Wendy Whelan in the dressing room of Jacob's Pillow Ted Shawn Theater. Photo by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Whelan.

A Ballerina in Bare Feet: Wendy Whelan Breaks Into Brand-New Territory With Restless Creature

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 teaching a master class at Jacob's Pillow. Photo by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Whelan.


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."


Whelan in "Restless Creature." Photo by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Whelan.

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 with Alejandro Cerrudo in "Restless Creature." Photo by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Whelan.

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."


Whelan rehearsing for "Restless Creature." Photo by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Whelan.

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)

Latest Posts


Chisako Oga photographed for Pointe by Jayme Thornton

Chisako Oga Is Soaring to New Heights at Boston Ballet

Chisako Oga is a dancer on the move—in more ways than one. From childhood training in Texas, California and Japan to a San Francisco Ballet apprenticeship to her first professional post with Cincinnati Ballet, where she quickly rose to principal dancer, she has rarely stood still for long.

But now the 24-year-old ballerina is right where she wants to be, as one of the most promising soloists at Boston Ballet. In 2019, Oga left her principal contract to join the company as a second soloist, rising to soloist the following year. "I knew I would have to take a step down to join a company of a different caliber, and Boston Ballet is one of the best companies in the country," she says. "The repertoire—Kylián, Forysthe, all the full-length ballets—is so appealing to me."

And the company has offered her major opportunities from the start. She danced the title role in Giselle in her very first performances with Boston Ballet, transforming a playful innocent into a woman haunted by betrayal with dramatic conviction and technical aplomb. But she also is making her mark in contemporary work. The last ballet she performed onstage before the pandemic hit was William Forsythe's demanding In the middle, somewhat elevated, which she says was a dream to perform. "The style really clicked, felt really comfortable. Bill drew something new out of me every rehearsal. As hard as it was, it was so much fun."

"Chisako is a very natural mover, pliable and strong," says artistic director Mikko Nissinen. "Dancing seems to come very easy for her. Not many have that quality. She's like a diamond—I'm curious to see how much we can polish that talent."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, does a pench\u00e9 on pointe towards the camera with her arms held out to the side and her long hair flying. Smiling confidently, she wears a blue leotard and a black and white ombr\u00e9 tutu.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

A Life-Changing Opportunity

Oga began dancing at the age of 3. Born in Dallas, she and her family moved around to follow her father's job in IT. Before settling in Carlsbad, California, they landed in Japan for several years, where Oga began to take ballet very seriously. "I like the simplicity of ballet, the structure and the clear vocabulary," she says. "Dances that portray a story or have a message really drew me in. One of my favorite parts of a story ballet is diving into the role and becoming the character, putting it in my perspective."

In California, Oga studied with Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky and Maxim Tchernychev. Her teachers encouraged her to enter competitions, which she says broadened her outlook and fed her love of performing in front of an audience. Though highly motivated, she says she came to realize that winning medals wasn't everything. "Honestly, I feel like the times I got close and didn't place gave me perspective, made me realize being a dancer doesn't define you and helped me become the person and the dancer I am today."

At 15, Oga was a semifinalist at the Prix de Lausanne, resulting in a "life-changing" scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School. There she trained with two of her most influential teachers, Tina LeBlanc and Patrick Armand. "She came in straightaway with strong basics," Armand recalls, "and working with her for two years, I realized how clever she is. She's super-smart, thoughtful, driven, always working."

She became a company apprentice in 2016. Then came the disappointing news—she was let go a few months later. Pushing 5' 2", she was simply too short for the company's needs, she was told. "It was really, really hard," says Oga. "I felt like I was on a good track, so to be let go was very shocking, especially since my height was not something I could improve or change."

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

Moving On and Up

Ironically, Oga's height proved an advantage in auditioning for Cincinnati Ballet, which was looking for a talented partner for some of their shorter men. She joined the company in 2016, was quickly promoted to soloist, and became a principal dancer for the 2017–18 season, garnering major roles like Swanilda and Juliet during her three years with the company. "There were times I felt insignificant and insecure, like I don't deserve this," Oga says about these early opportunities. "But I was mostly thrilled to be put in those shoes."

She was also thriving in contemporary work, like choreographer-in-residence Jennifer Archibald's MYOHO. Archibald cites her warmth, playfulness and sensitivity, adding, "There's also a powerful presence about her, and I was amazed at how fast she was at picking up choreography, able to find the transitions quickly. She's definitely a special talent. Boston Ballet will give her more exposure on a national level."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, poses in attitude derriere crois\u00e9 on her right leg, with her right arm out to the side and her left hand grazing her left shoulder. She smiles happily towards the camera, her black hair blowing in the breeze, and wears a blue leotard, black-and-white ombre tutu, and skin-colored pointe shoes.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

That was Oga's plan. She knew going in that Cincinnati was more stepping-stone than final destination. She had her sights on a bigger company with a broader repertoire, and Boston Ballet seemed ideal.

As she continues to spread her wings at the company, Oga has developed a seemingly effortless artistic partnership with one of Boston Ballet's most dynamic male principals, Derek Dunn, who Oga calls "a kind-hearted, open person, so supportive when I've been hard on myself. He's taught me to believe in myself and trust that I'm capable of doing whatever the choreography needs." The two have developed an easy bond in the studio she likens to "a good conversation, back and forth."

Dunn agrees. "I knew the first time we danced together we had a special connection," he says. "She really takes on the artistic side of a role, which makes the connection really strong when we're dancing onstage. It's like being in a different world."

He adds, "She came into the company and a lot was thrown at her, which could have been daunting. She handled it with such grace and confidence."

Derek Dunn, shirtless and in blue tights, lunges slightly on his right leg and holds Chisako Oga's hand as she balances on her left leg on pointe with her right leg flicking behind her. She wears a yellow halter-top leotard and they dance onstage in front of a bright orange backdrop.

Oga with Derek Dunn in Helen Pickett's Petal

Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Perspective in a Pandemic

The pair were heading into Boston Ballet's busy spring season when the pandemic hit. "It was really a bummer," Oga says. "I was really looking forward to Swan Lake, Bella Figura, some new world premieres. When we found out the whole season was canceled, it was hard news to take in."

But she quickly determined to make the most of her time out of the studio and physically rest her body. "All the performances take a toll. Of course, I did stretches and exercised, but we never give ourselves enough time to rest as dancers."

She also resumed college courses toward a second career. Oga is one of many Boston Ballet dancers taking advantage of a special partnership with Northeastern University to help them earn bachelor's degrees. Focusing on finance and accounting, Oga upped her classes in economics, algebra, business and marketing. She also joined Boston Ballet's Color Our Future Mentoring Program to raise awareness and support diversity, equity and inclusion. "I am trying to have my voice inspire the next generation," she says.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

One pandemic silver lining has been spending more time with her husband, Grand Rapids Ballet dancer James Cunningham. The two met at Cincinnati Ballet, dancing together in Adam Hougland's Cut to the Chase just after Oga's arrival, and got married shortly before her move to Boston. Cunningham took a position in Grand Rapids, so they've been navigating a long-distance marriage ever since. They spend a lot of time texting and on FaceTime, connecting in person during layoffs. "It's really hard," Oga admits, but adds, "We are both very passionate about the art form, so it's easy to support each other's goals."

Oga's best advice for young dancers? "Don't take any moment for granted," she says without hesitation. "It doesn't matter what rank you are, just do everything to the fullest—people will see the hard work you put in. Don't settle for anything less. Knowing [yourself] is also very important, not holding yourself to another's standards. No two paths are going to be the same."

And for the foreseeable future, Oga's path is to live life to the fullest, inside and outside ballet. "The pandemic put things in perspective. Dancing is my passion. I want to do it as long as I can, but it's only one portion of my life. I truly believe a healthy balance between social and work life is good for your mental health and helps me be a better dancer."

American Ballet Theatre corps member Rachel Richardson. NYC Dance Project, Courtesy Rachel Richardson

ABT’s Rachel Richardson on Performing With Her Hometown Company, Eugene Ballet

When I signed my first professional contract with Eugene Ballet, one of the last things I anticipated was the opportunity to dance beside a member of American Ballet Theatre. Flash forward to the start of our spring season this year, and suddenly I'm chatting in the hallway and rehearsing the Cinderella fairy variations next to luminous ABT corps member Rachel Richardson. When ABT announced it was canceling live performances for the 2020–21 season, Richardson traveled back home to Eugene, Oregon, to be with her family—and this spring joined the company as a guest artist.

Growing up, Richardson trained locally in Eugene before moving to The Rock School for Dance Education's year-round program in Philadelphia. After securing a spot in the ABT Studio Company in 2013, she was promoted to corps de ballet in 2015. This unconventional year marks her sixth season with the main company.

After having the privilege of dancing with her this spring, I sat down with Richardson to discuss her recent guesting experience, how the pandemic has helped her grow and her advice for young dancers.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Abra Geiger, from the 2019 YAGP Season Finals. VAM Productions, Courtesy YAGP

YAGP Finals Kick Off in Tampa This Week—and You Can Watch Them Live!

In a hopeful sign that things may be slowly getting back to normal, Youth America Grand Prix is hosting its 2021 Season Finals live and in person this week in Tampa, Florida. Approximately 800 young dancers will perform at the annual scholarship audition, held May 10–16 at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. Over $400,000 in scholarships will be awarded, with school directors from all over the world adjudicating both in person and online. The entire event will be livestreamed on YAGP's website, YouTube channel and Facebook page.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks