Wendy Whelan teaching at Jacob's Pillow's Ballet Program. Photo by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow.

Why Wendy Whelan Thinks Young Dancers Should Incorporate Contemporary Ballet Into Their Training

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.


What was the review process like?

The Pillow did an external review with a bunch of top level artists who shared their observations with the advancement committee, including myself and Kyle Abraham. Kyle and I really sat down and talked it all over. We came up with the thought that to make Jacob's Pillow very special and unique and to strengthen what it has to offer, it would be an interesting idea to really focus on uniting ballet and contemporary.

Students of the School at Jacob's Pillow performing on the Inside/Out stage. Photo by Brooke Trisolini, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow.

The ballet program has been a staple of the School at Jacob's Pillow for a long time. Do you think that this shift represents trends in ballet training today?

I feel like ballet in general is shifting in a contemporary direction. Most companies have a repertoire of contemporary work, and are bringing in contemporary voices to make work. I think that the doors and the windows of the ballet world are opening in that way, and they're inviting much more well rounded ideas of dance into the repertoire.

Your training was very classical, though all of your projects since leaving NYCB have fallen into more of a contemporary realm. What do you think that you could have gained from contemporary training earlier on in your career?

As a younger performer I felt like I was improvising myself into contemporary understanding, and really seeking to understand how to move my body in that way. Only after I was doing my own project, Restless Creature, did I actually learn how to do a body roll, and I was in my late 40s. I was constantly wanting to learn how to move my spine in different ways. I think ballet dancers are hungry for that kind of ability to transform and jump from extreme to extreme.

Do you have any advice for young dancers who are hoping to get into companies that have a really diverse repertoire?

I think that the eye of directors and people in charge is opening up, and that there's more of a quality of movement that they're looking for rather than someone who can just balance or turn or jump. There's more of an interest in honoring a dancer being able to link up the steps and move with a liquid quality. Directors are seeking real movers.

Latest Posts


Complexions Contemporary Ballet's Tatiana Melendez Proves There's No One Way to Have a Ballet Career

This is Pointe's Fall 2020 cover story. Click here to purchase this issue.

Talk to anyone about rising contemporary ballerina Tatiana Melendez, and one word is bound to come up repeatedly: "Fierce." And fair enough, that's a perfectly apt way to describe the 20-year-old's stage presence, her technical prowess and her determination to succeed. But don't make the mistake of assuming that fierceness is Melendez's only (or even her most noteworthy) quality. At the core of her dancing is a beautiful versatility. She's just as much at ease when etching pure classical lines as she is when boldly throwing herself off-balance.

"Selfish choreographer that I am, I want Tatiana to stay with Complexions for all time," says her boss Dwight Rhoden, Complexions Contemporary Ballet's co-artistic director and resident choreographer. "She has a theatricality about her: When the music comes on, she gets swept away." Not too shabby for someone who thought just a few years ago that maybe ballet wasn't for her.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

#TBT: Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov in "Coppélia" (1976)

Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov share the unique experience of having danced at both American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet during their careers. The two overlapped at ABT in the mid-'70s, where they developed one of the best-known partnerships in ballet. They were both celebrated for their dynamism onstage; however, in this 1976 clip of the pas de deux from Coppélia, Kirkland and Baryshnikov prove they are also masters of control.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Natalia Voronova, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet

The Bolshoi Is Back Onstage: We Went Inside Bryan Arias' Latest Work

This summer, when parts of the world were slowly emerging from the COVID-19 lockdown, all live performing arts events having been canceled or postponed, choreographer Bryan Arias found himself in Moscow creating a brand-new work for the Bolshoi Ballet.

Arias, who was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in New York City's Spanish Harlem, and danced with Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater 2 and Kidd Pivot, had been invited by Bolshoi artistic director Makhar Vaziev to be part of an impromptu program of contemporary choreography titled Four Characters in Search of a Plot. Three other international choreographers—Martin Chaix (France), Dimo Milev (Bulgaria) and Simone Valastro (Italy)—had also been asked to participate. This program, unusual by all standards for Russia's esteemed classical ballet company, opened the Bolshoi's 245th ballet season on September 10. Eager to resume live events, the theater introduced a number of safety regulations for audience members, including limited and spaced-out seating, temperature checks upon entry and audio messages reminding patrons to wear masks and maintain social distance.

Below, Arias talks about his trip to Russia and his experience of creating his new piece, The Ninth Wave, on the Bolshoi Ballet dancers.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks