Wendy Whelan is taking a busman’s holiday from her day job, which, many would agree, is being the preeminent ballerina at New York City Ballet (and maybe everywhere else). In a master class at Jacob’s Pillow, she’s telling 22 pre-professionals they’re “awesome” as she gives corrections and hard-won performance tips. Afterwards, she cheerfully poses arm-in-arm with each of the students, who capture mementos on their cells. Finally, she folds herself into a chair as they sprawl on the floor to ask questions.

Like her dancing, her responses are bracingly forthright and, when appropriate, poetic. How she came to the School of American Ballet from Louisville at 15. How she joined NYCB in 1984, right after the death of George Balanchine. How much she loved “the modernity, the economy, the attack” of his choreography. How her super-strong technique and angular physiognomy propelled her into the “tomboy” parts rather than the “girly-girl” roles she hankered after. And how the sleek, contemporary look that caused her (and her critics) grief was appealing not just to her bosses, Peter Martins and Jerome Robbins, but to the outside choreographers who came to NYCB to make new work. They offered the “huge gift,” she says, of seeing more in her than she saw in herself.

She expounds on her favorite ballet (Liebeslieder Walzer), her biggest challenge (full-lengths), the choreographer she most regrets not having worked with (Jirí Kylián). When someone asks for a prescription for career success, she offers two words: “Try everything.”

Whelan is emphatically not the “do as I say, not as I do” type. In recent years, she’s ventured away from the familiar precincts of Lincoln Center to work with downtown eminences like Shen Wei, Dwight Rhoden and Stephen Petronio. She’s dipped a toe into film, acting in Pontus Lidberg’s Labyrinth Within. And now, at 46, with the end of her ballet career on the horizon, she’s in full “try everything” mode.

She explains that to her, ballet feels something like her child. “This is the one thing I’ve cared for, cultivated and thought about for my whole life,” she says. “It’s not something I can imagine throwing away. I can only imagine cultivating it more, in a different way. When you look at your art as your child, you will do whatever it takes to feed it, because you want it to thrive.”

Which is precisely why Whelan is at the Pillow. Temporarily discarding her pointe shoes, she will be dancing later in the summer with four postmodern choreographers in an evening-length program of duets they have made especially for her—“sort of like taking my child and putting it in a new school,” she says. She calls the project Restless Creature—“restless” because that’s why her mother put her in dance class as a toddler, and “creature” because it springs from the verb “create.”

“Come back in August,” she tells the Pillow students with a laugh, “and you can see Wendy thug.”

The thugging comes by way of the hip-hop roots of Kyle Abraham. When Whelan first saw him at the Fall for Dance Festival, she thought, “If I could feel what it’s like to slip into his shoes for a minute and to dance like that, it would be just phenomenal.” Asked if he’d be interested in joining Restless Creature, Abraham assumed Whelan was joking. “I started laughing,” he recalls. “And she said, ‘Would you ever consider making something on me?’ I was like, ‘Who wouldn’t?’”

Three other choreographers also said yes. Joshua Beamish made Waltz Epoca, a sometimes acidic elaboration on waltzing; Brian Brooks gave her First Fall, a striking exploration of gravity (first performed at Vail International Dance Festival); and Alejandro Cerrudo created Ego et Tu, an intricate study in close coordination. Bringing her ballet-bred clarity and dramatic intensity to each of these works, she looked right at home—fluid, rigid or acrobatic, as needed.

“Ballet—technique-wise—is about making shapes,” she says. “These are a little bit more internal, like how your core is twisting to make that movement turn into that shape. It’s coming from the inside out.” The choreography has moved her out of her comfort zone, none more than Brooks’. “His sort of codependent choreography, where we are moving each other’s limbs around to make the dance, is nothing I’ve ever done before,” she notes.

It’s not every day that ballet stars seek out such grounded, unfamiliar territory, though Mikhail Baryshnikov and Diana Vishneva have both made excursions into modern dance. “Working with contemporary choreographers kept Misha so invigorated and creative, and, I think, inspired,” she says. “I wanted to try to follow that kind of lead. People think, ‘Misha’s Misha.’ I see that, but I also see that I can do it for myself, in my way.”

Whelan’s creative partnership with Christopher Wheeldon, who’s made 13 ballets on her, helped lay the foundation. “Because I was older than him and a little bit more experienced, he gave me a little more collaborative freedom,” she says. “I could tell Chris what felt right out of a movement, or he would respond to a choice I made. In a ballet company, the creative part is very often dictated to you: ‘This is what you do; this is the step.’ But to me, being part of making something is exciting.”

Another spur was the Shen Wei solo she danced with Peter Boal and Company, the chamber troupe begun in 2003 by her former NYCB colleague. Boal told her he’d commission a piece from anyone she selected, and she was thrilled. “I‘d never been able to choose who I wanted to work with,” she says.

Then her husband, photographer and filmmaker David Michalek, made Slow Dancing, the mesmerizing outdoor video installation that was part of the 2007 Lincoln Center Festival. “I got to be a part of the process of watching how he chose who he chose,” she says. “And when I saw the finished product—the three screens—every night, it became this conversation. I was really inspired seeing Allegra Kent dancing next to Lil’ C and Shantala Shivalingappa. I became aware of how open this art form could be.”

Her enthusiasm energizes choreographers. You can see it at a rehearsal of Abraham’s The Serpent and the Smoke. Whelan concentrates her attention on every word Abraham says and every move he makes. You sense her fierce dedication to getting it right, her hunger to challenge her body, her joy in being his instrument. As Cerrudo says, “She listens; she’s there; she trusts. That’s priceless.”

Of course for Whelan, Restless Creature isn’t just about the studio. She’s had to dive into the administrative end of the dance world, raising money and putting together the design team. “It’s exactly what I need in my life right now,” she says, “learning all that stuff that’s very challenging and time-consuming and absolutely essential to keep the art form alive for yourself, and in general.”

It was a quirk of fate that gave her the time: a labral tear curtailed her ability to dance the full NYCB repertoire. She counts herself lucky—her injuries have been few and far between, despite the girlhood scoliosis that required four years in a back brace. “Last year at this time, I wasn’t injured, and I thought, ‘Next year I’m going to transform myself.’ But I honestly don’t know if I could have done it without this injury. It’s a sort of a weird blessing, because I had the time to rethink my body.”

But for all her talk of art and transformation, Whelan gives off a remarkably down-to-earth vibe. “She’s not even a diva trying not to be a diva,” Cerrudo likes to say. So it’s no surprise when she lets slip a totally down-to-earth motivation for the whole enterprise. “I’ve had such a great rapport with Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky,” she says. “And I’ve always secretly wanted to dance with them. I just love being in the studio with them and moving next to them and trying to understand their ideas—I needed more of that. So I’m getting it for myself.”



Restless Creature Tour Schedule

DATES                      VENUE
Mar 18, 2014           McCarter Theatre Center (Princeton, NJ)
Mar 20, 2014           Harris Theater (Chicago, IL)
Mar 22, 2014           Byham Theater (Pittsburgh, PA)
Mar 25, 2014           Power Center (Ann Arbor, MI)
Mar 28–29, 2014      Citi Shubert Theatre (Boston, MA)
Apr 1–6, 2014          The Joyce Theater (New York, NY)
Apr 9, 2014              The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts (Louisville, KY)
Apr 11, 2014            Carolina Performing Arts (Chapel Hill, NC)
Jul 22–26, 2014        Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House (London, UK)
















































Video still by Nel Shelby Productions, Courtesy Dancio.

"What if you could learn from the world's best dance teachers in your living room?" This is the question that Dancio poses on their website. Dancio is a new startup that offers full length videos of ballet classes taught by master teachers. As founder Caitlin Trainor puts it, "these superstar teachers can be available to students everywhere for the cost of a cup of coffee."

For Trainor, a choreographer and the artistic director of Trainor Dance, the idea for Dancio came from a sense of frustration relatable to many dancers; feeling like they need to warm up properly before rehearsals, but not always having the time, energy or funds to get to dance class. One day while searching the internet for a quick online class, Trainor was shocked to not be able to find anything that, as she puts it, "hit the mark in terms of relevance and quality. I thought to myself, how does this not exist?" she says. "We have the Daily Burn for Fitness, YogaGlo for yogis, Netflix for entertainment and nothing for dancers! But then I thought, I can make this!" And thus, Dancio (the name is a combination of dance and video), was born.


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New York City Ballet in "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy Lincoln Center.

Nutcracker season is upon us, with productions popping up in on stages in big cities and small towns around the country. But this year you can catch New York City Ballet's famous version on the silver screen, too. Lincoln Center at the Movies and Screen Vision Media are presenting a limited engagement of NYCB's George Balanchine's The Nutcracker at select cinemas nationwide starting December 2. It stars Ashley Bouder as Dewdrop and Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz as the Sugarplum Fairy and Cavalier.

While nothing beats seeing a live performance (the company's theatrical Nutcracker run opens Friday), the big screen will no doubt magnify some of this production's most breathtaking effects: the Christmas tree that grows to an impressive 40 feet, Marie's magical spinning bed, and the stunning, swirling snow scene. Click here to find a participating movie theater near you—then, go grab some popcorn.

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Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet rehearsing for "The Sleeping Beauty" for the 2017/18 season. Photo by Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.

Today the Pennsylvania Ballet's board of trustees announced the appointment of Shelly Power as its new executive director. Having been involved in the five-month international search, company artistic director Angel Corella said in a statement released by PAB that he's "certain Shelly is the best candidate to lead the administrative team that supports the artistic vision of the company." Power's official transition will begin in February. This news comes at the end of a few years of turmoil and turnover at PAB, including the departure of former executive director David Gray in June.

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Tiler Peck with Andrew Veyette in "Allegro Brillante." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy New York City Ballet.

"I was particularly excited when I saw my name on casting for Allegro Brillante in 2009," remembers principal dancer Tiler Peck. "Balanchine had said Allegro was, 'everything I know about classical ballet in 13 minutes,' and of course that terrified me." To calm her fear, Peck followed her regular process for debuts: begin by going back to the original performers to get an idea of the quality and feeling of the ballet and ballerina. "It is never to imitate, but rather to surround myself with as much knowledge from the past as I can so that I can find my own way," says Peck.

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Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'The Nutcracker.' Photo by Rich Sofranko

Catching a performance of The Nutcracker has long been a holiday tradition for many families. And now, more and more companies are adding sensory-friendly elements to specific shows in an effort to make the classic ballet inclusive to children and adults with special needs.

While the accommodations vary depending on the company, many are presenting shorter versions of the ballet with more relaxed theater rules. Additionally, lower sound and stage light levels during the performance, as well as trained staff on hand, make The Nutcracker more accessible for those on the autism spectrum and others with special needs.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's performance will take place on Tuesday, December 26th, and they are one of the pioneer companies in presenting sensory-friendly performances of The Nutcracker (their first production was in 2013). PBT has also offered sensory-friendly versions of Jorden Morris' Peter Pan and Lew Christensen's Beauty and the Beast in the past.

See our list of sensory-friendly performances, and check out each site for all of the details regarding their offerings.

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Pilates hundred intermediate set-up, modeled by Jordan Miller. Photo by Emily Giacalone.

The Pilates hundred is a popular exercise used by many dancers for conditioning and warming up, but it's also one of the most misunderstood. Pumping your arms for 100 counts sounds simple enough, but it requires coordinated breathwork, a leg position that suits your abilities and proper alignment. Marimba Gold-Watts, who works with New York City Ballet dancers at her Pilates studio, Articulating Body, breaks down this surprisingly hard exercise. When done correctly, the benefits are threefold: "If you're doing it before class," she says, "the hundred is a great way to get your blood flowing and work on breath control and abdominal support all at once."

To Start

Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Nod your chin toward the front of your throat, and reach your fingertips long.

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At just 16 years old, the Bolshoi Ballet's Maria Alexandrova already had the makings of a great artist. In this variation from Coppélia, she portrays the carefree Swanilda with blithe, youthful ease.

When she bounds on stage in her perky pink tutu, you immediately notice her legs–they just go on forever. In the first sequence of steps she keeps her jetés and développés low, but then the phrase repeats and she lets her gorgeous extensions fly. She sails through Italian fouettés and whirls around in piqués en manège that get faster and faster. While she nails all the virtuosic movement, Alexandrova also pays beautiful attention to detail throughout the variation. Even the simplest steps become something exciting, like her precise pas de bourrées beginning at 1:03 that sing with musicality.

Swanilda has been one of Alexandrova's signature roles throughout her career. For a fun side by side, watch her perform the same variation almost 20 years later in this video. Although Alexandrova formally retired from the Bolshoi in February, she still performs frequently in Moscow and internationally as a guest artist. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!


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