An illuminating and entertaining intergenerational look at two dance legends.
By Joel Benjamin
Illuminating doesn’t begin to describe the meeting of two charismatic dance/theater artists on the stage of the Upper West Side’s go to place for culture, the Symphony Space. The conversation between Rita Moreno, a star, if not a legend, for many decades, and Christopher Wheeldon, highly successful choreographer and director of the well-received Broadway musical An American in Paris, touched on their own life stories and their philosophies of the art of dance.
From the start this was a mini-mutual admiration society. Ms. Moreno, sometimes a tad over enthusiastic, plied Mr. Wheeldon for insights on the workings of his creative mind as a number of excerpts of his work zipped by on the screen behind them preceded by a wonderful breakneck visit to Ms. Moreno’s film history. The sheer breadth and longevity of her career was awe inspiring. She was particularly touching in her admiration of her West Side Story co-star and fellow Oscar winner, George Chakiris, but not so much of Fred Astaire whom she claimed had no “hormones” as compared to heartthrob Gene Kelly.
The intergenerational conversation revealed Mr. Wheeldon’s middle class upbringing in a household that prized the arts. He described the first ballet school as “straight out of Billy Elliot.” His great luck —not to mention enormous natural talent—led him to the esteemed Royal Ballet School. A clip of his graduation performance included bits of a Balanchine ballet, foreshadowing his move to New York City and joining the New York City Ballet at the invitation of Peter Martins (after taking just one company class!).
He mentioned an odd quirk in his dancing career, a dislike of partnering. He told a long story of achieving an important lift in Jerome Robbins “Dances at a Gathering” after months of attempting the step. Their stories of Robbins brought out his darkness and complexity as a man and artist.
Mr. Wheeldon’s slight discomfort with his dancing opened him up to choreographing. Ironically, his works include much complicated partnering! “After the Rain,” to Arvo Pärt, was his first huge success and the moving central duet was shown.
This led to a succession of colorful, well-crafted ballets for troupes ranging from his own Morphoses to the San Francisco Ballet to the New York City Ballet and back to his home, the Royal Ballet. Ballets shown included several with his long-time musical collaborator, Joby Talbot: “Fools Paradise,” “The Winter’s Tale” and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” His penchant for full-length story ballets was analyzed, including how he and Mr. Talbot construct a ballet and also how Mr. Wheeldon chooses his scenic and costume designers.
His fresh take on the old chestnut “Swan Lake” (Tchaikovsky) for the Joffrey Ballet took its inspiration from the paintings of Edgar Degas. From the snippets shown, it looked intriguing.
An American in Paris which Mr. Wheeldon both directed and choreographed, was analyzed and praised in equal measure, from how he and his librettist, Craig Lucas re-thought the mythic MGM film to how he handled dancers who never sang or acted and actors who had to dance and sing. The film clips showed a voluptuous swirl of movement, color and music. It’s clear why the show has received so many Tony Award nominations.
Ms. Moreno’s inner cougar came hilariously to the surface when she quipped about meeting Robert Fairchild, one of the stars of An American in Paris: “Dance with him? I wanted to DO him!”
This event was presented by Words on Dance which, since 1994, has been dedicated to connecting the creators and performers of dance with their audiences in entertaining and informative illustrated chats.
Ballet to Broadway: Christopher Wheeldon with Rita Moreno (April 27, 2015)
2537 Broadway at 95th St.
New York, NY
Tickets and Information: 212-864-5400 or www.symphonyspace.org
More information: www.wordsondance.org