The first time I saw Wendy Whelan dance was in the 1993 film of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker.” Slinking around the stage in the Arabian variation wearing see-through harem pants (“It gives the fathers something to look at,” Balanchine once said), Wendy scared me. The intensity in her face was offset by the cool execution of her seductive dance – out of place in this child’s fairyland. She was not the glazed-over ballerina, but a strange earthy creature that embodied both the exotic and the feral. Despite being flat on the screen, her angular body leapt out of the box.
For almost 30 years, Wendy Whelan is one of New York City Ballet’s reigning ballerinas, joining the company in 1984 and rising to Principal Dancer in 1991. She is one of the most commanding performers to have graced the Lincoln Center stages: She draws you into George Balanchine’s “Agon” through her masterful embodiment of Igor Stravinsky’s score. She chews you up and spits you out in Jerome Robbin’s “The Cage.” She tickles in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Namouna: A Grand Divertissement.” She soars in Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain.” Offstage, Wendy is warm, sometimes goofy and playful without losing any of the authority and respect that she brings to her work. She seemingly lives by Margot Fonteyn of Britain’s Royal Ballet’s famous words “Take your work seriously, but never yourself.”
Originally from Louisville, Kentucky, she battled scoliosis as a teenager, before gaining a scholarship to the School of American Ballet and joining New York City Ballet. Throughout her career, she has always taken on side projects. She has appeared as a guest artist in Christopher Wheeldon’s Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company, and has supplemented her City Ballet repertory with works by Willam Forsythe, Tywla Tharp, Karole Armitage, Shen Wei and others. Her latest project “Restless Creature,” premiered at Jacob’s Pillow this past August, and featured her performing with Kyle Abraham, Josh Beamish, Brian Brooks, and Alejandro Cerrudo, four male choreographers in their own work made especially for Whelan and the project. Following the project, she flew to Vail, Colorado, where she had surgery for a labral tear in her hip performed by Dr. Marc Phillippon.
I was deeply touched by Wendy’s honesty and openness as she discussed her gradual transition from her home base and comfort within the Balanchine repertory at New York City Ballet into unknown artistic territory; asking a ballerina at 46 what she is going to do next is a question that exposes ego, identity, uncertainly and usually: fear. To pose this question to dancers – who strive to be beyond human, beyond time, beyond limits – is a reminder that an ethereal dance career, however beautiful, will always be temporary. No other art form constrains its practitioners quite so drastically. Yet Wendy keeps challenging both her spirit and her artistry – leaving us asking: what is next for this Restless Creature?
PHIL CHAN: When were you first introduced to dancing, of that sense of feeling in your body?
WENDY WHELAN: My body? You don’t know this story of why I started dancing? I was two-and-a-half when my sister was born, and I was constrained as the middle child, so I was very hyper and energetic and would jump on my baby sister and my mom would say, “Okay, get you out!” So she put me in ballet.
PHIL CHAN: Why ballet?
WENDY WHELAN: We were actually talking about this the other day! Her mom, my grandmother, ran into a woman who teaches in the town – she taught all of the little kids – and my mom was one of those kids as well. She asked my grandmother, “How are Kay’s little kids?” and my grandmother said, “Oh, we have Wendy, who is two-and-a-half years old.” “Oh, bring her to ballet!” It was just the thing to do. So I did it. They did it. They dropped me off in the afternoons, and I have just never quit. Never stopped.
PHIL CHAN: When did you get to the point where you realized that this could be a potential career?
WENDY WHELAN: Oh, later,…way later! But when I was little, I used to take what I practiced – I was literally three-years-old – and I would practice at home all the time. I became very aware of my body very early.
PHIL CHAN: Where did that come from?
WENDY WHELAN: My parents were pretty athletic. My mom was a basketball coach and a P.E. teacher, so I think genetically it was in there. So I don’t know.
PHIL CHAN: The repetition made sense to you?
WENDY WHELAN: Yeah! Yeah! It felt good. My body felt good moving.
PHIL CHAN: You’ve spoken about your struggle coping with scoliosis as a teenager. How has that affected your dancing, both mentally and physically?
WENDY WHELAN: Well, they found out I had scoliosis when I was 12, and when I was 13, I was in a traction machine in the hospital, on and off for five months. I was in a body cast for five months, which meant fifteen pounds of plaster around your body during the summer. That was really intense, having been so physical for 10 years of my life, at only 13-years-old, when you are having serious plans about dancing, and well, moving. And then all of sudden not being able to move (or even breathe) – this [gestures to her sternum] was the only part that was open, cut out. And I could bend a little bit in my brace. But I continued to dance in my brace, and my teachers said, “Don’t stop now! You can still learn a lot even with that contraption.” So they told me to keep going, and I did. I learned a lot from that constraint: I learned that I couldn’t do this, but I could do that. I really focused on a new level of “that” because I couldn’t do anything else. I found a lot of potential through that constraint, which I think is very interesting because learning that early on has really shaped who I am today. Finding limits in my world and finding ways of taking advantage of all of the greatness I can find. There are so many other things out there that are…open. When you’re not looking, or you’re not open to looking at those other things, or if you don’t have that constraint, you could go off in any direction and you can miss out on a lot.
PHIL CHAN: And then you came to the School of American Ballet?
WENDY WHELAN: (Laughs) Way later, about 2 years later. I was living in New York. I was 15. Yeah.
PHIL CHAN: And I know you had a glimpse of Mr. B [George Balanchine] in passing.
WENDY WHELAN: I did. He was very frail. Very tiny.
PHIL CHAN: What was that like being in his home in the tail end of his legacy and still having that energy in the house?
WENDY WHELAN: I was too young to realize, you know. His whole ideal was way too intellectual for me at the time. I sort of got it, and I knew it, but I was thinking much smaller, like, “Who is in my class? Who am I standing next to at barre? Is she really great, or what?”
PHIL CHAN: What’s for lunch…?
WENDY WHELAN: Yeah! Am I going to make it through this day? I was also getting in the transition of getting ready to move there, so my world was a lot smaller then.
PHIL CHAN: So transitioning from being a student to an artist: you’re at the point now where you have honed your body into a tool. You have joined the company. When and how did you start developing that artistry? Student dancers understand the steps and the music, but when did you develop…
WENDY WHELAN: …The inner part? My last workshop, when I did “Concerto Barocco,” I found something in the music, which was key for me. You have to connect with the music and let that shape, or help illustrate your idea, or your design, or what you want to project through your body. And for a long time I wasn’t able to connect to the music. So when I finally got that Bach music, that violin concerto music, on my plate, and I could dive into that, I really felt like, “Ahhhh, there is something happening within me.” I started to build from there, but it took me a really long time.
PHIL CHAN: What is the process for connecting the music to your body?
WENDY WHELAN: When I was at home working on my body, learning how to stand up and turn out correctly and get placement and strength and support, my teachers were like, “Wendy! Your musicality! You have got work on that. That’s your downfall. You need to play music before you go to bed at night. You need to listen to music while you are asleep, just to get it into your body!” It was a weird revelation. It wasn’t something I could learn, it was just something I had to feel. I developed emotionally the ability to connect with the music. I don’t know how or why it happened. I wasn’t looking for it. It sort of opened up to me and I became aware of it.
PHIL CHAN: How does your musicality guide you today as you are making new works? Working with Chris Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky and your newest “Restless Creature” project?
WENDY WHELAN: I take the music home with me all the time. I listen to it outside of the studio. I always listen when I am making a new something with somebody. As I think about it, my homework – those feelings that are connected to it, start to blossom. Again, it’s not something I force. I just try to put myself in a scenario, a place, a zone, where I can let that fertility happen with the music. Then the next day, I’ll go in, and have a new understanding of the piece. The next level will be built. But a lot of that has to come from doing my homework, and letting myself feel my imagination with the steps that I have been given, and find places in the steps that these choreographers have given me that I love.
Like, I really work to find moments where I love feeling on stage. There’s a moment in Kyle Abraham’s piece. It’s the simplest moment: he’s in a sort of cat pose, and I am standing, and he moves under, and I just put my hand on his shoulder. It’s the most amazing feeling. And once I got that feeling for the first time, I knew, okay, now the seed has been popped open and the piece will develop, all around this touch. A lot of times that’s how it happens – one moment will spring forth. An idea of an emotion or a feeling or a power of understanding of the piece, and then everything will catapult from there. And that moment happens halfway through the choreography. It was near the end of the process and I said, “I get it now, I get what this means.”
PHIL CHAN: Do you approach Balanchine and Robbins the same way?
WENDY WHELAN: Yeah. I have been around their work longer, especially Balanchine. I understand the depth and so many facets of it are there for me. I see the richness that is there. These other things are newer, so they will continue to evolve. They will develop more facets as I do them more. There is such a rich understanding of those Balanchine ballets for me, I just get them. Maybe it’s seeing so many different ones lined up, or seeing so many dancers do them for 30 years or more. I have a really strong explanation of the work for myself, that I don’t just develop when working with someone for a year.
PHIL CHAN: Do you think upcoming dancers today have the same work ethic, or are they working the same way?
WENDY WHELAN: I have no idea. There is definitely a lot of things that they are doing that is amazing and works for them. There are certain things that I would like to see more of from the younger generation, but I’m sure that the generation before me looked at me and said, I wish that Wendy Whelan would eventually get this idea. Yeah, I want to say, “One day you are going to get this.” Maybe they will and maybe they won’t…we all have to climb our own ladder.
PHIL CHAN: Do you ever get frustrated with your body?
WENDY WHELAN: Me? Yeah! Sure! I’m 46. My body wasn’t what it was when I was 30, or 25…
PHIL CHAN: What does that really mean?
WENDY WHELAN: It means that there is some spring that is gone. There is some springiness and juiciness that is gone that I will never have again. Of course that’s sad for me, but it’s a part of life, A big part of me would never want to be 25 again, or even 30 again. So, there’s give and take, always. Back then I was unhappy with a lot of things. The things I was unhappy with back then, I’m happy with now. You win and you lose. It balances out…but I wish it would all balance out at the same time! I would not say I’m at the top of my game now! Maybe I will be a little bit more at the top of my game, I don’t know. I don’t know if it will ever come back.
PHIL CHAN: Do you think about that a lot?
WENDY WHELAN: Oh yeah. I haven’t been in ballet class because of this injury since last January. So the thought of taking a ballet class for me…it’s hard to fathom that I will ever take a ballet class ever again because it’s been so long. But it’s possible, and I really hope that I can. That’s why I went through all of this [surgery].
PHIL CHAN: Was this new “Restless Creature” project a way for you to continue that artistry without having all that demanding Balanchine repertory? Is this a transition for you?
WENDY WHELAN: This is definitely a transition for me. It’s definitely for my mind and my body. Thirty years in one place doing one idea is a long time. And it has shaped everything about me so far in a great way. But at the same time, it’s a young person’s company. It’s for younger bodies. There is a certain moment when you kind of don’t fit anymore. I am figuring out if that’s real or not for me right now. It might be, I don’t know. My head doesn’t feel like it. My body didn’t feel like it until this injury. So if I get my body back, I might have a little bit more time left, or I might not. So, we’ll see.
PHIL CHAN: How does that then shape your identity as an artist? Your identity is changing with your body!
WENDY WHELAN: It’s a nice thing at 46 to continue to grow. Some dancers finish now, and as artists or dancers they stop growing if they don’t keep doing something creative. I don’t know, it depends on where you want to go. I hope to keep learning about movement, craftsmanship, expression, musicality and physicality.
PHIL CHAN: Are you interested in other mediums besides dance?
WENDY WHELAN: Yeah. I did this film with Pontus Lidberg, that has had a huge impact on me. It was called Labyrinth Within and was a dance film. I didn’t speak, but I did a lot of acting, and he directed me as an actress/dancer. I originally shied away, saying, “I don’t know if I can do this.” He said, “I know you can do this. I absolutely know you can do this.” Spending time with him in a director role has really made me believe in a new side of myself, and he got really good things out of me. And then I came back [to New York City Ballet] and did Seven Deadly Sins [with Patti Lupone] which was also a lot of acting. I was really comfortable with that and want to explore more theatrics in dance.
PHIL CHAN: Is there some fear in the next step of exploring yourself, and how do you address that fear?
WENDY WHELAN: Mostly fear comes from being able to pay my bills. That’s my biggest fear. At this point, if I left New York City Ballet, I wouldn’t have a regular income that I know of. I mean, I could find one…there is a Starbucks right there. The arts are not an easy world to live in, especially when you are in a freelance place. That is my biggest fear. I’ve never been a freelance dancer ever, or a freelance artist. I don’t have any fear about challenging myself or what I am going to do artistically.
PHIL CHAN: So how can the world support you?
WENDY WHELAN: (Laughs) This is the first time I have asked for help for a project. I am finding that when I ask for help, there are people who want to help me. I wish there were more people who want to help me. And there are! I just need to tap into that and express myself to achieve that.
PHIL CHAN: Why should someone support you? What is unique about your vision?
WENDY WHELAN: I think this vision of collaboration and opening myself up to other worlds kind of encourages that socially and intellectually. And when people collaborate and share their worlds, new things develop.
PHIL CHAN: How has the art and dance culture changed over your career? We are now well into the 21st century – how has the “cult” of ballet changed from then to now?
WENDY WHELAN: Well, you can look at the Russian companies, and they now have a few American dancers in their companies. They are doing [William] Forsythe. It’s a whole new world. It was a closed world for a long time. There is a lot more sharing going around. There is more cross-over, there is more experimentation and there is more modern and contemporary work coming into the ballet companies. There is a lot more cultural exchange. I think it has opened up a whole world for us as dancers. It will extend our lives as dancers because we are able to go into the field and really play around. It seems to me we are lot friendlier with each other. Friendlier. We are a little less…
PHIL CHAN: …A little less “Black Swan?”
WENDY WHELAN: A little less “Black Swan!” I think with the Internet, people are watching each other dance more. Students’ worlds are opening up; they are able see great dancing on the Internet when they might not have great dancers in the Eastern Kentucky town where they take tap. They can see these things if they want. Same thing with us, but in a really simple way: Facebook, Instagram and stuff. I am friends with people I don’t even know in the Kirov Ballet and in the Royal Ballet – I’ve never met them – but they feel like my friends. I know them from their pictures. We are sharing. We are all pen pals in a weird way. And that’s a really nice feeling. You can see what’s happening, what companies are dancing what pieces and how they feel about those pieces. There is so much more sharing.
PHIL CHAN: How then has the role of the artist changed? What do you see your role as a dance artist?
WENDY WHELAN: I was telling some students this summer at Jacobs Pillow that when I teach, I have been finding myself saying this without thinking about it: You have to know yourself. You have to find the greatest part of yourself, the most magical, deepest, special part of yourself. You have to shape it, hone it, develop it, and build on it, and take yourself above your human-ness and make yourself extraordinary. You have to teach everybody around you that they have that in them. You have to share that with the people who don’t develop that part of themselves and show them that they have it in them. You have to be able to touch that part of people.
PHIL CHAN: So even if your students don’t become dancers, how can they apply that in their life?
WENDY WHELAN: You can apply it in any way! You are a lawyer, you are an artist. You are a doctor, a teacher – if you find your greatest gift, and you shape that to make it fine and productive and generous, then you are going to be an artist.
PHIL CHAN: So that is your definition of artistry then? Finding your potential…
WENDY WHELAN: …and building on it, and making it sparkling and brilliant.
PHIL CHAN: …and bigger than yourself…
WENDY WHELAN: Yes! Absolutely. What is that going to do for somebody else’s artistry?
PHIL CHAN: And you have this box of your body within time and space, and you can reach out of it and make something bigger.
WENDY WHELAN: You can really be expressive with that.
PHIL CHAN: Now this may be a little taboo, so please excuse me for this. We are not supposed to talk about retirement.
WENDY WHELAN: No. It’s transformation. I’m going to transform. That’s my word. And it’s not transition. It’s transformation. I am going to take what I have developed in one way, and I’m going to put it out in a different way. I’m going to re-shape how I present my expressiveness.
PHIL CHAN: Some dancers don’t handle that very gracefully. What advice do you have for someone who is right before, maybe right after or within that transformation? How are you dealing with change?
WENDY WHELAN: Oddly, very well. First there were some fears of letting things go. Particular roles, lots of things. A lot of letting go. And that didn’t come without a scare, or a little bit of, “this is really hard!” But then when you start to let go and break away and put some space out there for yourself, you say, “Oh, this is different than I thought I was. I feel less constrained! I can breathe!” As scary as that is before you do the letting go, as soon as you get the courage to do that, things expand and soften and it feels really good. It’s the courage, that’s all. A lot of having to let go was because of my hip or because of other things here and there. It kind of forced me into it. I always think of those things like they are out of my control, or it’s happening for a reason. It’s happening from somewhere else. That thing beyond me, there is nothing I can say. I just have to be accepting. And as soon as you accept it and stop fighting with it, it’s okay.
PHIL CHAN: What are you excited about next?
WENDY WHELAN: All the new friends I made. I’ve had such an amazing experience with these four choreographers. I’ve loved being in their energy. That’s only four people in this world. The world is filled with more people like that to play with, and learn from, and laugh with and make exchanges with. I’m really excited about that!
PHIL CHAN: How do you choose your collaborators? Why these four?
WENDY WHELAN: Well, they sort of popped out to me. I knew Kyle [Abraham], I had been talking to him for years. I don’t know if he really believed that I wanted to work with him. I always said something to him and he would say, “Sure, yeah, whatever…” and then he said “yes.”The next one was Brian [Brooks], and actually Damien [Woetzel] put us together. I knew I liked Brian, and I knew he was very talented. I was excited to work with him because I really liked him. Then when I got to see how freaking smart and interesting he is, and how respectful he is, my God! He is so respectful to his collaborators. I haven’t been around that equal respect in a long time. That was a beautiful thing and made me eager to get into the room with him; he is a beautiful guy.
PHIL CHAN: They each challenge you in a different way.
WENDY WHELAN: They all challenge me extremely.
PHIL CHAN: Your inspiration is your collaborators?
WENDY WHELAN: Totally. You really know them as people, so I didn’t know really how it would work out. I knew I would do the best I could do to forge a good collaboration. I think I’m generally a fun person to be around.
PHIL CHAN: You’re okay.
WENDY WHELAN: People like me! I am positive. I am a good player. I play with people well. Other people aren’t always the same way. They can be defiant and rigid in their ways. I got really lucky. They played well with others too.
PHIL CHAN: Part of that must involve balancing control – both taking control of the project and giving up control artistically to your collaborators. How was that process in this experience?
WENDY WHELAN: I think it was interesting because there is a certain kind of control. I had to learn how to take control of the project as the manager. I’ve never done that – this is mine, this is how I want it to be. This is what I see, and not have other people do that for me, which is hard when I have other people working with me, such as other producers and/or artist people. I had to remind myself, this is my project. My friends and supporters kept saying, this is yours, do it the way you want to do it. That was hard. I had to gain that kind of control and let some of the other control go because I was learning. I specifically didn’t dance en pointe, I didn’t do ballet. I did contemporary. I went into these guys’ worlds and I didn’t want them to cater to me, making me look good or making me feel good. I wanted to address myself in a different way. Originally I wanted to be unrecognizable. I didn’t want people to know that was “Wendy Whelan” because that is not what they would expect. And I eased up on that as I am very distinctive person. I’m not going to change that much. But I did want to be an actress and go into a different character than the “Wendy Whelan” character. The “Wendy Whelan” character in the Wheeldon work, I could do stuff like “After the Rain” for the rest of my life, and people would say, “Oh, there she goes doing her Wendy Whelan thing again.” I would love that, because I love that piece, but I’m not going to keep growing that way.
PHIL CHAN: You don’t want to be Maya Plisetskaya?
WENDY WHELAN: Doing “The Dying Swan” at 85? Not really. I don’t want to do that. That’s just another way of killing myself, staying the same. A slower death, but definitely a death if you don’t keep churning that juice out of the lemon, you know? You have to keep getting that juice out. One of the things I find myself thinking about a lot of talking about a lot is the arts in general. People go to the arts sometimes because they are forced. They didn’t grow up with the arts. And the more the arts are pulled from our culture and not funded by our government, the fewer people are going to arts programs and the less connected they will be to the arts. That deep intrinsic rudimental part of ourselves that you can’t really talk about or see is a deep seed within each of us human beings in the depths of our spiritual soul. You lose touch with that and you’re not affected by the arts, the arts can’t get into you, or you can’t relate to them, we start to lose some part of ourselves. Some free part of ourselves. The really rich human depth of ourselves which is really like the most beautiful part of ourselves. It’s something to share with ourselves and with other people. It’s something you don’t have to know about. You don’t have to train your eye for ballet or dance. You go, you sit with something, and you let it wash into you and you let things start to percolate in your head about it. It’s not like you have to understand it, but I think people need to realize it’s a gift to give ourselves. WE give it to ourselves. If we can allow that to be passed down from generation to generation…it’s hard to talk about, because it’s so intangible. A lot of people don’t want to go there.
PHIL CHAN: Do you feel a responsibility to give people that experience? To touch people who might not otherwise have that?
WENDY WHELAN: I just know how special it is when I get to that place, and I would love for other people to understand it too and to find it within themselves. I can’t force that on people, but I can offer it to people because I know how it feels like, and I know how extraordinary it is. I can send it people’s way, and they can take it or not. I love it so much – it’s my vocation, it’s my whole life. I have given my whole life to it. I don’t want to stop now. I’ve been given a huge gift, and I want to share that in any way I can, because it’s a rare thing.