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New York City Ballet's Christopher Wheeldon and Bright Sheng: A Collaboration

- Offstage with the Dancers

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Christopher Wheeldon and Bright Sheng:
A Collaboration

Founders, George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein
Ballet Master in Chief, Peter Martins
Ballet Mistress, Rosemary Dunleavy
Children's Ballet Mistress, Garielle Whittle
Orchestra, Music Director, Fayçal Karoui
Marketing and Communications, Managing Director, Robert Daniels
Assoc. Director, Communications, Siobhan Burns
Manager, Press Relations, Joe Guttridge
New York State Theater, Lincoln Center

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
February 19, 2007

Christopher Wheeldon is currently New York City Ballet's Resident Choreographer. Bright Sheng is New York City Ballet's new Composer in Residence. Mr. Wheeldon, born in Somerset England, trained at The Royal Ballet School and performed with The Royal Ballet from 1991 to 1993, when he joined City Ballet, eventually rising to soloist in 1998. In 2000, after choreographing numerous, successful ballets, he retired from dancing and became City Ballet's resident artist. He has recently choreographed for City Ballet such masterpieces as Liturgy, Carousel, Morphoses, After the Rain, and An American in Paris, among others. Mr. Wheeldon also choreographs for other companies, and, in 2002, he created Tryst for The Royal Ballet.

Mr. Sheng, born in Shanghai, China, composes orchestral, chamber, vocal, and chamber works around the globe. Among his commissions are Red Silk Dance (2000) for Emanuel Ax and the Boston Symphony and Madame Mao (2003) for the Santa Fe Opera. Mr. Sheng also serves as conductor and concert pianist to orchestras, and he is Artistic Advisor to the Silk Road Project. Mr. Sheng moved to New York in 1982 from China, and he studied with Leonard Bernstein and other renowned teachers. He has received many fellowships and is on the composition faculty of the University of Michigan.

Tonight's loosely organized conversation, between Mr. Wheeldon and Mr. Sheng, was a bit of shared interviews, anecdotes, and a preview to a new ballet collaboration, The Nightingale and The Rose, a very sad short story by Oscar Wilde. The onstage piano remained silent, because, apparently, Mr. Wheeldon wanted to first hear Mr. Sheng's draft of the new score in private, not in front of a packed New York State Theater (an amazing sight on a cold, icy night). This was a disappointment, as the vision of an onstage silent piano, for almost 90 minutes, is almost as sad as the tale of the sacrificial nightingale. I would have enjoyed hearing Mr. Sheng play almost anything, even a resurrected ballet score or orchestral work, alluded to in his many anecdotes.

However, the silent piano did not take away from a very dynamic and informative conversation. Mr. Sheng spoke about Chi-Lin for San Francisco Ballet. Helgi Tomasson used various excerpts of Mr. Sheng's composition, in fragmented and abbreviated fashion, even deleting what Mr. Sheng considered to be the high point. When Mr. Sheng went to the ballet rehearsal, everything made sense. The dancers were relieved that Mr. Sheng was satisfied, as was Mr. Tomasson. As for the new ballet, a work in progress, Mr. Sheng was instructed by Mr. Wheeldon, at their second lunch meeting, to relate musically to the sadness of this fairy tale with its tragic twist. The dying pain of self-sacrifice and unrequited love are the two themes of this short story, and Mr. Wheeldon is creating the ballet with little miming, not over-telling each moment, but rather enhancing the narrative through lyrical dance. This is Mr. Sheng's first original ballet score.

Mr. Wheeldon also related stories about his days with composer/conductor, James MacMillan and The Royal Ballet, namely an experience with Tryst, one of Wheeldon's ballets performed in London. He then spoke about serendipitous musical appreciation of dissonant music when it is first heard while viewing an enjoyable ballet. He also told the audience about his recent experience in residence at the Bolshoi. He worked on a ballet about Hamlet, and he was concerned that the Russian dancers seemed distant and unenthusiastic, although Artistic Director, Alexander Ratmansky, is "trying to push new choreography". Mr. Wheeldon noted that the Bolshoi dancers work up to 9 hours at once with no breaks, and, no unions. Happily, at the end of the Bolshoi residence, the dancers warmed up and excelled at his choreography. The Hamlet piece is exclusively seen in Moscow. The dancers are getting used to change.

Mr. Sheng spoke about his love of Turkish and Tibetan tones, including a love song (the only music played on a sound system tonight). This music, as Mr. Wheeldon noted, sounded war-like, rather than love-like. Mr. Sheng frequently includes music he has experienced in his wide travels, especially in the East. In fact, when he is in the East, he mentioned that he is called "American-Chinese". Here, in America, he says he is called "Chinese". His culture is intrinsically entwined with his compositions.

Back to the new work in progress, The Nightingale and the Rose, there was mention of Wendy Whelan as a prospective lead principal. There was also mention of the fact that Mr. Wheeldon is leaving City Ballet in 2008 to establish his own ballet company, Morphoses. This new ballet company will be engaged at Vail Colorado's Dance Festival, at New York's City Center, and at London's Sadler's Wells Theatre. In August 2007, Morphoses will debut in Vail, Colorado (in association with the City Ballet principal, Damian Woetzel, who is now Artistic Director at the Vail Festival) and in the fall at Sadler's Wells and City Center.

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at