“I knew this was where I would begin, but beyond that, it was anyone’s guess; the other pieces seemed like a complicated web of rhythm and atonality—grotesquely poetic to an extent that I found interesting, yet deeply intimidating.”—Christopher Wheeldon

As a 12-year-old piano student, Christopher Wheeldon bridled when he was forced to play the atonal music of Györgi Ligeti. Years later, the maverick choreographer revisited the Hungarian composer’s difficult, even frightening, music, using it as inspiration for three groundbreaking ballets. Here, Wheeldon discusses his choreographic process in detail, and relates the importance of being deeply challenged by a work of art. The essay is accompanied by a portfolio of images by David Michalek featuring New York City Ballet principal dancers Jock Soto and Wendy Whelan.

Originally a New York City Ballet soloist, Christopher Wheeldon was named the company’s first resident choreographer in 2001. In 2007, he founded Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company and was appointed an associate artist for Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London. Wheeldon has choreographed works for the Royal Ballet, the Metropolitan Opera, the Joffrey Ballet, and the Bolshoi Ballet, among many others. He received a 2014 Tony Award for Best Choreography for the Broadway revival of An American in Paris and was the director and choreographer of MJ: The Musical (2021). In 2023, he was a jury member at Prix de Lausanne ballet competitions.

Artist David Michalek is a freelance portrait photographer who creates performance-based work and multidisciplinary installations. His work has been shown at the Brooklyn Museum, the Venice Biennale, Lincoln Center, and many other national and international spaces. He is a Lecturer in Religion and Visual Arts at Yale University.