Christopher Wheeldon, 39, is one of the world’s most sought after choreographers. I meet him in his guest office, a small chamber in Amsterdam’s „Het Muziektheater“, the morning after the premiere of his new version of Prokofieff’s „Cinderella“. He is relaxed. He is cleaning his desk.
(All photos: Angela Sterling, Courtesy Het Nationale Ballet)
Unknown dancing object in the prince’s arms: Anna Tsygankova and Matthew Golding
Mr. Wheeldon, why Cinderella?
Cinderella because…actually Cinderella wasn’t the first choice. The whole thing came about because Helgi Tómasson asked me if I would do a version of „The Prince of the Pagodas“ for San Francisco Ballet.
Oh, lovely. I only know the version of Kenneth MacMillan.
Yeah. It’s a lovely score. Well a hard score but Iam a huge Britten fan. In fact my next ballet is Britten and I’ve done quite a few Britten ballets. I was excited by that. Even though, you know, by the time I grew up in Royal Ballet School Kenneth MacMillan made „The Prince of the Pagodas“. So I had this kind of teenage admiration for the ballet because you know, Sir Kenneth, and I was there, and it was one of his last pieces and it was with Darcey Bussell with whom I have worked a lot…bit I felt it would be an interesting ballet to take on and I would do it in a very different way and I sort of had a very nice and clear idea of what I would do. Anyway to cut a long story short: That fell through because they were very worried about that name as a selling point for a ballet.
What? That’s America
That’s America, yes. And the San Francisco Ballet is not …Helgi built it really up from very little and they don’t have a Cinderella it’s one of the full-length ballets they don’t have and Helgi said are you interested? I always loved the music. It is a wonderful score.
It is a wonderful score
I was asked to do it for the Bolschoi ten years ago and I said No because I felt I wasn’t ready to handle the score. Because I love it so much.
They asked you ten years ago? You were twenty-seven at the time?
Ten years ago, yes, when Boris Akimov was the director, he asked me. It was very sweet – actually Misha, one of the Russian pianists here, is very good friends with Boris. And he came to me last night because he’s been playing for us also and he said „I just called Boris to tell him how wonderful your Cinderella was. And he sent so much love.“ Because he was with Boris when I sent the fax saying ‚Iam really sorry but I can’t do it because I just don’t feel ready to take on the music.‘ So yes, those really were the reasons and then it became a coproduction. And the timing would be better for the premiere to be here because Ted (Brandsen, director of Het Nationale Ballet) needed it for Christmas and Helgi has to do the „Nutcracker“ before Christmas. So even though San Francisco asked first they came to that agreement.
You’ve done some of the great works of the classical repertoire. When you started as a younger choreographer, did you make sort of a list – like I wanna do ‚Swan Lake‘ first and then ‚Sleeping Beauty‘ after…?
No, I didn’t actually.
Or did you ever think of like how Ashton decided on which ballet to do when? Or if there was a plan? Is there a plan? Are some of these works much more difficult than others? For example Balanchine did most of his big works when he was older than fifty. So you are young…
It’s more for me what feels right at the time. And this just felt right right now. I had an idea, I had this team, I wanted to work with Julian Crouch for a long time because I had admired his work for theatre and opera – he had not done a ballet before this. This is his first ballet. So a lot of it has to do with timing. It just felt the right time to do Cinderella.
Are you drawn to the fairytale aspect of these classics?
Yes I am actually. Iam a big kid. I mean, I love phantasy. And I love fairytales. I always have since I was little and I’ve not really grown out of that at all. I haven’t! Yes, and I loved reading researching figuring out how we would tell this version of Cinderella, you know, the Grimm versus the Perrault and the darker sort of slightly more twisted aspects of the Brothers Grimm’s version versus the kind of more fairytale-like, more Disneyesque aspects of the Perrualt and then some other influences like the Rossini opera, the libretto for that And then working on the libretto with Craig Lucas who is an incredibly talented playwright, who has never worked for ballet before.
It’s fun. I have to say I really enjoy to work with people outside the ballet world on a big piece like this. Because I think they come with fresh eyes, with new ideas, often they don’t understand that there are certain things that are difficult to tell to say in a story with movement, with dance because they are so used to working with words. So expectations are sometimes…maybe they are just challenged because there are certain emotions that can very easily be communicated with two or three words where in movement it’s a far more complex piecing together. But it’s great because a lot of work is done to pair it down so that it could work over three hours and not five hours or twelve hours. He wrote it as a book. It’s a wonderful story, but some of it had to go because it’s too…
Yeah. The elements though are there…And similar with Julian (Crouch) – he designs for theatre and for opera where space is less of an issue so it’s fun. We all end up thanking each other for the experience of learning new things about our craft. They came to me last night and said working on the ballet had been an experience they never thought they would have and Julian feels he’ll design differently now that he has designed for ballet.
That’s how some of the best ballets of dance history were created – with people from outside the ballet world. Like for example with the Ballets Russes…
Yes, and that’s also what I tried with my own company „Morphosis“ – with people from the fashion world and – we never had budgets to really do something with scenery or costumes. But we did some fun collaborations with some visual artists who made some pieces that either the set or the costume designer worked on alongside an exhibition. I think it is quite easy to get comfortable in a pattern of working with the same people who know how to make lycra look really good or hang something over the stage in the right way. It’s more interesting to have a bit more of a dialogue. It’s good for me too, because this is a big project and to have some not always agreeing voices, some more questioning voices is good.
Did you agree, before Craig Lucas wrote the actual scenario – on a few points like – Stepmother in or out?
We did a lot of this together. No men as sisters, that was one of the first things. Let’s not do drag! And also just elements of the story. Because the Prokofieff is very much written after the Perrault version and you know, of course Ashton followed that very strictly, even to the point of following some of the stage directions in the score like Cinderella kneels at the fireplace and so on. He was very faithful to that. Well it was very early that he did his version – three years after the premiere in Russia. So he felt probably obliged or interested in
In following that…
It’s interesting, I just said it to someone the other day I hope Prokofieff isn’t rolling in his grave right now because you know, we didn’t move music around much, but I certainly didn’t follow what he said in the score at the points that were designated and she – I think it was my sister Jacqueline – she said ‚Oh you never know he might at this point be ready to have his music interpretated in a different way. I always want to be as respectful musically as possible. It’s been nice to work with Ermanno (Florio, the musical conductor of the premiere). He is wonderful.
So what comes first when you invent a production like this. You see images first or you think ‚I never understood why Ashton left out the stepmother…?
It was more that I thought ‚Who do I want Cinderella to be?‘ I was always frustrated that the prince always shows up as a kind of goofy, handsome prince. I mean, there is no substance here at all.
Isn’t that exactly how he looked last night? Really fancy?
Maybe it didn’t come across very clearly but I wanted them to be two people sort of trapped in the constraint of a situation, the need of them particularly to be in. The prince is kind of like the English princes William and Henry. They are princes but they have a rebelliousness to them, they are modern princes and they don’t want necessarily to be told by their families whom they have to marry and why – for whatever reason – may it be a political reason or whatever. And then Cinderella similarly. We discussed that from very early on: I wanted the two of them to be a bit more balanced within the piece so that when they finally came together there was more of a human connection between them. So we kind of started with seeing them grow up together and they would have this first meeting in the kitchen and they have this sort of attraction as two human beings, not just because she is beautiful and he is the prince. Not like for example certainly the Ashton version – where she shows up at the ball and she is gorgeous and he is gorgeous and that is all there is to it!
Well the magic of that version is that suddenly she is rewarded for not forgetting her mother. For the love, for being good she gets the prince as sort of a present.
Iam not so interested in exactly that idea of a young woman being mistreated and the suggestion that somebody who just does the right thing and the good thing all the time and accepts that kind of treatment and does what she is told is necessarily gonna be in the end rewarded with the prince. I wanted my Cinderella to be a little bit more defiant and a bit more prideful and she accepts her role and she honors the spirit of her mother by dealing with it in a dignified way. She chooses that. It’s not that she is poor weak Cinderella that does what she is told and you know, gets beatten around. She is a little bit more feisty. And also the disappointment with father – he sticks up for her in the end but he is a weak man. He is a weak man, obviously completely destroyed by the loss of his first wife and he remarries
With bad luck…
Yes, it is also with bad luck, but he is very vulnerable and he marries this very strong woman and no longer has the balls, let’s say, to really be the man he was with Cinderellas mother, his first wife
Or maybe he was always soft but the first wife just never took advantage of that
Yes…He was a tricky character. Through the whole process we thought, ‚Wow, we really don’t like him, he is really pathetic‘. That is why in the end we sort of have him come around and stick up for Cinderella and he is the one that kind of brings them together. Because in the end we thougt he was even worse than the stepmother because he is so weak. Anyway. So that is basically how we decided: We went through the different versions of the story and decided this element we like, and this one works
I pull you over the table, sweet sister mine: Nadia Yanowsky and Megan Zimny Gray
And the happy-end for the stepsister that Nadia Yanowsky plays – is that in any of the versions?
No I don’t think so. We made that up because we thought she was kind of Cinderella before Cinderella came along. She is the weaker of the two sisters. I like that they are not just two wild things…
Your version is so packed with details and you seem to rush a little bit through the evening. Why are you in such a hurry?
There is a lot of story to be told and the music doesn’t allow for a great deal of time. It’s quite an episodic score except maybe for the second act that is meatier and has more occasion for dancing.
Did you find that convenient for your version?
Yes, mostly, but sometimes I would have liked to call Mr. Prokofieff and ask him if he could give me a bit more time here. But then that is also the nature of the piece and I have to see whether I can do it.
How do you cope with the stress of realizing such a big production?
It’s what I do, what I love to do!
The excitement about it…
Yes, I wouldn’t want to have it any other way. You know it’s never a garanty. But I work in the way that I love that we have Cinderella here! It’s a big ballet, and the audience loves it and it was a fun night. Great! But for me also the process with the dancers is huge. What we get from one another over the seven weeks that’s what counts: It’s great that we have the ballet but what no one outside realizes is how precious the process is and how for us that’s the treasure. Iam not happy not working.
We will never know how much work their marriage might become: Matthew Golding and Anna Tsygankova