Peter Martins, ballet master in chief of New York City Ballet, knew he had a winner in Wendy Whelan from the moment he hired her for the corps de ballet in January 1986. “But,” says Martins, “the question was ‘What kind of ballerina would Wendy be?’ She was sort of an unusual ‘bird’ and didn’t fit the mold. But there was never a doubt in my mind that she would reach the very height of possibilities.”
Serious, diligent and determined, Whelan, now celebrating her 20th anniversary with the company, proved her boss right. Built for speed with a naturally slim, athletic body and the flexibility of a pipe cleaner, she honed her technique to perfection, developing a unique angular style that perfectly suited George Balanchine’s abstract ballets.
Although Martins cast her in a wide range of principal roles as she rose through the ranks—becoming soloist in 1989 and principal dancer in 1991—she made her mark and gained critical acclaim in the “leotard ballets” such as Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Episodes, The Four Temperaments and Agon, to name just a few.
Then, about five years ago, two events transformed her career and her life, and a softer, more lyrical side of Whelan emerged: She began working with choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, and she fell in love. Wheeldon, NYCB’s choreographer in residence, cast her in his ballets with Jock Soto, who became her frequent and most symbiotic partner. “I always looked at Wendy as a romantic ballerina in a very unique way,” Wheeldon says. “The romance that she creates onstage is magnetic and tumultuous in stormy relationships. She is strangely vulnerable yet remarkably strong.”
Whelan says, “I started to open up around the time Chris made Polyphonia  for us. I gained confidence and learned to detach my claws from my dancing.”
She also allowed herself to fall in love. Whelan met David Michalek, a fashion photographer, 12 years ago on a photo shoot at his studio in Los Angeles. Whelan wore her exotic “Coffee” costume for the movie The Nutcracker. Michalek placed her on a pedestal for an architectural effect. “This is how I visualized Wendy from the first moment,” he says. Their attraction was immediate, but both were involved in other relationships, and demanding careers and bicoastal logistics made starting something impossible. However, Michalek says, “I never stopped thinking about her. And as mystical as it sounds, I felt we were destined for each other.” Eventually the two reconnected. He moved to New York City, and they married in September 2005.
Whelan arrives at our interview smiling and gracious, her long hair loose, her blue eyes shining. She fills the windowless room at the New York State Theater with easy laughter, when I mention how much she resembles Sarah Jessica Parker. Her naturally friendly personality offstage contradicts her austere elegance onstage that goes with the stark, angular ballets she often performs. Casually chic in a sleeveless georgette blouse and designer jeans, she is glowing with health. (Much has been made of the ballerina’s ultra-thin physique. Whelan says she eats what she wants, when she wants, often burritos and pizza, though she tries to eat more sensibly during the season.) “I feel better in my body than I’ve ever felt in my life,” says 38-year-old Whelan. “Every year I get older, I feel better. It took me a long time.”
Coming straight from a rehearsal for an upcoming performance of two Wheeldon ballets, Polyphonia and Morphoses (2002), Whelan is somewhat apprehensive about dancing the complicated choreography with new partners now that Soto, who originated these roles with her, has retired. Wistfully, she says, “Jock’s maturity and experience are even more profound to me now.”
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, to athletic parents—Whelan’s mother coached college basketball and her father was a runner—Whelan, a super energetic middle child with an older brother and a younger sister, began dance classes at age 3 with local teacher Virginia Wooton. Five years later, Louisville Ballet Artistic Director Alun Jones cast her as a mouse in his production of The Nutcracker. Inspired to follow her dream to become a ballerina, she switched to the Louisville Dance Academy, where she took classes every day, primarily with Robert DiCello, who became her mentor. She says, “He gave me a lot of confidence and focus.”
When Whelan was 11, she was diagnosed with scoliosis. DiCello, who recently passed away, encouraged her to take class even while she was in a full body cast for four months. Whelan remembers DiCello saying to her, “Don’t stop working now. Put on tights and a big T-shirt, and do whatever you can.” When the cast came off in the hospital, Whelan says, “I was doing jetés down the hospital halls, my legs were just going up.” The weight of the cast had made her very strong.
At 13, she was awarded a summer scholarship to School of American Ballet, and, at 15, she moved to New York City and became a full-time student. At this point, she was unstoppable. Whelan says, “They used to call me the bionic ballerina when I was at SAB and asked me, ‘Do you sleep standing up?’”
Early in her career, Whelan lacked confidence and would play, what she calls, “the compare game.” She wanted to dance like the Balanchine ballerinas who were there at the time—Heather Watts, Maria Calegari or really anyone but herself.
In spite of self-doubts as a performer and hang-ups about her looks—she didn’t think she fit the generic beautiful-ballerina part—Whelan’s career took off. Martins chose her as one of the leads in his ballet Les Petite Reins (1987). And she frequently danced major roles even while in the corps. Over time, Whelan also realized that her greatest asset was her uniqueness. “The thing that finally clicked with me,” says Whelan, “is that I didn’t look or dance like anybody else.”
But the breakthrough for Whelan came in 1990 when Jerome Robbins cast her as the lead in his scary “insect” ballet, The Cage. Soto partnered her in the savagely physical pas de deux. It was in this ballet that their chemistry developed, a chemistry that Whelan describes as “that gritty kind of intensity and the comfort with that intensity.” It was also with Soto that she developed a trusting rapport in partnering. Soto remembers saying to her, “Wendy, you got to let me do this. I promise you it will be easier and better.”
With her career firmly on the right track, suddenly, in the late ‘90s, her personal life went off the rails. Whelan’s parents divorced and her personal relationship broke up at the same time. She felt overwhelmed and channeled her energy into her dancing. “So I danced my brains out,” says Whelan, “until I couldn’t do it anymore.” It coincided with the time she was assigned her first Odette/Odile in Peter Martins’ full-length Swan Lake. To build her stamina, she rehearsed her role full out, straight through, for two weeks until she tore a stomach muscle. She was out for five weeks, and she missed her debut in the role in New York City but danced it in Saratoga, NYCB’s summer home.
While injured, she took the time to reevaluate her life and reset her priorities. “I had to let things go and soften up,” she says. Recently, when a foot injury caused her to miss a season, again she refocused: She got engaged, took up cooking and discovered the joy of writing. She wrote the introduction to Angela Whitehill’s book The Nutcracker Backstage: The Story and the Magic.
Whelan credits Wilhelm Burmann, her teacher for 15 years, with building and maintaining her high-voltage technique. Burmann, who teaches at the uptown studio Steps on Broadway, says, “You do the hard work in class and then you can relax onstage.” He also recommends that, “You do more, not less as you grow older, because it takes longer to reactivate the muscles.”
From an early age, Whelan knew herself as a dancer. Though she had connected with the high-energy neoclassical ballets, it took her a long time to find the part of herself that relates to Balanchine ballets like Liebeslieder Walzer and La Sonnambula—dreamy, romantic, distilled. She says, “I totally love those ballets, but I had to learn that internal language and much more of that in the last five years.”
Whelan has also learned to trust herself, to take it easy. “I now think of myself as a big chunk of butter that just melts.” During the season Whelan says, “Peter asks me, from time to time, ‘Are you dancing too much or not enough?’ More or less, ‘What do you need?’” Martins says, “Wendy can do anything. I would certainly let her set the pace.”
Last season included a deeply moving duet in Wheeldon’s After the Rain for Whelan and Soto. Their internal language is almost palpable as the two soul mates express a powerfully tender interaction through seamless partnering. “We knew each other’s instincts onstage,” Soto says. “It’s like we had these antennae. I definitely miss dancing with her.”
For the 2006 winter season, Wheeldon is choreographing a new ballet on Whelan, and perhaps another ballerina, with four men. It will be done to one of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. “Right now I just find Wendy at an absolutely fascinating place in her life and in her career,” Wheeldon says. “She probably is the happiest she has ever been. Wendy is ready for any challenge. She is an interesting artist. She invites creativity.”
From Whelan’s perspective she is exactly were she hoped to be. She says, “I try to put myself in a positive place as often as I can. I know what it is to be happy now, and I feel like I deserve happiness—and that is a big deal.”
Astrida Woods is a frequent contributor to several dance and theater publications in New York City and is the dance editor and critic for Show Business Weekly.