Wheeldon is back at New York City Ballet, where he honed his choreographic skills, making a non-narrative work set to Schoenberg.
“It’s not you, it’s me,” Christopher Wheeldon said, stopping the ballerina Sara Mearns, who was trying to work out a tricky movement phrase. She put her hands on her hips and laughed. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ve got three weeks. That’s like a year in New York City Ballet time.”
It’s been awhile — six years — since Wheeldon has made a dance on City Ballet time, a zone in which works are created exceptionally fast, with rehearsal slots limited by the company’s unusually varied repertory and emphasis on new work. But he knows it well. The British-born Wheeldon was a dancer in the company (he joined in 1993 at 19) and became its first resident choreographer in 2001. Even when involved in other ventures, he continued to create pieces for City Ballet.
His new dance, “From You Within Me,” is his 22nd for the company. Set to Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht,” with sets and costumes by the artist Kylie Manning, it debuts at the spring gala on Thursday alongside another new ballet, by Alysa Pires, and Justin Peck’s 2016 “The Times are Racing.”
The six years since his last City Ballet piece (“American Rhapsody”) have encompassed a shift in Wheeldon’s career too. He has directed and choreographed two Broadway musicals, “An American in Paris” and “MJ,” winning the Tony Award for choreography for both. He hasn’t stopped making ballets — notably the full-length “Like Water for Chocolate,” which American Ballet Theater will perform this summer. But there, too, his focus has been mostly on narrative and theatricality rather than on the plotless Neo-Classicism that tends to characterize the City Ballet aesthetic.
That was the aesthetic with which he began his choreographic career, with dances like “Polyphonia” and “Mercurial Manoeuvres.” But returning to City Ballet now, after working on Broadway and on “Like Water” for the more theatrically oriented Royal Ballet (a coproduction with Ballet Theater), made him wonder: Did he still want to make that kind of pure-dance piece?
“There is an ambiguity about non-narrative work that feels both dangerous and exciting,” he said, “especially working the way I do — going into a room with the music and allowing whatever lies beneath to emerge. The challenge is the unknown and the fear of the unknown.” But while getting going was “a bit of a struggle,” he said, “now that I’m in it, it’s great.”
“From You Within Me,” is set to the lush, tempestuous “Verklärte Nacht” (“Transfigured Night”), from 1899, inspired by a poem by Richard Dehmel about a woman who confesses to the man she loves that she is pregnant with another man’s child. Schoenberg’s score, with its surging melodies and lush romanticism, has been catnip to choreographers, with Jiri Kylian, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Kim Brandstrup and Antony Tudor among those who have created dances to it, some hewing to a narrative, some working more abstractly.
Nonetheless, Wheeldon said, he had been ambivalent about using the music. “I’ve been a bit frightened of it,” he said. “In parts it’s torturously beautiful and intensely romantic, with an underlying uneasiness to the romance. Even though it has five movements, there is no definition between them, so it feels like a long poem, and structurally that’s hard.”
And, he noted, the interwoven flow of music works against having the kind of central pas de deux that often anchors his ballets. “But then I thought, OK, make a ballet without a central duet!” he said.
He also wanted Mearns, who had taken a six-month break from dancing while struggling with depression, to be at the center of a ballet set to “Verklärte Nacht.” “This music and Sara go together for me,” he said. “There is so much amplitude and courage in her dancing that reminded me in scale of the music.”
When Mearns said she felt confident she would be back in time to work on the ballet, Wheeldon decided to go ahead.
Mearns’s first rehearsal with the company after that gap was with Wheeldon, she said in an interview on the day she returned to the stage (in George Balanchine’s “Concerto Barocco”). “At that first rehearsal, I was so nervous and barely able to move,” she said, “but Chris made me laugh about it. He really did bring me back, one step at a time, to dancing.”
Consciously or not, she added, “the choreography tapped into everything I went through these past months, going into this dramatic emotional place and a lot of the time just wanting to scream.”
Physically, Mearns said, the movement was different from her previous experience of Wheeldon’s choreography, which had mostly been “very upright, with some quirkiness, but very classical.”
“This is very, very topsy-turvy, rounded, falling off your leg,” she continued, adding that usually Wheeldon had to rein in her no-holds-barred way of dancing. For this ballet, she said, he wanted that quality from all the dancers. “It’s kind of great.”
Wheeldon’s approach to creating “From Me Within You” (the title is from a line in the Dehmel poem) was new for him. He knew he wanted to collaborate with Manning after they met through a mutual friend. “I loved the movement within the paintings and the juxtaposition of stillness with a riot of color,” he said. “I was intrigued by their story-no story aspect.”
He asked Manning to create paintings inspired by the Schoenberg score, deciding that would be his starting point, rather than the more conventional choreographic approach of the music as primary inspiration.
In an interview before a rehearsal she attended, Manning said, “So often people want design as wallpaper for their projects, but this felt new and radical for both of us.” The music, she added, “feels connected to grief, to moments of tremendous hope. I was painting with that tempo, that intensity, with the poem’s idea that through interconnectedness, we can achieve metamorphosis.”
Although Manning usually embeds human figures in her swathes of color, she decided that the scale would make painted bodies too visually noisy. “The main thing was to share the brush with Chris,” she said. “The dancers are the final brush marks in the composition.”
Wheeldon said he would have worked with Manning’s take on the music as his inspiration even if he had decided not to use the Schoenberg. “She found so much color in the work,” he said. “It’s easy to lean into the tortured part of it all, but there is so much light in it too, and there is an almost violent beauty to Kylie’s work.”
The process, he said, “was exciting. At the end, you have this work, you have your response.”