeldon: ‘Most boys at ballet school were withdrawn for fear our parents would cast us out’ | ballet

OOn a weekend in the early 1990s on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, 19-year-old dancer Christopher Wheeldon found himself on a loose end. He had recently moved to the New York City Ballet from London. “I hadn’t made any real friends yet and I remember going to the movies on a really lonely Sunday afternoon,” says Wheeldon. “There used to be a great art house in Lincoln Center called Lincoln Plaza.” The film he saw there was Like Water for Chocolate, an adaptation of Mexican author Laura Esquivel’s magical realist novel about frustrated love.

“It just grabbed me,” says Wheeldon. “I’m a bit of a hopeless romantic, I suppose.” Little did he know then that 30 years later he would still be living in New York, now an internationally acclaimed Tony and Olivier Award-winning choreographer who directed the film, he saw turned into a ballet.

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After starting his choreographic career with abstract neoclassical ballets (eg polyphony, morphoses and tryst) based on streamlined beauty, patterning and musicality, Wheeldon has since made a name for himself as a great storyteller who approached everything from visual spectacle Alice in Wonderland to turn The winter fairy tale, said to be one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”, to an emotional ballet. He also choreographed and directed a hugely successful stage version of the Gene Kelly film An American in Paris and recently opened the Michael Jackson musical MJ On Broadway.

Esquivel’s novel is unlike any of these shows, but Wheeldon discovered some rich ingredients for the ballet in the story of heroine Tita, who is forbidden from marrying her beloved Pedro because family tradition dictates that she must stay at home to care for herself to take care of her demanding mother. As Tita cooks for the family, her emotions spill over into the food and those who eat it, leading to outbursts of lovesickness and intense desire. Raised emotions and simmering passion are things ballet is very good at, and Wheeldon foresaw great ballerina roles for Tita, her mother, and her sisters (Francesca Hayward will be the first Tita). “And it’s a very dynamic story,” he says. “There’s a ghost, a band of revolutionaries, and of course the magic.”

Marcelino Sambé and Francesca Hayward rehearsing Like Water for Chocolate. Photo: Andrei Uspensky

At the beginning of the project, Wheeldon visited Esquivel in Mexico City and she cooked him a recipe from the book, a champandongo casserole. “I wouldn’t do it without Laura’s blessing,” he says, aware of how tricky it is to tell stories outside of one’s own culture. “We have to make sure we’re asking the right questions and we have permission.”

Wheeldon also worked closely with Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra and composer Tomás Barreiro, but has no intention of copying the novel’s world. After researching a huge selection of Mexican folk dances, he decided the best way was to invent his own language. Similarly, Joby Talbot’s score combines passionate melodies and danceable rhythms with just a touch of Mexican flair.

Even the story is somewhat abstracted, its “tightly woven tapestry of detail” being distilled in key relationships to do justice to the ballet’s strengths. Wheeldon recognizes that seeing even well-known narrative ballets on stage can be confusing for those who cannot dance. “I was sitting at Swan Lake the other night and I was like, ‘If this is your very first time and you haven’t read what this is about, you’re going to struggle.'”

That may be why ballet so often harks back to the same old stories, something Wheeldon is no longer interested in. “I don’t think we should be afraid to tackle complex stories and not feel like the audience needs to understand every second; One of the beauties of dance is that we can escape into this poetic abstraction, even within a narrative ballet.” Nonetheless, he plans to send out a synopsis when people get their e-tickets, as well as links to a series of talks he led to the creation of the work. “If you’re completely confused about what’s going on, you’re not enjoying yourself; you can feel stupid.”

It’s a viewpoint sometimes overlooked by those who, like Wheeldon, have been immersed in ballet since childhood. Born in Yeovil, Somerset, he began ballet at the age of eight and was admitted to the Royal ballet School aged 11 at White Lodge in Richmond Park, west London. He immediately started choreographing. “I was quite bossy and I liked to organize,” he says, “so it just seemed natural. When the annual choreography competition took place, I thought, ‘Yes, I’m going to enter it and I’m going to win it.’” His first-year entry was selected to be performed for Princess Margaret. “I thought, ‘Wow, someone likes my little piece!’ We’ve been told so many times in class that we’re not good dancers. When someone tells you you’re good at something, they give you that confidence – that was the big boost for me.”

At White Lodge it was great to be surrounded by so many other people obsessed with ballet, but the intense competition could be tough. “If you weren’t selected for something like The Nutcracker, your name just didn’t get on the board. Nobody took you aside to talk to you. It’s completely different now,” he says. Back then, feelings weren’t talked about much. “These are really formative years, you’re maturing, and while I think kids are encouraged now to be free about who they are, these weren’t times when we shared or talked about sexual feelings. I think most of the boys in our year were gay and we were all so withdrawn that we were all afraid that our parents would disown us. I went to New York to find myself. I couldn’t fully express myself as a gay man until I moved away.”

Wheeldon is now happily married to yoga teacher Ross Rayburn (they just moved their dog into an apartment building where the esteemed choreographer happens to reside George Balanchine lived). The way we talk about many things has changed since the ’90s, and there is a gradual openness in the ballet world to talk about diversity, body shape, gender, corporate hierarchy and power dynamics – topics that weren’t formerly addressed. “We’re re-evaluating what’s considered excellent on stage,” says Wheeldon. “It will take a while. It’s going to be clunky and uncomfortable and awkward, but as long as we’re having the talks and progress is being made, I’m encouraged.”

The cast of Like Water for Chocolate.
The cast of Like Water for Chocolate. Photo: Andrei Uspensky

At White Lodge, students were allowed to put up a poster on their bedroom wall, and while others had pictures of ballet stars, Wheeldon had a poster of Michael Jackson’s bath (“I remember being obsessed with this album”). It’s another memory that reverberated over the years when Wheeldon was asked to direct and choreograph MJ the Musical to recreate the preparations for Jackson’s 1992-93 Dangerous World Tour. A white, British, ballet-trained choreographer with no experience of hip-hop or funk dance styles, Wheeldon wasn’t the obvious choice to direct. “That’s what I said when you asked me! You know who I am?” But the show’s Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Lynn Nottage had seen an American in Paris and wanted a dance maker in charge.

Because of the complexity of Jackson’s legacy, he was bound to have reservations about accepting it. “Everyone has their own opinion,” he says. “Some people think it’s not appropriate; Some people separate the art from the artist. We sometimes wonder how we’re having this conversation about this great work that’s going nowhere? We focus on the creative process. Despite the fact that he is so polarizing, his music unites. Every night we have the most diverse audience in New York, all connected through their music. I don’t regret doing it at all.”

The pressure of doing a Broadway musical is a different pressure than doing a ballet “because you’re expected to make people money,” says Wheeldon. But that gives them a lot more development time to get things right: numerous workshops before rehearsals begin, six weeks of previews before the press gets in. “I still haven’t put two scenes together in Like Water for Chocolate,” he says. when does it come together It’s a much riskier prospect. “But it’s also a kind of excitement,” he says. “You just have to jump in at the deep end and move on .”

Like water for chocolate is at the Royal Opera House, London from June 2nd to 17th.

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