Christopher Wheeldon’s new ballet “Estancia,” which premiered in May in New York City and will be presented at the New York City Ballet’s gala on July 10, has all the elements that should thrill the crowd: uplifting, joyous music written by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera, dancers prancing as horses, cowgirls and city slickers, and beautifully painted scenery to evoke the green and wide open spaces of the pampas.
But the choice of using Ginastera’s music almost didn’t happen. “I was considering Stravinsky’s “Concerto for Piano and Winds” up to the last second,” Wheeldon said.
What swung his interest to the Ginastera was that Lincoln Kirstein, one of the founders of the ballet company, had commissioned Ginastera in 1941 to write the score, but George Balanchine never got around to choreographing it.
“I found that very appealing, especially as part of this season’s Architecture of Dance,” Wheeldon said.
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He prefers to start with the music as inspiration, and the Ginastera was an instant attraction on first hearing. “I thought, ‘Wow! This is terrific, uplifting music,’ ” he said. “I’ve got to do a ballet to this.”
Ginastera had provided a bit of a synopsis: A city boy visits a cattle ranch (estancia) where horses are tamed, and falls for one of the cowgirls. He learns about horses and she wins him. As Wheeldon worked to create moves, he found the story needed expansion, so Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli was hired.
The 30-minute piece is episodic and Wheeldon worked to create dramatic movements to peak with the music. Although the work is a big company piece, he said, he had certain dancers in mind for the lead roles.
“The dancers like dancing the ballet and the audiences are able to connect to it. It’s not deep. It’s easy to follow,” he said.
This ballet marks almost 50 that Wheeldon has created since 2000, when he retired as a dancer from the New York City Ballet.
Born in 1973 in Somerset, England, he began his ballet training at 8 and later attended the Royal Ballet School for seven years before joining the Royal Ballet in 1991. Two years later, in what he calls a “fateful time” while recovering from an injury, he heard that if anyone sold a Hoover vacuum, the person would receive a free plane ticket to America. He sold the vacuum, got his ticket and flew to New York City, where he obtained an audition with the City Ballet and was promptly offered a position with the company.
“It’s hard to believe, but it’s true,” he said laughing.
Although he’d created dances as a child, he said, he became more serious about choreography in the late 1990s when he began doing small ballets for American Ballet workshops. He never received any formal training in choreography, but dancing Balanchine and Jerome Robbins works provided insight on how to break down music and feel it through a dancer’s body.
His reputation grew as his skills progressed and in 2001 he became NYCB’s resident choreographer, a postition he held until 2008. These days, he works freelance on projects up to a year in advance. He said he loves working with living composers — something he called a great luxury — and always is looking for the next idea.
“The music search is a big part of being a choreographer,” he said. “But I have a broad taste and a huge collection that I can dive into.”
“Estancia” will also be performed on July 15, at the 2 p.m. matinee.