NEW YORK -- At the end of the all-Christopher Wheeldon evening at New York City Ballet this weekend, the choreographer came out alone for a curtain call. The crowd stood and cheered. It would have been a rare moment for any choreographer, let alone one who isn't yet 40.
Wheeldon looks even younger than his 38 years, and may always seem like a wunderkind. But he's already created more than 40 ballets and is steadily burnishing a reputation as one of the world's very top choreographers.
The occasion Saturday at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater had the air of a festive homecoming. Wheeldon, a former NYCB dancer, was the company's first artist in residence, and then resident choreographer, before he left in 2008 to form a new company, Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company, with huge expectations on his young shoulders.
The experiment ended unhappily a few years later (the company continues without his name, and without him). But his success only grows – he's been choreographing up a storm for companies worldwide, and will even create a dance for the closing ceremonies at this year's London Olympics. And here he was, with an all-Wheeldon evening at City Ballet – an honor usually reserved for the late greats George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.
First up was a world premiere, "Les Carillons," set to Georges Bizet's "L'Arlesienne" suites. A romantic and colorful romp for 20 dancers, the work featured some of the company's top ballerinas, including the veteran Wendy Whelan and the newer generation of stars, Sara Mearns and Tiler Peck. With its 19th-century music but contemporary choreographic flourishes, the work felt, appealingly, old and new at the same time.
If "Les Carillons" (the title refers to a set of bells) was well received, it still felt a little like a work in progress, without the tightness and punch of the 2001 "Polyphonia," one of Wheeldon's best-loved works. Alas, on Saturday this terrific ballet, beautifully performed, was also an occasion for sadness.
In the third of its 10 sections, principal dancer Jennie Somogyi, in the midst of a pas de deux with Gonzalo Garcia, suddenly faltered and gasped. She had, it later emerged, torn the Achilles tendon in her right foot. The ballerina limped offstage, in obvious pain. An entire audience winced in sympathy.
Within moments, though, Peck, who knew the role but hadn't danced it in months, was mobilized. Alerted by loudspeaker as she was getting her hair done for the third ballet, she threw on some pointe shoes and another dancer's costume, had a quick rehearsal in the wings, and swept onstage minutes after the injury, in time for Somogyi's entrance in the seventh section. It went off without a hitch, and the pinch-hitting ballerina deservedly got an extra-loud ovation at the curtain call.
The final ballet of the evening was Wheeldon's crowd-pleasing "DGV: Danse a Grande Vitesse (Dance at High Speed)" – a playful twist on the term for France's high-speed train, the TGV. To the churning, driving music of modern composer Michael Nyman, the ballet examines the concept of high-speed movement, and features a cool, apocalyptic-looking set of twisted metal by Jean-Marc Puissant.
Standouts here were the wonderfully lithe Teresa Reichlen, with those impossibly long legs, and a terrifically intense Ashley Bouder, whose flexed-foot lifts with partner Joaquin de Luz transformed her into a spoke on a wheel.
In all, it was, despite the sadness of Somogyi's injury, a wonderful night of ballet – and yet another sign that Wheeldon is one of the most popular and promising choreographers of his time.