Many successful artists have a chameleon quality, to be able to shift and morph according to the project at hand. Yet, something in them remains rooted and deep, unchanging through the sticky and unpredictable challenges of the creative life. With dancers, an exchange – and even tension – between those qualities sometimes exists in their very body.
Wendy Whelan was a highly-lauded dancer with New York City Ballet (NYCB) from 1984-2014. She became an apprentice in 1984, and was promoted into the company in 1986. In her time with NYCB, she demonstrated a unique ability to not just adapt but also to fully transform into the role at hand. At the same time, she remained unwavering in her way of working with choreographers, engaging with music in her dancing, and rendering a spirit of humor and joy.
Whelan now brings all of that to bear with new projects, with contemporary choreographers like Kyle Abraham setting works on her. This coupling of malleability and dependability is perhaps part of what launched her into ballet stardom – admired and respected by choreographers, critics and audiences alike.
Dance Informa recently spoke with Whelan about her creative life, evolutions in her dancing, and the release of the documentary, Restless Creature – focusing on her rise, career and departure from NYCB.
On her ability to become whatever a role may be, British choreographer Wayne McGregor said, “I always have to look twice — is that Wendy Whelan? Because she’s got this amazing ability to reinvent herself. She’s just an extraordinary artist.”
Whelan discussed how with NYCB that was sometimes a character, but more often – given the company’s predominantly neoclassical Balanchine repertory – she danced roles representing ideas or emotions.
“I’ve loved that [transformation] the most…applying a new quality to whatever role I may have danced,” shared Whelan. She has also deeply treasured embodying music in movement, going so far as to say that it’s what “drives” her.
Restless Creature portrays such passion for her work overall. As she dances, she says in a voiceover, “If I can’t dance, I might rather die.” At the same time, she exudes a softness – that which makes such a towering giant of talent come off as entirely approachable, affable and not in the slightest intimidating. In a dance world of hierarchy, drama and all-too-common egotistical personalities, Whelan seems quite easy and enjoyable to work with.
That might be one quality, apart from her talent and malleability, that has led to her “having more works created on her than any other contemporary ballet dancer,” a narrator explains in Restless Creature. This fact does lead one to consider her legacy on dance, and from that on wider culture – immense, the narrator claims, a perhaps logical conclusion.
When asked about her legacy, Whelan – with striking humility – shares that she thinks that her “thing”, a main asset that she has achieved and can then pay forward, is how she has worked with choreographers.
It also feels a bit strange, although perhaps in some way pertinent, to discuss her legacy when she continues to perform. Even so, she hasn’t worn pointe shoes in two years, she explains.
Whelan is also getting more interested in, and involved with, mind-body-centered movement practices such as yoga. The technique class she currently takes is more geared toward modern dancers. She has taken more classical class with Pacific Northwest Ballet, but something in her resisted re-entering a formal ballet context.
“I feel as if my mind and body became separated, and I’ve been putting them back together. It’s been quite a journey,” she described.
The Restless Creature documentary (now in select theaters) begins to delve into some of these considerations, as Whelan was experiencing them at the sunset of her 30-year time at NYCB. It lays her bare emotionally, as well as literally, physically – with (sensitively filmed) footage of surgery for a labral hip tear.
Asked what she wishes audience members to take away from the film, Whelan shared excitement for non-dancers “finding something of themselves” within the film.
“Sometimes ballet is hierarchical, such an elevated thing, and some people can get scared. I like to not have that separation. I think the film allows me to do that,” she stated – in large part because she can speak in addition to dance, she explained.
As much praise and opportunity as she has been given, Whelan has given of herself in countless roles. She’s thus made that separation of artist and audience a bit smaller, the relationship a bit more human. As her mind, body and spirit continue to mature and evolve, it will be fascinating to see what she will continue to offer – transformation, yes, but at its root consistent genuineness, decency and love for her art form.
Here, enjoy an exclusive clip from Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan, titled “It’s Not My Retirement Yet”.
By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.