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All the right moves: New York City Ballet's ace choreographer Christopher Wheeldon talks about expanding his range with Broadway's Sweet Smell of Success. (dance).

At the age of 27, Christopher Wheeldon abruptly abandoned his burgeoning career as a soloist dancer. He wasn't injured or burned out or even relocating. He was being sought out as a choreographer to create new works for the world's top ballet companies, including his own, the New York City Ballet.

"I felt like I was doing two things quite well, but my time and energy were divided between the two," says Wheeldon. "I decided to lose the dance and focus on choreography." It is a decision that neither he nor his admirers have regretted. In fact, Wheeldon may now be the greatest living choreographer in the field of classical ballet.

Last May, New York City Ballet artistic director Peter Martins appointed Wheeldon resident choreographer of the company, an honor never before bestowed by a troupe whose focus has always been on the innovative use of classical dance vocabulary. In his five years of choreographing, Wheeldon has created more than 20 ballets, for the New York City Ballet, Royal Ballet, Boston Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, and others.

Always looking to experiment, Wheeldon accepted director Nicholas Hytner's offer to choreograph the Broadway musical The Sweet Smell of Success, set to open March 14 at New York's Martin Beck Theatre. "With each ballet he made for City Ballet, I became more and more convinced that he had quite a stupendous talent," explains Hytner, the out artist who directed The Object of My Affection and later recruited Wheeldon to choreograph his film Center Stage. "I have never come across anyone in the theater who so early in his career has such an inventive and individual command of an empty space. More than this, he has an instinctive theatricality and, more recently, a developing emotional depth--which, to be frank, I envy."

Born in Somerset, England, Wheeldon attended the Royal Ballet School in London. In 1991, after winning the Gold Medal at the Prix de Lausanne student ballet competition, he joined the Royal Ballet. Two years later he studied with the New York City Ballet, and Martins offered him a dancer's contract on the spot.

With a newfound freedom in a new country, Wheeldon grabbed "the opportunity of starting a fresh life, to really be myself." That meant coming out as a gay man. "I felt like such a coward," he says. "It was my mother who finally said, `We know you're gay, we still love you for it, so get over it!'" Wheeldon now lives with his partner, Jock Soto, a popular principal dancer with the New York City Ballet.

Wheeldon's dream of working in New York included a love for musical theater, and with The Sweet Smell of Success he has joined an impressive creative team. Starring John Lithgow, the show boasts a score by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Craig Carnelia, and book by John Guare. "I feel a little bit like the naughty baby brother," quips Wheeldon. For the show, Wheeldon researched 1950s tapes of social dancing from the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, noting, "I'm going to walk away from this with an enormous amount of knowledge that I can take into the ballet studio."

Wheeldon's next project is a new ballet for the New York City Ballet's Diamond project, set to a score by Gyorgy Ligeti. Would he ever choreograph a gay-themed ballet in George Balanchine's hallowed hall? "If I had a really strong social message, I probably would. Otherwise, I don't drink so," he says. "I think I'm just only starting to grow up. I feel at age 28, I have so much to learn about myself."

Carman also writes for The New York Times.
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Article Details
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Author:Carman, Joseph
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 19, 2002
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