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Wheeldon, Christopher (b. 1973)  
 
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British-born and openly gay, Christopher Wheeldon is one of the most innovative and classical ballet choreographers working in the dance world today. He has created over 50 works to date for some of the most acclaimed ballet companies internationally. In addition, he has made forays into commercial theater and film as well.

As Roslyn Sulcas has noted in the New York Times, Wheeldon is "one of the few [choreographers] to have the potential to keep classical dance a vibrant, evolving form."

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Wheeldon's fundamental qualities as a choreographer, as enumerated by Joseph Carmen in Dance Magazine, include "a highly sophisticated taste in music, an adherence to and reverence for the academic brilliance of ballet technique, a knowledge of how to move dancers in space, and a lucid imagination to match his intelligence."

Additionally, Carmen noted that "Wheeldon has also absorbed much from his choreographic forefathers and yet has processed a style all his own."

Wheeldon's works have often been compared to the ballets of such dance-world luminaries as Sir Kenneth MacMillan, Sir Frederick Ashton, and George Balanchine.

Karen Kain, Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Canada, has observed that Wheeldon "has such a respect for tradition yet he manages to be original." She noted that while the influence of the choreographers that Wheeldon grew up watching can be detected in his dances, "he manages to be inspired by, but not copy, the works of the greats in the British lineage, and still find a way to be contemporary and real and true to himself and true to ballet."

Wheeldon himself has said that his intention when choreographing is "to paint music, to show the complexity and the layers of music through the movement."

Christopher Wheeldon was born on March 22, 1973 in Yeovil, Somerset, which he has called the "heart of rural England." His father, Peter, a choral singer and a clarinetist in his youth, worked as a mechanical engineer, while his mother, Judy, studied ballet and jazz as a child, but ultimately became a physical therapist.

Wheeldon was attracted to music and movement from an early age. While still a young boy, he begged his parents to enroll him in a local ballet school after he watched a filmed production of Sir Frederick Ashton's comic ballet La Fille Mal Gardée.

"There are chickens in the first act [of the ballet]," Wheeldon later explained in an interview. "I think perhaps I was more interested in being a chicken than in being a dancer, and it was through the pestering of my mother--I want to be a chicken! I want to be a chicken!--that she finally said that in order to be a chicken you have to learn how to dance because these are dancing chickens."

Consequently, Wheeldon's parents enrolled him in the nearby East Coker Ballet School. Early on, one of his teachers noted his innate talents and encouraged Wheeldon's parents to audition their son for the Royal Ballet School, one of the premier classical ballet schools in the world. He auditioned for, and was accepted by, the school when he was eight years old.

Wheeldon's parents drove their son twice a week from their home in Somerset to his dance classes for the Royal Ballet School in Richmond Park, London--two and one-half hours each way--for two years. Meanwhile, he attended a local school for his educational studies, where he was cruelly teased and constantly bullied by other students because of his ballet classes.

"It was absolute hell," Wheeldon remembered years later in an interview.

At the age of 11, Wheeldon entered the White Lodge, which houses the Royal Ballet Lower School, for dance students 11 to 16 years of age.

Students within the highly competitive environment of the Lower School were sometimes even more hostile and unkind than his peers at his local Somerset school. "What was unfortunate was that what was said to us by the teachers in the studio was then developed in the dormitories," Wheeldon recalled. "If you were weak, as I was, you were taunted. Words really did hurt."

Nonetheless, Wheeldon's talents continued to flourish. He received his first public notice, at the age of 12, while dancing in a Royal Ballet School production of The Nutcracker at Covent Garden. Clement Crisp, writing in the Financial Times, singled Wheeldon out as a "bright spark," and declared the young boy a "neat, buoyant dancer."

At the age of 17, Wheeldon graduated to the Royal Ballet Upper School.

He also began regularly to enter the school's junior and senior choreography competitions, winning several prizes for his efforts. Subsequently, Sir Kenneth MacMillan, Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet, encouraged Wheeldon to continue with his choreographic pursuits. "You seem to have some talent for choreography," MacMillan told Wheeldon. "You should take every opportunity you have to practice it and make ballets."

The ballet Boxes, a piece about the homeless in London, which Wheeldon choreographed to the music of Benjamin Britten, was awarded the 1990 Ursula Moreton Choreographic Award (named after the former Ballet Principal of the Royal Ballet), bringing Wheeldon further notice at the school.

In January 1991, Wheeldon won the Gold Medal at the prestigious Prix de Lausanne, an annual international dance competition for dancers aged 15 to 18, triumphing over some 110 other competitors.

In October of that same year, Wheeldon was invited to join the corps de ballet of the Royal Ballet.

He danced in the corps of the Royal Ballet while also creating dances for himself and his fellow students until 1992, when he twisted his ankle during a rehearsal. While convalescing, Wheeldon saw a promotion on television for a free round-trip airline ticket to New York City to anyone who bought a Hoover vacuum cleaner. He promptly bought a Hoover, claimed his free ticket, and packed a suitcase with clothes and several tapes of ballets he had choreographed at the Royal Ballet.

Wheeldon arrived in New York and straightaway visited the celebrated New York City Ballet. His ankle having healed sufficiently, Wheeldon asked for permission to take a class with the dance company, which was granted.

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