Morphoses in Christopher Wheeldon’s Rhapsody Fantaisie, photo by Erin Baiano
During its third season at City Center last week, Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company offered six ballets over two programs, along with behind-the-scenes videos of the dancers rehearsing at Martha’s Vineyard, live music, and a pre-curtain greeting from Christopher Wheeldon himself. There always seems to be a lot of fuss (both good and bad) over this three-year-old company – the “Ballet=Sexy” motto sparked interest in its first season, high-profile costume designers and dancers got attention in 2008, and this year’s uninspiring videos received criticism for focusing on butterflies and blueberries instead of on the choreographic process – along with speculation about how Wheeldon’s choices shape The Future of Ballet. Once all of the excess is stripped away and the expectations about Wheeldon filling Balanchine’s shoes are set aside, Morphoses appears to be a struggling dance company with flawed programs and inconsistent choreography – not unlike many other contemporary ballet troupes.
Last Friday evening’s program started out strongly with Continuum (2002), part of Wheeldon’s trilogy of works set to music by Gyorgy Ligeti. Featuring four couples, a thornily intriguing piano score, upside down scissoring legs and spidery hands, the work was structurally and choreographically similar to Wheeldon’s 2001 ballet Polyphonia. The geometric partnering was set within a meditative atmosphere that felt otherworldly yet grounded.
Morphoses in Wheeldon’s Continuum, photo by Erin Baiano
Paul Lightfoot and Sol León’s Softly as I Leave You, second on the program, was an insincere, angst-filled portrayal of the end of a relationship. Drew Jacoby and Rubinald Pronk are talented dancers, but this work, which used the unusual pairing of Bach and Arvo Pärt, mainly featured their high extensions and flexible torsos as they struggled in and around a coffin. They deserved better, and so did the audience.
Unfortunately, Wheeldon’s newest work, Rhapsody Fantaisie, was a lackluster close to the program. Set to a lush piano score by Rachmaninoff with a bizarre backdrop of windsocks by Los Carpinteros, six couples in deep red costumes swept through movement that combined ballet vocabulary with folk dance influences and imaginative lifts. But it was all a blur, rushing by so quickly with nothing and nobody catching the eye, except for the radiant Wendy Whelan in a duet with Andrew Crawford. Their pas de deux demonstrated how Wheeldon’s movement is most enlightening when it slows down and allows both the audience and dancers to pause and sink their teeth into his choreographic cornucopia.
Wheeldon recently confessed that he’s uncertain about the future of Morphoses, citing fundraising obstacles and the stress of managing a dance company while also choreographing for it. These are challenges faced by many choreographers who start their own companies, except that Wheeldon was already in the spotlight and gaining plenty of publicity when he founded Morphoses because of his time as a New York City Ballet dancer and resident choreographer. For Wheeldon to abandon Morphoses after such a short amount of time would be cowardly. There are countless other struggling companies – many of which have been around for much longer than three years – that have persisted with fewer resources and smaller budgets than that of Morphoses. The company has been extremely fortunate to have performed at Sadler’s Wells, the Vail International Dance Festival, and City Center over the past three years, and there are plans to tour to several cities internationally in 2010. Performing worldwide is impressive for such a young company, but perhaps Morphoses should focus on smaller, local projects before calling it quits so that Wheeldon can devote his energies to the choreographic process.