Last month The School at Jacob's Pillow announced a major change to its historic summer ballet program, which boasts alumni at companies including American Ballet Theatre, Pennsylvania Ballet and Dutch National Ballet. This summer, rather than focusing on coaching dancers in the traditional, story-driven classical repertoire, the intensive makes the shift to contemporary ballet. Directed by former Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet director Alexandra Damiani and BalletX co-founder Matthew Neenan, the Contemporary Ballet Program will work to engage students in the development of new work and the ever-adapting repertoire (including pointe work) it requires.
Former New York City Ballet prima and longtime Jacob's Pillow participant Wendy Whelan played a large role in the decision making process. We touched base with Whelan to hear about what went into this decision, and whether she thinks that this focus on contemporary training represents a growing trend in the ballet world.
Fall for Dance FestivalWonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.
Last summer Claudia Schreier & Company made its debut at The Joyce Theater as part of the 2017 Joyce Ballet Festival. This is a huge deal for any young choreographer, made all the more poignant for Schreier in an age where conversations around gender and race in ballet are omnipresent. Yesterday, Schreier announced the release of a short documentary titled Sixth Position , which follows her preparations for the festival. Luckily, the whole documentary is available online, free of charge—we've included it below. Artfully made with beautiful rehearsal shots and muted colors, Sixth Position gives Schreier a new platform on which to share her creative process and her thoughts on the importance of inclusion and equality in choreography. Another highlight? If last summer's release of Restless Creature only whetted your appetite for seeing Wendy Whelan onscreen, you can catch more of her here; Schreier made a new work on Whelan which premiered at the 2017 festival.
Fall is in full swing; as the weather grows cooler, all we want to do is curl up with an autumnal treat (try these four pumpkin recipes) and a good movie. Luckily, Netflix has some of our favorite dance documentaries available for streaming. So next time you're settling down for a night in, look no further for what to watch; these films are sure to leave you inspired and even more in love with ballet.
Restless Creature, 2017
After limited release in theaters this summer, we're thrilled that Restless Creature has made it to Netflix. This emotional documentary follows former New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan as she makes the decision to retire from the company that she called home for 30 years. With plenty of dance footage (starting with her childhood training in Louisville, Kentucky), Restless Creature offers an intimate portrait of one of the world's most famous modern ballerinas.
A Ballerina's Tale, 2015
A Ballerina's Tale tells the story of Misty Copeland's rise to the top. Released just before her promotion to principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, the film follows Copeland as she overcomes self doubt and injury while making history as an African American ballerina. Interviews with Copeland and footage of her dancing are coupled with the voices of other black women who have been the first in their fields.
Company class is a little more exciting these days at Pacific Northwest Ballet. Look over in the corner of the studio and it's obvious why—Wendy Whelan is here. Dressed in a vest, with her pants tucked into her socks, one might almost forget that her name is virtually synonymous with the term ballet. But watch her do a devéloppé and you instantly remember. Her collection of accomplishments is extensive—classical ballerina, freelance artist, inspirational teacher, or even, as of late, documentary film star. But now, she's adding another new hat: ballet stager.
As dancers, we know we have a short window of time to achieve as much as we can before our bodies start working against us—and then what? For former New York City Ballet star Wendy Whelan, the thought of transitioning out of ballet after a 30-year career was particularly hard to grasp. Remarkably honest and down-to-earth, Whelan allowed cameras to capture this incredibly vulnerable moment in her career; the resulting documentary, Restless Creature, opens in New York City on May 24, L.A. on June 9, and will have a wider release this summer. In it, we watch her grapple with a debilitating hip injury and her looming retirement before embracing a new career in contemporary dance.
Iconic ballerina Wendy Whelan enjoyed a groundbreaking career, both in length and breadth. She danced with New York City Ballet for 30 years and has had more roles made for her than nearly any other ballerina. Despite her accomplishments, the last few years of her career at NYCB were riddled with worsening injuries and a creeping sense that others saw her as in decline. Whelan, like most dancers, knew her desire to perform would outlast what her body could do—at least within the confines of ballet.
Restless Creature, the new documentary covering her transition out of NYCB, hits select theaters in New York on May 24. It gives us a chance to look back on one of the most fraught times in Whelan's life, when she was giving her all onstage at the Koch Theater, yet battling pain and self-doubt offstage.
When ballet icon Wendy Whelan met contemporary choreographer Brian Brooks at Fire Island five years ago, she had no idea it would lead to a larger collaboration. Now, the two are performing a program of solos and duets called Some of a Thousand Words. This month, they'll return to the Festival—a benefit for Dancers Responding to AIDS—to dance an excerpt. Pointe spoke with Whelan about the project.
What draws you to the Fire Island Dance Festival?
I like that we're coming together for a benefit. It's more open-hearted than a gala. I've had a lot of very, very, very close people—mentors, partners, collaborators—who have died from AIDS or are dealing with AIDS or HIV today. They're some of the most important people I've connected with.
How does Brooks' partnering style differ from ballet?
What we've done together is very intertwined—our two bodies really need to rely on each other. It's not generally about one person, like Balanchine's idea of "ballet is woman." It's the antithesis of that. It's equal.
What about your solo on the program? Did you choreograph it?
No. Choreographing isn't my thing, but it is such Brian's thing. That said, he gave me certain material and asked me to arrange it. I got to blend what went into what, how it started, how it ended. So I almost choreographed it. [laughs] But I didn't. I am an arranger.
As students head into summer intensives this season, do you have any advice for them as they approach master classes with new teachers?
Just remember that teachers teach what they know--no teacher knows everything. Be open to what each has to offer. Take it, store it, and keep adding and building with other people's knowledge of the art form. And then hopefully--it did this for me--it will guide you to who you are as a dancer and what you like to do.
See Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks at the Fire Island Dance Festival, July 16-17, or enter our ticket giveaway below for their July 30 show at Jacob's Pillow.
Six years ago, New York City Ballet principal Daniel Ulbricht and Erin Fogarty, director of programming at Manhattan Youth Ballet, teamed up to create Dance Against Cancer. The annual benefit for the American Cancer Society brings together ballet, modern and Broadway dancers, with every performer donating their own time. Pointe spoke with Ulbricht before this year's event, Apr. 25 at the AXA Equitable Theater in New York City.
November in NYC is rich with stars and shows that can't be missed.
From November 3–8, Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto reunite onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for Hagoromo, a production that uses elements of Japanese Noh theater to tell the story of an angel who falls to earth. Though Whelan will always remain an iconic ballerina, the show will undoubtedly reveal new elements of her artistry by pushing her into uncharted territory.
Troy Schumacher's BalletCollective will have its fall season at the NYU Skirball Center on November 4–5. Invisible Divide will feature two world premieres and two older works. The company includes dancers from New York City Ballet, performing Schumacher's athletic, vibrant choreography. After his second successful premiere for NYCB's fall season, we're all looking forward to what Schumacher will do next.
The legendary Sylvie Guillem will grace the stage in the U.S. for the last time, November 12–14. Her touring show, Life in Progress will stop at the New York City Center and will feature work made especially for Guillem, as well as a tribute to influential choreographer William Forsythe.
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This November, recently retired New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan will return to the stage alongside her longtime NYCB partner Jock Soto. The Brooklyn Academy of Music will present Hagoromo, a production directed by Whelan's husband, the artist David Michalek.
Hagoromo is a classic story of Japanese Noh theater, which dates to the 14th century and combines music, storytelling and dance. The story tells of a humble fisherman who finds an angel's robe and must return it to her so that she doesn't die. The show will feature contemporary choreography by David Neumann and three silicone puppets, cast from Whelan's own body, by Chris Green. Pointe spoke with Whelan before the premiere.
Photo by Sean Malyon, Courtesy Royal Opera House
I’m still getting over goose bumps from watching Wendy Whelan in Restless Creature at the Joyce Theater two weeks ago. But now that her tour is over, this former New York City Ballet star isn’t taking any sort of break. July 9–12, she’s pairing up with Royal Ballet principal Edward Watson for an evening of five—yes, five—world premieres at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre in London. Called Whelan/Watson: Other Stories, the program features three duets by contemporary choreographers Arthur Pita, Danièle Desnoyers and Javier de Frutos. Whelan will also perform a solo by Annie-B Parson, and Watson a solo by Arlene Philips.
The program is slated to tour to New York’s City Center in the spring of 2016. But—and this is a very big but—both artists are offering a preview June 14 and 15 (as in, this weekend) at the Guggenheim Museum’s Works and Process Series. The pair will perform excerpts and participate in discussions with Desnoyers and Parson in the museum’s Peter B. Lewis Theater. For more information on how to see two of the world’s most fascinating movers in action, click here. Act fast--tickets are almost gone.
Wendy Whelan and Tyler Angle in For 2 With & From. Photo: Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB
Last night, as I was taking 6pm ballet class at Ballet Academy East, I saw a familiar figure pass by the observation window and did a double take—it was Wendy Whelan. Just three nights earlier I’d seen give her final performance at the New York City Ballet, but she was already back to work, hair tightly wound in her signature French twist, teaching for the school’s pre-professional division. It was a comforting reminder that even though the glittering, streamer-filled goodbye performance on Saturday was her last with NYCB, she’s not going anywhere soon. Her Restless Creature tour picks up again in January (click here for cities and dates), and she has another project in the works with The Royal Ballet’s Edward Watson.
In fact, Whelan seemed to exude a special kind of reassurance to both audience members and colleagues during her farewell performance. In Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering, she looked thrilled dancing among her friends, her smile huge and beaming as she was tossed through the air in a huge double tour. At one point during Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH, she and her partner, Tyler Angle, joined the ensemble to walk forward in a line, arms linked around waists in a shared moment of community. As they walked, Whelan looked at each of her cast mates with a reassuring smile as if to say, “Everything’s going to be okay.” And each embrace of longtime partner Craig Hall during Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain took on a special meaning—savored, entwined messages of goodbye, gratitude and comfort. I have always admired Whelan’s authenticity onstage—while wholly unique, and in some roles even creature-like, she exudes a very human warmth. It’s a rare and special quality for an artist, one that I will miss seeing in her signature NYCB roles.
For me, the evening’s most touching moments came towards the end of By 2 With & From, a world premiere co-choreographed by Wheeldon and Ratmansky. Hall and Angle, acting as her dual partners, disappeared into the wings, leaving Whelan alone and vulnerable on the darkened stage. It was a reflective moment that brought tears to my eyes, knowing how scary it is to move on from the career and friends you’ve loved so dearly. But her partners quickly reappeared, scooping her up and eventually lifting her into the night’s final image: Whelan reaching towards the sky, ready to take off. It was both a fitting ending and a new beginning.
Photo by Paul Kolnick, Courtesy NYCB
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."
Interviews by Christopher Blank, Rosie Gaynor and Nancy Wozny
A firestorm of controversy over recent reviews that singled out dancers' bodies for criticism has raised the question of whether body type still matters in today's ballet world. Does ballet's identity rest on presenting a certain image of the ballerina? Pointe asked leading dancers and artistic directors what impact issues like height and weight have on their casting.
No dancer lingers in memory after the curtain comes down like New York City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan. Indelible and singular, her passion for ballet gives real meaning to the word “artist.” Whelan has been the lynchpin of much of the recent work that the company has commissioned from choreographers like Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky. It’s no surprise that they turn to her. She brings care, discipline and humor to every aspect of her work. “I don’t know if there’s a person to look up to more,” says fellow NYCB principal Robert Fairchild. Pointe followed Whelan through a typical day of dance at the start of New York City Ballet’s 2010 spring season.
It began as usual at Willy Burmann’s class at Steps on Broadway. “She’s not just warming up or doing the steps,” he says. “She brings a total commitment every time. If people would watch her a bit more, we’d be better off in ballet.” It continued with a pas de deux rehearsal at NYCB’s studios with Fairchild for Ratmansky’s new piece, Namouna, A Grand Divertissement. Then came another rehearsal, this one with Albert Evans for Wheeldon’s After the Rain. Made on Whelan, the piece has become a signature, but she had never danced it before with Evans. “With each person I dance it,” says Whelan, “it’s a different kind of happiness.”
Swans, pluck those feathers! Wilis, stow those veils! Dancers everywhere, update those personal websites! Embrace every challenge the dance world throws your way and look for a few more—your future may depend on it.
Such is the consensus of the distinguished array of dancers, company directors and teachers Pointe asked about the prospects for the ballerina in today’s highly competitive and information-saturated dance world. How is the pathway to success different from what it was a generation ago? What does it take to be a ballerina in the 21st century?
First, let’s define our terms. Nobody does that better than Ontario-born Karen Kain, who joined The National Ballet of Canada in 1969, rapidly advanced to principal dancer, retired from the stage with laurels in 1997, and eight years later, became NBC’s artistic director.
“Some people think anyone who puts on a pointe shoe is a ballerina,” says Kain. “But when I use the term, I’m thinking of someone who has extraordinary individuality, a hugely refined and articulate body, humility, musicality, the strength and stamina of a major athlete, and the histrionic ability of a major actor. On top of that, a ballerina needs an attribute that is more difficult to describe. It’s a commitment and passion for the artform, a capacity to work harder than most human beings, the concentration to put aside other things.”
Kain considers the demands made upon her own company typical of the global ballet scene. “Today, technique and stamina are pushed to the limits. It’s all much more demanding than it was for me. We only have the budget for five principal women. So the really useful ballerinas in the 21st century will be more than great Giselles. They are here to dance a variety of different works.”
In some respects, Kain might be describing New York City Ballet’s much lauded principal Wendy Whelan, who, in her 25 years with the company, has gradually augmented her core Balanchine/Robbins repertoire. Her prescription for ballerina stardom?
“I think today that you’ve got to be open to all the languages thrown at you by newer choreographers,” says Whelan. Her resumé now includes dances by Forsythe, Ratmansky, Dove, Tharp and Wheeldon. “Their work isn’t necessarily ballet-based, but they want you to come up with a new way of doing a modern step in pointe shoes. We don’t even have a word for these steps; because they’re not in a book, you must do the exploring.
“I recall that when we were rehearsing Russian Seasons, Ratmansky told me not to be afraid to be melodramatic,” Whelan continues. “I didn’t do that sort of thing, so he really challenged me. It makes you trust your creativity a bit more; self-knowledge always adds to the ballets we know.”
Diversity is also the key to the success of the Kirov Ballet’s bewitching Diana Vishneva. Few ballerinas have evolved from their training as much as this illustrious graduate of the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg.
“Of course, Vaganova was great,” Vishneva says. “But the Western school has been more important in forming my career. I wouldn’t be where I am now without it. Still, I will never forget my roots in Russia.” Which may explain why she dispatches Kitri with the same flair with which she delivers Balanchine’s “Rubies” or a creation by Momix artistic director Moses Pendleton.
Vishneva is a child of the electronic age. She maintains a website (www.dianavishneva.ru) and operates a chat room in which she “always” responds to her admirers’ questions. You can catch many of Vishneva’s performances online and she notes that they inspire fans to buy tickets for her theatrical appearances.
Drew Jacoby’s history differs significantly from Vishneva’s. Her elongated line and charisma first attracted attention in Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet. She now dances with Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company, and is currently guesting with the Dutch National Ballet. She offers some refreshing insights on the contemporary ballerina.
“What a great dancer needs now is zero insecurity,” Jacoby says. “Those I enjoy watching make you believe them because they are not afraid. They convince you that what they are doing is important. They embody coolness,” she says, and some would find it an apt description of her own style. “I don’t mean cocky virtuosity,” she adds, “I just mean being comfortable in your own skin. I guess what is really required is intelligence and character—on top of the obvious technical facility. Today’s ballerina needs a grasp of the weight of the art.”
There is art, and then, there is art. Ashley Wheater, the artistic director of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet since 2007, measures greatness in a ballerina by the artistic standards propounded by his company’s founder. “When Robert Joffrey started it all, he wanted really strong, well-trained, fully committed women. His legacy is worth keeping alive. These are the dancers who will go to the end of their profession to find out what it means to immerse yourself in a role. It’s an American aesthetic for an American company.”
Veteran teacher David Howard takes a different view, finding the studied eclecticism of most repertoires and the anonymity of technically superior dancing are factors hindering distinction. He can’t resist reminiscing about his era at The Royal Ballet, when giants like Margot Fonteyn bouréed across the boards. He recalls the Bolshoi’s brilliant, rebellious Maya Plisetskaya, who fought against the conventions of the Soviet system. He cites France’s unclassifiable and uncompromising Sylvie Guillem. He charges artistic directors with finding their heirs.
“We will have ballerinas if dancers like this come along and companies notice them,” says Howard. “Because they’re a headache, companies don’t promote them, but they should. A great and distinctive ballerina like Maya Plisetskaya had a different kind of energy; she would be fired today.
“But,” Howard continues, “dancers are still inspired and still get out there and try their very best. And through them, the artform will change. In a way, I’m optimistic.”
Allan Ulrich is chief critic for voiceofdance.com, and contributes to a variety of American and international publications.
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.
A master class can be many things: It can be a source of inspiration, a networking opportunity, the key to a new technical revelation, or simply an awesome time with an amazing dance celebrity. Manhattan Movement and Arts Center is offering a master class with the singular New York City Ballet star Wendy Whelan next Monday from 7:30 to 9 pm. She will be teaching an Intermediate/Advanced level class. The fee is $20 (or $17 professional rate). Register here.
Wendy Whelan, NYCB principal, on teaching a recent master class at Manhattan Movement & Arts:
I don’t teach often, so I’m learning about myself as a teacher. You have to articulate both with your body and with your words. A certain word might make all the difference to someone in the class. As I teach, I think a lot about Willy Burmann—I’ve been taking his class for more than 20 years. I love the ideas he brings to his students. He does a lot with opposition—being down in the ground and up into the air.
In the master class, I tried to keep the combinations simple. In my experience as a dancer, shorter combinations with lots of repetition work better than a long choreographic sequence you do once. I also wanted to open the students up to how they use their heads, their eyes. When I was a student at SAB, Suki Schorer used to focus on that. If your eyes are dead, your body is dead—you’re not reaching the audience, you’re not drawing them in.
I’ve been thinking about the class every day since I taught it. I’d like to try teaching more often—not shy away from it. I have such esteem for my teachers, which is why I’ve been a little intimidated to teach. They’ve all been so good and so unique, and I need to find that in myself.
Senior editor Jenny Stahl recently called New York City Ballet principal Daniel Ulbricht "Superman," and I can't think of a better way to describe the phenomenally talented dancer and teacher, who seems to be everywhere at once these days. (We recently posted a poll asking who your favorite dancer-teacher was, and Ulbricht cleaned up.)
Now Ulbricht can add humanitarian to his already impressive resume: He and Erin Fogarty are producing "Dance Against Cancer," a benefit for The American Cancer Society, which will take place at Manhattan Movement and Arts Center this Monday, April 25. And you'd be hard-pressed to dream up a better program. Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall performing the gorgeous pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon's "After the Rain"? Check. A ballet by golden-boy choreographer Benjamin Millepied? Check. Crazy-awesome contemporary troupe Keigwin + Company? Check. "So You Think You Can Dance" phenomenon Alex Wong? Check. A slew of other NYCB principals, including Janie Taylor, Tyler Angle, Robert Fairchild, Sterling Hyltin, Amar Ramasar, Maria Kowroski and, yes, Ulbricht himself? Check, check, check.
For tickets and more information, click here. Then visit cancer.org to learn about the invaluable work done by The American Cancer Society.
For Pointe's December/January issue, photographer Matthew Murphy went behind the scenes of Daniel Ulbricht's "Dance Against Cancer" benefit. The event, featuring performances by dancers from all over, raised $30,000 for the American Cancer Society. Murphy captured splendid shots of the dancers rehearsing, organizing, performing, texting, giggling, getting dressed, and more.
One of our favorites that didn't make it in print was this one of New York City Ballet prima ballerina Wendy Whelan helping Carolina Ballet dancer Lara O'Brien into her costume. We later asked Whelan why she takes the time out of her schedule to volunteer her time—and gorgeous artistry—to worthy causes. Here's what she had to say:
"I try to 'give back' whenever possible. Especially when it comes to HIV/AIDS and cancer. These two diseases, in particular, have challenged the lives of far too many of my loved ones. AIDS took the young life of my beloved teacher who tirelessly trained, inspired and sent me off with confidence toward my now 26 years as a professional dancer.
He literally gave me everything...
To give back, brings him back to me momentarily. These kinds of performances stir my heart and my imagination tremendously. It's a way for me to thank him in the best way I know how: through what he taught me."
Stay tuned for more great photos from the event.
Tomorrow night, Wendy Whelan will make her debut as a guest artist with the Stephen Petronio Company at New York’s Joyce Theater, dancing the choreographer’s Ethersketch 1. Pointe talked to Petronio about working with the celebrated New York City Ballet principal on the solo.
How did the collaboration with Wendy Whelan come about? I’ve known Wendy casually for years and have always been mad about her artistry. When our schedules allowed and I knew she was open to new experiences, I jumped.
What do you like about working with ballet dancers, and what are the frustrations? I love the clarity of line and speed of the feet of ballet dancers, along with their developed sense of functional physics. Conversely I enjoy taking the notion of what is correct for a ballet dancer and unhinging that paradigm. I hate mannered or fancy fingers and hands that have no function.
What about working with Wendy Whelan appealed to you particularly? Wendy stands alone as a unique gem of an artist. I have watched her over a long, illustrious career and she has broken the mold of what a ballerina can be. She has forged a singular path for herself.
Did you reshape the solo at all for her talents? I made some minor adjustments and added accents to underline her particular uniqueness. And we built a slightly new end to make it hers.
What aspects of the choreography have been a challenge for her? The speed and rapid coordination changes that build into sequences were quite new for her, like any new language. Physical tongue twisters!
What new qualities does she bring to the work? A razor sharp angularity unlike anyone’s I’ve seen!
Was it at all intimidating to work with an NYCB ballerina? Not at all. She is humble, open and unassuming. We had fun! She is an obsessively hard and determined worker who throws herself into rehearsal fully. It’s amazing to watch her confront something totally new and chip away at it till it's hers.
What part was most fun? Watching one of the biggest talents I know tackle my movement!
Ballet superstars don't get much bigger than Wendy Whelan and Desmond Richardson. This winter, the two inimitable dancers teamed up for a one-night-only performance in New Orleans to commemorate Richardson's last season as a performer with Complexions. If you haven't seen Jim Lafferty's gorgeous shots of their rehearsals in our April/May issue, you're missing out. This is one outtake we didn't have room for in the magazine, and I had to share it. Whelan is so lifted, has such breath in her arms with Richardson as a strong, grounded counterpoint. I love the stretch that extends through both of their bodies in that moment just before her toe hits the floor. Enjoy!
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Before becoming a beloved prima ballerina with New York City Ballet, Wendy Whelan was just another girl growing up in Louisville, Kentucky. Tonight, local TV station KET will air "Wendy Whelan: Moments of Grace" on its Kentucky Muse program at 10 pm EST (and the station will rerun it next Wednesday at 8 pm). Those of us who live in other states can watch it stream online at ket.org/live. The documentary explores Whelan's childhood growing up in Kentucky, and gives an inside look at the impact of her roots on her incredible career. Watch Whelan's 2011 performance with Louisville Ballet. Hear interviews with her family members, husband and fellow dancers. And, best of all, see a 6-year-old Wendy in a bumble bee costume practicing her dance moves at home. Now that's must-see TV!
Mark your calendars: There's some great ballet coming into your life over the next couple of weeks—all of which you can catch from the comfort of your couch. Keep an eye out for these programs:
Wendy Whelan: "Restless Creature" The New York City Ballet superstar will preview her new project at the Guggenheim Museum. She'll perform excerpts from new duets created collaboratively with choreographers Joshuah Beamish and Brian Brooks, and show a solo by Shen Wei.
Catch the livestream: Sunday, April 14 at 3 pm EST on ustream.tv/worksandprocess
American Ballet Theatre: The Versatile Dancer Like many companies today, ABT asks its dancers to perform a wide range of work, and this performance will feature a taste of that spectrum: Company members will show excerpts of everything from Don Q and The Leaves Are Fading to The Moor's Pavane and Les Carnaval de Animaux. Performers include Hee Seo, Isabella Boylston, Sascha Radetsky and other top dancers.
Catch the livestream: Sunday, April 21 at 7:30 pm EST on ustream.tv/worksandprocess
Carousel The newly-engaged NYCB couple Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck guest-star in the New York Philharmonic presentation of the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. Here's a sneak peek from rehearsal:
Catch the broadcast: Friday, April 26 at 9 pm on "Live from Lincoln Center" (check your local listings)
Few ballerinas are as adventurous as New York City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan. “I like to be the paint and the brush,” she says, “but just not the person holding the brush.” At the Guggenheim’s Works & Process this weekend, Whelan discussed and performed excerpts of "Restless Creature," a suite of duets created collaboratively with contemporary dancer-choreographers Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks and Alejandro Cerrudo.
Each choreographer described his distinct process of working with Whelan, but they all seemed to relish her willingness to experiment. “She is not even a diva trying not to be a diva,” said Cerrudo. Unlike the neoclassical ballet pieces Whelan is familiar with, her new duets require her to dance in soft shoes or barefoot. She jokingly described dancing without pointe shoes as a liberating experience—“like taking a bra off!”
Whelan and Brooks gave audiences a preview of First Fall. Brooks, whose movement quality is more grounded and earthbound, partnered Whelan in a non-balletic way. There was a generous give-and take of each other’s weight as they moved through space. What really surprised me was how well Whelan was able to adapt to the style while maintaining her iconic artistry.
As with all collaborations, a certain kind of trust and chemistry is needed. “Pas de deux heaven is different for each couple,” said Whelan. “It is a natural thing you just arrive at, and with each of these gentleman something extraordinary is coming out that you just can’t predict.”
"Restless Creature" will have its world premiere at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, August 14-18. Here's a preview:
There have been rumblings about Wendy Whelan's New York City Ballet retirement for a while now. As of this morning, it's official: The revered principal dancer will take her final bow with the company on October 18.
There's no word yet on what she'll dance for that last show, the culmination of three decades of extraordinary work with NYCB. Yet, however emotional that moment is guaranteed to be, this is just the end of one chapter in Whelan's remarkable career.
Next up is the U.K. premiere of her Restless Creature program in July. (The U.S. Restless Creature tour, which she was forced to cancel this spring due to her longer-than-anticipated recovery from hip surgery, has also been rescheduled for early 2015.) In July of 2015, she'll premiere a new project with the Royal Ballet's Edward Watson in London; that venture will make its way to the U.S. in the spring of 2016. And as if that weren't enough to keep her busy, Whelan has also been appointed artistic associate at New York City Center. For two years, beginning this November, the theater will be her home base, a place for her to develop future projects.
Long story short: Yes, we'll miss Wendy's inimitable presence on the City Ballet stage. But this restless creature isn't abandoning us anytime soon.