Well over a year after the retirement of Peter Martins, New York City Ballet has announced that former principal dancer Jonathan Stafford will lead the company and its affiliated School of American Ballet as artistic director. Fellow former principal Wendy Whelan will serve as associate artistic director.
On a crisp day in late October, the studio air is thick and hot as dozens of sweaty dancers finish up grand allégro at New York City Center. Despite the fact that many of them are jet-lagged, there is a palpable, positive energy throughout the studio. Teaching class is former New York City Ballet star Wendy Whelan, which seems fitting. The dancers, culled from eight major companies around the world, are getting ready for opening night of Balanchine: The City Center Years, a five-day festival highlighting the choreographer George Balanchine's early works.
On Monday evening, four 20th century New York City Ballet stars joined Wendy Whelan in conversation for an event titled Balanchine's Ballerinas hosted by National Dance Institute, the dance education organization that former NYCB dancer Jacques d'Amboise founded in 1976. D'Amboise introduced the four ballerinas taking the stage as dancers who "graced Balanchine and were graced by him." Hearing the ensuing conversation between Wendy Whelan and Allegra Kent, Kay Mazzo, Gloria Govrin and Merrill Ashley proved just that; the sense of inspiration that George Balanchine gleaned from his muses, and the deep appreciation he had for each individual's unique traits.
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.
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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.