Former Smuin dancer and choreographer Rex Wheeler’s presence is both affable and approachable, his dancer’s build at ease in his chair during an exclusive interview. Despite having retired from Smuin one season ago, Wheeler is still no stranger to the stage. He now carefully balances a busy schedule as a choreographer, actor, and drag performer for a variety of companies and organizations across the United States. For Smuin’s first program of the 2019/20 season, Wheeler will be expanding a work originally created for the Company’s 2018 Choreography Showcase. The ballet, Take Five, is set to the iconic music of Dave Brubeck, and will be performed on the Smuin mainstage on the eve of the acclaimed musician’s centennial.
Wheeler has been excited to be back in the studio working with many familiar faces over the last month. “I would say that my work as an actor and as a drag queen has helped me be a little bit braver with some of the choices that I make as a choreographer,” he shared. “I’m not as afraid to take risks now.” The choreographer admitted that he wasn’t always so apt to unabashedly inject himself into his work. During the initial creation of Take Five in 2018, the piece he had been working on had a different tone, more somber and serious. “I think I was forcing myself to create something that I thought would be cool and interesting for people to see. It wasn’t truly authentic to who I am,” he explained. After one particularly long rehearsal day, Wheeler threw in the towel. “I looked at the dancers at the end of one of the rehearsals and said ‘I really don’t like this. This is not fun. We can use some of the steps we’ve choreographed already, but let’s just go in a different direction.’” The choreographer put on Brubeck’s Time Out album and, from that moment onward, the energy shift in the room was perceptible. “We were all having so much fun all of a sudden,” he recalled. “We were throwing things together and just seeing what would happen– it was a very spontaneous process.” This sense of spontaneity led to the creation of a colorful, clever work that elicited audible chuckles and murmurs of approval from its original audience in 2018.
“It’s not often that we really get to let loose and have fun and let our hair down when making art,” Wheeler reflected.
The expanded mainstage premiere of Take Five is comprised of eight different sections, seven of which were choreographed this fall. “I initially choreographed this piece on dancers specifically because of their characters and personalities,” Wheeler explained. “I definitely saw the people in that ballet and capitalized on their personalities and what their sense of humor was like.” While all ballets are unique to the dancers they’re created on, the personal nature of this work has made revisiting it somewhat of a different creative process for the choreographer. Rather than prioritizing casting on who could best execute a step, he focused on who would make the most of the roles they were each assigned while injecting them with their own personalities. Working with the Smuin dancers, Wheeler recalled, has always been a unique experience. Recounting his own time with the Company, Wheeler knew that “at Smuin, the dancers are expected to have the highest level of classical technique, and yet be able to do anything” a choreographer might ask of them. The challenge of working in a variety of dance styles at any given moment helped broaden the choreographer’s artistic point of view. “We were all really pushed as artists at Smuin,” Wheeler mused. “And I think for that reason choreographing has opened up for me, in my mind. I’m definitely more comfortable taking risks, trying out different styles [of dance], and different music as well.” Dancing at Smuin, the choreographer shared, has taught him to always ask the question: “What if?” and to take creative chances not knowing where they might lead. As a result, Take Five “feels very distinctly Smuin– very fun and musical,” while still technically challenging for the dancers to execute. Says Wheeler, “It has a distinct spirit in it that I hope Michael Smuin would enjoy watching.
Take in Rex Wheeler’s mainstage premiere for Smuin, Take Five, alongside Michael Smuin’s iconic Carmina Burana and James Kudelka’s Johnny Cash-inspired ballet The Man in Black this coming September 20- October 6. For more information, visit: https://www.smuinballet.org/2019-20-season/danceseries1/