With guest residencies in New York and at London’s Sadler’s Wells, Christopher Wheeldon's company Morphoses has fulfilled its dazzling transatlantic promise, and wowed audiences around the globe.
English born Christopher Wheeldon retired from professional dancing to focus on choreography in 2000, and since then has become one of the most celebrated names in contemporary ballet. He has created ballets for companies like the Royal Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet and the New York City Ballet, where he held the position of Resident Choreographer from 2001 to 2008. He’s only 35, and was named Ballet’s hottest choreographer in 2004 by Time. Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company is one of his latest innovations: a new and dynamic ballet company founded in 2007 with Lourdes Lopez. The company is based in New York and London and aims to broaden the scope of classical ballet by emphasising innovation and fostering creativity through collaboration. This includes designers, artists and musicians as well as dancers. With guest residencies in New York and at London’s Sadler’s Wells, the company has fulfilled its dazzling transatlantic promise, and wowed audiences around the globe. So it was with great fanfare that Sydney Festival brought Wheeldon and Morphoses to Australia. Last Saturday night at Sydney's Theatre Royal, the house lights dimmed and instead of the dancers appearing on stage Wheeldon himself walked into the spotlight: casual, confident, charismatic and charming, explaining the show ahead. Costumes for the first ballet on the lineup, choreographed by Wheeldon, Commedia, were by Isabel Toledo, the Cuban-American designer who designed Michelle Obama’s inauguration outfit, he told the audience. Costumes for the final Wheeldon choreographed ballet, Fool’s Paradise, were designed by Narciso Rodriguez, who had designed Michelle Obama’s dress when she accompanied her husband in his first public appearance as President Elect last November. It was already an all-star cast, and he hadn’t even mentioned the dancers. In between we would see Slingerland Pas De Deux choreographed by William Forsythe, and Distant Cries, choreographed by Morphoses dancer Edwaard Liang. All of this would be accompanied by the Sydney Festival Chamber Orchestra. When the dancers appeared you could have heard a pin drop. Forsythe and Liang’s choreography was wonderful, but the most interesting pieces turned out to be Wheeldon’s. Commedia, which only had its world premiere last September at Sadler’s Wells, brought us into a strange mystical world with music by Igor Stravinsky. Toledo’s adaptable costumes turned from caped tutus into clown or court jester inspired leotards with ace of spades designs cleverly positioned to take full advantage of group movement. As two dancers entwined together rolled across the floor in what I can only describe as a doubled over forward roll in slow motion, the woman beside me gasped audibly, while clutching her partner’s thigh in excitement. This was modern ballet and it was all rather exciting. The real highlight was the finale. Fool’s Paradise was a sexier piece with bare chested male torsos, bold moves and dramatic music adapted from Joby Talbot’s silent movie score The Dying Swan. Certain dancers stole the show, exuding stage presence – particularly Edwaard Liang – as they contorted themselves into the magnificently impossible ending (pictured). Wheeldon is much admired. With such creative, skilful, yet enjoyable work it is easy to see why. He’s reinvented ballet, taken us away from the tired old stories and expected routines and into an innovative world where ballet is an artform and draws on other artforms – designers, artists, musicians. Even the most disinterested ballet-phobic would have to be swayed by Morphoses, and the possibilities it provides. If Wheeldon can do this for ballet what else can we hope for from other artforms? As the dancers finally left the stage the applause went on, and on, and on… Morphoses runs as part of the Sydney Festival until 1 February.

Emma Sorensen

Tuesday 27 January, 2009

About the author

Emma Sorensen is a freelance writer and editor. She was previously Editor of Arts Hub UK. She has a background in literature and new media, having worked as an editor and commissioning editor in book publishing, as well as with websites and magazines in the UK and Australia.