Christopher Wheeldon: ‘Most boys at ballet school were closeted, terrified our parents would disown us’

One weekend in the early 1990s on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, 19-year-old dancer Christopher Wheeldon found himself at a loose end. He had recently moved from London to join New York City Ballet. “I hadn’t really made any friends yet and I remember a really lonely Sunday afternoon going to the cinema,” says Wheeldon. “There used to be a great art house at Lincoln Center, called Lincoln Plaza.” The film he saw there was Like Water for Chocolate, an adaptation of the Mexican author Laura Esquivel’s magical realist novel about thwarted love.

“It just really stuck with me,” says Wheeldon. “I’m a bit of a hopeless romantic, I suppose.” Back then, he had no idea that 30 years later he would still be living in New York, now an internationally successful Tony and Olivier award-winning choreographer, turning the movie he saw into a ballet.

Having begun his choreographic career making abstract neoclassical ballets (including Polyphonia, Morphoses and Tryst) based on streamlined beauty, patterning and musicality, Wheeldon has since made his name as a large-scale storyteller, who has tackled everything from the visual spectacle of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to turning The Winter’s Tale, supposedly one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”, into an emotive ballet. He also choreographed and directed a hugely successful stage version of the Gene Kelly film An American in Paris and recently opened the Michael Jackson musical MJ on Broadway.

Esquivel’s novel is unlike any of these shows, but Wheeldon spotted some rich ingredients for ballet in the story of heroine Tita, forbidden from marrying her beloved Pedro because family tradition dictates she must stay at home to care for her demanding mother. As Tita cooks for the family, her emotions are transferred to the food and those who eat it, causing outbreaks of lovesickness and intense desire. Heightened emotions and simmering passion are things ballet does very well, and Wheeldon foresaw great ballerina roles for Tita, her mother and sisters (Francesca Hayward will be the first Tita). “And it’s a very dynamic story,” he says. “There’s a ghost, a band of revolutionaries and, of course, the magic.”

At the outset of the project, Wheeldon visited Esquivel in Mexico City and she cooked him a recipe from the book, a champandongo casserole. “I wouldn’t do this without Laura’s blessing,” he says, aware of the sensitivities of telling stories outside one’s own culture. “We have to make sure we’re asking all the right questions and have permission.”

Wheeldon also worked closely with the Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra and composer Tomás Barreiro, but has no intention of carbon-copying the novel’s world. Having researched a huge array of Mexican folk dances, he decided the best route was to invent his own language. Similarly, the score, by Joby Talbot, combines impassioned melodies and danceable rhythms with only hints of Mexican flavour.

Even the story is abstracted somewhat, its “tightly woven, detailed tapestry” distilled into key relationships to suit ballet’s strengths. Wheeldon is well aware that for those unused to dance, watching even well-known story ballets on stage can be baffling. “I sat in on Swan Lake the other night, and thought: ‘If you’re coming to this for the very first time and you haven’t read what it’s about, you’re going to struggle.’”

That may be why ballet so often falls back on the same old stories, something Wheeldon is no longer interested in. “I don’t think we should be afraid of tackling complex stories and not feeling like the audience has to understand every second; one of the beauties of dance is that we get to escape into this poetic abstraction, even within a story ballet.” Nonetheless, he is planning to send out a synopsis when people get their e-tickets, as well as links to a number of talks he has done about the work’s creation. “If you’re completely confused as to what’s going on, you’re not enjoying yourself; you can be made to feel stupid.”

It is a viewpoint sometimes missed by those, such as Wheeldon, who have been immersed in ballet since childhood. Born in Yeovil, Somerset, he started ballet at eight and was accepted into the Royal Ballet School at 11, based at White Lodge in Richmond Park, west London. He began choreographing straight away. “I was pretty bossy and I liked to organise,” he says, “so it just seemed natural. When the annual choreography competition happened, I was like: ‘Yep, I’m going to enter that and I’m going to win it.’” His first-year entry was chosen to be performed for Princess Margaret. “I was like: ‘Wow, somebody thinks my little piece is good!’ So often in class we were being told that we weren’t any good as dancers. When someone tells you you’re good at something, they give you that confidence – that for me was the big push.”

At White Lodge, it was great to be surrounded by so many other people obsessed with ballet, but the intense competition could be hard. “If you didn’t get selected for something, like The Nutcracker, your name just didn’t go up on the board. Nobody took you aside to talk to you. It’s very different now,” he says. Back then there wasn’t a lot of talking about feelings in general. “Those are really formative years, you’re maturing, and whereas I feel kids now are encouraged to be free about who they are, these were not times when we shared or spoke about any sexual feelings. I think most of the boys in our year were gay and we were all so closeted, we were all terrified our parents were going to disown us. I went to New York to find myself. I wasn’t able to fully express myself as a gay man until I moved away.”

Wheeldon is now happily married, to yoga instructor Ross Rayburn (they have just moved, with their dog, to an apartment block where, coincidentally, the esteemed choreographer George Balanchine used to live). The way we talk about many things has changed since the 90s, and there is a gradual openness in the ballet world to conversations about diversity, body shape, gender, company hierarchy and power dynamics – subjects that previously weren’t addressed. “We’re reassessing what’s considered excellent on stage,” says Wheeldon. “It’s going to take a while. It’s going to be clunky and uncomfortable and awkward, but as long as we’re having the conversations and progress is being made I’m encouraged.”

At White Lodge, students were allowed to put one poster up on their bedroom wall, and, while others had pictures of ballet stars, Wheeldon had a poster of Michael Jackson’s Bad (“I remember being obsessed with that album”). It’s another memory that resonated down the years when Wheeldon was asked to direct and choreograph MJ the Musical, recreating the preparations for Jackson’s 1992-93 Dangerous World Tour. A white, British, ballet-trained choreographer, with no expertise in hip-hop or funk dance styles, Wheeldon was not the obvious directorial choice. “I said that when they asked me! You do know who I am?” But the show’s Pulitzer prize-winning writer Lynn Nottage had seen An American in Paris, and wanted a dance-maker at the helm.

Inevitably, he had reservations about taking it on, because of the complexities of Jackson’s legacy. “Everyone has their own opinion,” he says. “Some people think it’s not appropriate; some people separate the art from the artist. We’re asking, in part, how do we have this conversation about this great body of work that’s going nowhere? We focus on the creative process. Despite the fact he’s so polarising, his music connects. On a nightly basis we have the most diverse audience in New York, all connecting through his music. I don’t regret having done it at all.”

The pressure of creating a Broadway musical is different from making a ballet, “because you’re expected to make people money”, says Wheeldon. But as a result they have much more development time to get things right: numerous workshops before getting into rehearsals, six weeks of previews before press come in. “I still haven’t put two scenes together in Like Water for Chocolate,” he says. When will it come together? “The day before! Honestly, that’s usually what happens. Everything crashes together and then it’s opening night.” It’s a much riskier prospect. “But it’s kind of the excitement, too,” he says. “You just have to jump in at the deep end and get on with it.”

Like Water for Chocolate is at the Royal Opera House, London, 2 to 17 June.

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