Christopher Wheeldon brings ‘An American in Paris’ to Philly

When“An American in Paris”opens atthe Academy of Musicfor its Philadelphia premiere (Nov. 22-27), its remix of the classic MGM musical starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron and featuring original songs by George and Ira Gershwin actually comes second in order of importance to who directed it:Christopher Wheeldon. The British-born, world-renowned choreographer has crafted and adapted over 90 modernist ballets, and won the 2015 Tony Award for choreography for “An American in Paris,” which also marked his stage directorial debut. Plus, he’s in the Order of the British Empire (OBE) to boot.

Certainly we’ll discuss “An American in Paris,” but you have great ties with the PA Ballet in that you’re bringing “Rush” here in May 2017. You must love us.
I do. My affiliation with your ballet goes back a long way as I made“Swan Lake”there 12 years ago. That same production just had its premiere in Rome. It’s nice to see that “Swan” with life after Philly. I’ve had several opportunities for the PA Ballet to dance my work since then, with “Rush” — a one-act, plotless work meant to capture the energy of California — being my seventh time with your company. It’s brightly colored, high-energy joyous dancing.

Did you create a similar opportunity for “An American in Paris” or did it fall into your lap? Was the MGM film wildly inspiring from the start?

I was approached by its producers who had acquired the rights to the MGM property who were interested in finding a director-choreographer rather than two separate entities. I wasn’t entirely sure that I was confident enough to make this my debut as a director. After I got paired up for a few directors I liked, but who ultimately weren’t interested, I took over.

What was your immediate vision for it, one that could change our traditional viewpoint of the whole Gene Kelly-Leslie Caron classic?
Listen, I felt immediately close with my fellow collaborators Craig Lucas and Rob Fisher who were given the blessings of the Gershwins, and we quickly came up with this concept, an idea we felt that was more truthfully based in historical context. Immediately after World War II is when they made the movie, so we wanted to play to that honesty, maybe vent something that the Gershwins, Gene Kelly and Vincent Minnelli wanted to make back then but couldn’t. They were, maybe, in a way …

… Hampered by MGM and its vision of the sunny and bright?
[Laughs] Yes. And the film is a beautiful work; amazingly joyous. We were confident though that we could make a work that still paid homage to the original and yet be our own version.

So, it’s the feel-bad-musical of the season; post-war detritus and all.

[Laughs] I think we thought that our vision of joy and romance would be more potent because it came from a darker place. These characters, in reality, would have been struggling — as would Paris have been — to regain light, life and inspiration after such devastation.

Certainly you’re not trying to ape the movie, but, in casting such iconic roles from “American in Paris,” what are you looking for in the expatriate artist and his muse?
We’d be foolish to think that we could emulate such great stars, but, we did look for performers that could capture the performances from the movie while feeling fresh. Part of how I did that was take some of the dance away from the language of tap and add in more ballet.

So how does Gershwin’s score, classically elegant and majestically jazzy as it is, fit now into your vision?

It was an interesting project, the Broadway show, as I had made “An American in Paris” ballet for the New York City Ballet, so this was long in my head, like nine years previous. That was more of a picture-perfect postcard to Paris and Kelly. This Broadway version is more abstract in its look, but gets to the heart of the matter with its romance between the two protagonists. They finally get together. That gave me a way to hear and express their music in a different way; to explore it with a different choreographic language.

You retired from dancing in 2000. Do you miss it?
I actually do. Occasionally. I should say that, at the time, I absolutely made the right decision. I really only ever miss it when I revisit old ballets that I enjoy dancing. There’s nothing like being in a studio with a choreographer, hashing out ideas and collaborating. Plus, I used to get nervous when dancing now which I don’t miss. I still move around a bit.

I know that you received an OBE from the queen. Where do you keep the sash and objet and do you ever just pull it out and say “Look at me, I have an OBE”?

[Laughs] I have it rather sheepishly displayed upon a cabinet in my apartment. It’s a very beautiful objet and yes, I bring it out for a viewing. I half-jokingly said to my husband that perhaps we should put up a shelf in the toilet for such awards. That’s where most people would look at them. Huge honor, still.

This article is part of Metro’s Winter Arts Guide, on newsstands in Boston, Philly and New York on Friday.

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