Against the sad life

Fairy tales have no expiration date, thinks Christopher Wheeldon. He has danced and choreographed countless of them. What he wants from contemporary ballet is less acrobatics and more expression and emotion. He has placed The Nutcracker on Chicago's South Side and left Alice in Wonderland, complete with fans, in a frenzy of color. For his furious ideas, the Englishman reaps British medals of merit and prizes such as the Tony Award or the renowned Prix Benois de la Danse. He whirls through Munich with Cinderella by Sergei Prokofiev.

Interview by Annette Baumann
 reading time: 5 Min.

Cinderella is very much about transformation. What or who would you like to transform into?

Even though it's probably a trivial answer: in terms of comfort and convenience, I would like to be my dog. My dog is pretty much the most loved and pampered four-legged friend on the planet. I know that's not a very profound answer, but very honest. (laughing)


Cinderella is best known in Germany as a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. Why are we still interested in fairy tales today?

Wouldn't it be a sad life if we didn't have fairy tales? Fairy tales do not become old-fashioned, they are timeless.

The morals they contain are timeless. Cinderella, for example, is about oppression, almost a kind of modern slavery. Here a good soul is oppressed. Don't we also live in a time today where we are confronted with the struggle between good and evil every day? This question is also asked in fairy tales.


What is your personal favourite part of Cinderella?

My favourite part is the moment of transformation. The moment when Cinderella is able to be human again after so much oppression, repression and hard work. Choreographically, it's the scene near the end of the first act where the seasons change. This is mainly due to the music, the passage is magical.


What makes a good choreographer?

Oh God, a whole lot of things, I think. Of course, a basic understanding of how to structure dance and put it together in a surprising way. But that alone doesn't make a choreographer; those are techniques that can be learned.

Above all, it's about building an emotional connection with the audience, even the person who doesn't know anything about ballet.


And that's a lot of people. There are always people who come and say, "oh God, I'm not going to understand that, I don't know about that." So you have to choreograph so that they have no choice but to feel something about what they're seeing. I think that's really what makes a choreographer a real choreographer: seeing the technique as a means to an end, to connect with the audience. Music and musicality also play a role, of course.


Your favourite movement in classical dance?

The port de bras, the arm movements. The arms are a link, with them you can combine and merge a very classical step and a modern idea.


We are currently seeing higher and higher jumps, even more pirouettes, more daring pas de deux. What do you think ballet will look like in 50 years?

I hope that we will return to an art form that focuses more on the artistic and less on the acrobatic. Today there are so many Instagram clips circulating in which young dancers do a dozen pirouettes in a row. That's good, they can do something. But, and this is the crucial thing, an emotional statement should be made with it. I also can't imagine that the technique can develop much further, the legs are already at the top. We have to use the technique to create an emotional connection with the audience again.


Gold medal at the Prix de Lausanne, the Prix Benois de la Danse for best choreography in 2013, several Tony Awards in 2015, the list of awards is long - what do awards mean to you?

I wish I could take you into my guest bathroom. Then you would immediately understand what awards mean to me. Over time it's actually become an Instagram story - which I'm not particularly proud of, by the way. People post my toilet on Instagram and don't even tell me ... For example, on the shelf next to the sink are my Tony Awards. I put them there for two, actually contradictory reasons: Firstly, awards are wonderful and exciting - even if they don't really mean anything. We don't make art to win prizes. On the other hand, it is precisely these prizes that help us to make art and show it to an audience. And when you get awards, of course you want to show them. That's why they're on my toilet now.


Dancers are often said to be superstitious. What do you believe in?

I recently gave up superstition. I used to shave off my beard before a premiere if I had one. I thought then that I looked younger without a beard and that if a premiere was a failure, people would be more forgiving. After all, people usually say, well, he's still young. But now I can't get away with it anyway. So the beard stays on now. Apart from that, I'm not really superstitious.


What do they say in Britain instead of toi toi toi?

In Britain we say chookas. If I knew more about etymology, I'd know why. Frankly: I have no idea. In the US they say merde, as in France.


Let's travel back in time: Which great dancer or choreographer from the past would you have liked to have a café with?

Rudolf Nureyev. I even met him once, but we didn't have a café. I was 17 at the time, still a student, and he was dancing in a gala for Margot Fonteyn. He needed support to get back to the studio and I helped him. We didn't really talk at the time though. I would have liked to do that very much.

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