Podcast Episode 1: Christopher Wheeldon

I’m so excited to finally share the first episode of the Rogue Ballerina podcast! I chatted with the ever-charming Christopher Wheeldon about two of his “reimagined” ballets, his upcoming project on Broadway, and what has kept him busy and sane during the pandemic.

You can access the first episode on Apple Podcasts (which includes Overcast, Castro, Castbox, Pocketcasts, and Podfriend apps), Spotify, and PodcastAddict. It will be available soon on other platforms. Stay tuned for updates. Or, you can listen to it right here!

Choreographer/Director Christopher Wheeldon. Photo by Angela Sterling.

Welcome to the Rogue Ballerina podcast. My first guest is Christopher Wheeldon. If you haven’t heard of him, then you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of decades. He studied and danced at The Royal Ballet, he was a soloist and the first resident choreographer at the New York City Ballet, he was on the cover of Dance Magazine, he founded his own company Morpheses, he choreographed the closing ceremony for the Olympics, and he has has created numerous ballets for companies and operas around the world.

His many awards include an O.B.E. designation from Queen Elizabeth II and a Tony Award for Best Choreography for An American In Paris. If I were to list all of his accolades, we would be here all day, so to learn more go to his website at christopherwheeldon.com. Aside from his many professional accomplishments, he is one of the nicest and most down-to-earth people I know. You can listen to our conversation here.

The Joffrey Ballet’s YouTube page offers many behind-the-scenes videos for Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. You can read the program from the 2016 world premiere here, and you can view the Emmy Award-winning documentary The Making of a New American Nutcracker at wttw.com/nutcracker. The Art on the Mart exhibition mentioned in the podcast was also featured in the Chicago Tribune.

HUGE thanks to Christopher Wheeldon for being such a gracious guinea pig and my brother – Michael Crain – for writing my theme music and sound editing. You can learn more about Ross Rayburn’s yoga classes at Peleton and follow him on Instagtram @rossrayburnyoga.

Don’t forget to subscribe and rate the podcast on your favorite platform, and follow me on social @rogueballerina.

Unpacking

Definition of unpack: transitive verb 1a:?to remove the contents of unpack?a suitcase. b:?UNBURDEN,?REVEAL ??unpack?my heart with words? William Shakespeare. Yes, and…both.

The suitcase in the pic below holds the contents of seven years of my life. It has been sitting in my hallway for almost two months, ever since I cleaned out my cubicle at Joffrey. It haunts me. I am afraid of it. I know when I open and unload its contents that means my time at Joffrey is really over.

Dramatic and cliche, but it has been a rollercoaster of emotions. Extreme highs and lows: one of my best friends and mentor dressed up like a glittery princess and read my book for an LGBTQ family charity – I watched it on my way downtown to clean out my desk; I announced I’m launching a podcast – as I received my final paycheck; I had a really great, creative idea – then realized my insurance runs out on Tuesday. No way around the fact that losing your job fucking sucks. I count myself lucky to have worked with some truly amazing and compassionate people. I miss them daily.

As I dive into projects (freelance writing, blogging, launching the podcast, selling my children’s book, printing a coloring book – more to come on these things later!), I’m also navigating a mountain of paperwork (I hate adulting!) and the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. My job was quite literally my life for seven years and the grief of losing it is very real. At almost eight weeks out, I find myself bobbing between depression and acceptance. Perhaps unpacking that suitcase will be the closure I need.

A Dreamy Dance Video Collaboration

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, the Columbian-Belgian choreographer of international acclaim, brings her talents back to Chicago – virtually, of course. It Was All A Dream is the fifth in a series of video collaborations meant to give artists around the world a way to express themselves during the pandemic when most are confined close to or within their homes. “I wanted to make a diary…what are the artists doing?” said Lopez Ochoa. “These short videos give a stage to the dancers who have been ripped off their stages.”

For the most recent video (released today), Lopez Ochoa teamed up with some of our hometown favorites from The Joffrey Ballet. Jeraldine Mendoza and Dylan Gutierrez, along with their pup Kahlua, are featured in the video. Gutierrez also composed the music, and Xavier N??ez (another Joffrey dancer) edited the video. “The movie is about two dancers dreaming that they go outside,” Lopez Ochoa said. “Hopefully when we all look back at 2020, it will be like a distant, bad dream.”

“Even though it’s about the pandemic, it’s not sad,” said Mendoza. “It’s still light and hopeful.” Gutierrez agrees, “It’s meant to uplift and be fun. It’s a three-minute break.” While all are proud of the final product, the process of creating a short work via Zoom was a bit of a challenge, but one everybody was ready to overcome. Lopez Ochoa had some practice having worked with other artists on videos previously. Her first foray into filmmaking was a learning experience. She obtained a mentor – a Dutch cameraman – who was not impressed by her first effort. He told her to broaden her vision and think 360 degrees around the dancers.

Lopez Ochoa met Mendoza and Gutierrez in 2015 while in Chicago creating the world premiere Mammatus for the Joffrey. They suggested bringing N??ez on board and the process began in May. “At the point when she asked us, we hadn’t been doing anything,” Mendoza said. “We were obviously excited to work with Annabelle, but also excited to have a schedule and something to work towards.” Described by the choreographer as “contemporary classical with a pedestrian touch,” it really creates the feel of a day in the life of the couple. And aside from the cameos of Kahlua, the real star of the video is the city of Chicago.

The connecting of choreography, music, and video editing make it a true collaboration. One facet does not overtake the others. Gutierrez had worked with Lopez Ochoa previously on music for her piece Delicious Pesticides and their process was refined for this project. With N??ez coming on to edit, it was more of a journey. “I knew from editing the other films that you always have to translate,” Lopez Ochoa said. “He was very respectful of the choreography, but I told him that once you put it on video, it becomes something else. You have to remake the choreography. This is just material for you to play with.” N??ez accepted the challenge and the team worked together on the final product (which was changing up to the last minute). “It was evolving the whole time,” Gutierrez said. “We weren’t sure if the order should stay the same as how it was choreographed. It really speaks to Xavi’s creativity to take something he’d already finished and completely mix it up. It’s so cool and so hard to deconstruct something and make it better.”

Technical artistry aside, the real upside to the project was dancing…actually dancing. Like most companies, the Joffrey has been “off” since mid-March. There are daily classes offered, but that can get redundant and how many battements can you do holding on to your kitchen counter before you go crazy? (Can someone do this experiment? I’d really like to know.) “It was really nice,” said Mendoza. “The motivating factor was Annabelle watching us. To have someone watch us, direct us, tell us what to do, what intention we should have behind the steps…it keeps you going. You get lost in the moment. It was really reminiscent of going back to work.” Lopez Ochoa adds,”The most interesting part as a choreographer in the studio or on Zoom, is not making steps, but talking about intentions and seeing dancers transform and commit to the character or the situation they are playing. That’s when they can lose themselves. It’s beautiful to watch.” Well, watch for yourself.

The Bitch Is Back

Hiiiiieeeeee! It’s me. Rogue. It’s been a while…almost four years since my last post and since 2013 they have been few and far between. I suddenly find myself with a LOT of time on my hands, so look out. The Bitch Is Back.?(Sorry Mom, but it’s kind of my brand.)

Rogue at Dance For Life. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

For the last seven years, I worked in the Marketing department at The Joffrey Ballet. It was the most challenging, difficult, amazing, and rewarding experience of my professional work life. Some of those memories I hope to reflect on in this space. To have that suddenly gone is personally devastating, but hopefully soon, the grieving process will end and I will be left with only happy memories (read: unlimited viewings of The Nutcracker!).

I’ve spent most of my life in some way dedicated to dance as a dancer, teacher, administrator, writer, critic, marketer, and patron. It’s what I love. So, heads up! If you’re involved in the dance community in Chicago, the U.S. or abroad, I will be reaching out for interviews. I’m almost 52, and I have a lot of shit left to do. Let’s get to it. Go rogue.