Thursday, June 27, 2013

Wendy Whelan: The Opposite is Also True

Wendy Whelan
photo by David Michalek

Wendy Whelan: The Opposite is Also True

by Troy Ogilvie

Wendy Whelan bursts in thirty minutes late to our first interview (only steps away from her Upper West Side apartment) because of some late-night partying with family and friends for her 46th birthday.  She enters the cafe wearing red lipstick that stands out against her long blonde hair—her talented husband, David Michalek, by her side.  Candid and incredibly down to earth, Whelan is generous and articulate with her words, confident and lively in demeanor.  
Whelan has begun her transition or, in her words, “transformation” from New York City Ballet (NYCB) into her own project: Restless Creature.  This new project will be revealed at Jacob’s Pillow in August 2013 and consists of four duets with four male choreographers.  Restless Creature will be the first endeavor for Whelan where she engages firsthand in production elements.  In the protected environment of NYCB she never had to fundraise, clarify her ‘brand’, or commission choreographers.  When asked about the additional workload, Whelan enthusiastically responds with “I want to do this.  It’s my debutante ball, my coming out party!”  She says that it is “easy to get spoiled at NYCB” because they have everything and while she appreciates it and continues to perform with the company, using her full voice will be exciting and fulfilling in a new way.  
While sitting in on a meeting between Belgian fashion designer Dries Van Noten and Michalek, Whelan was struck by the confidence and clarity of intention with which Van Noten spoke.  “He’s not settling for anything less than himself.  The integrity level was so inspiring.”  Getting ideas across exactly the way you want requires bravery and vulnerability; Whelan has dealt with this reality frequently as a performer.  “I’ve gotten years of bad reviews from [Alistair] Macaulay and it was so painful at first to get through all of that, just coming to terms with all the negativity towards me has made me let it go.”  Shedding the fear of critique has been a part of her process all along, although this time Whelan fans the creative flame behind the project in addition to being a performer.  Fortunately, Whelan has an optimistic and realistic view on life, ballasts that will aid her in navigating her new adventure.  One of the ideas that has served as Whelan’s compass throughout her long career is that “the opposite is also true.”
Whelan had several wise teachers in her youth who taught her optimism by flipping her perspective and enabling her to see opportunity even when her reality was frustrating.  When told at age twelve that she had severe scoliosis, her Louisville teachers encouraged her to continue coming to ballet class despite intensive treatment that at times included a full torso cast.  The experience helped her to focus on “squaring off [efficient body alignment] and gaining strength” which paid off in flexibility and control once the cast was off.  This brush with her immobilized self during a time when young dancers are anxious for high legs and flashy tricks, gave her an enviable solid backbone of technique.  Although the optimism of her discovery was grounded by the reality that scoliosis is never cured, Whelan still works and learns about her spiraled spine every day.  
These lessons in optimism and reality prepared her for an injury in 2003 where she tore some of her plantar fascia, the thick connective tissue which supports the arch of the foot, while performing a piece by William Forsythe onstage at the Bolshoi.  The tear put her out of commission for four months, the longest stretch she had ever taken off (“I don’t do vacations!”).  During this time, she became engaged to visual artist Michalek, whom she married in 2005.  Asked if she would have gotten around to marriage if she had not gotten injured, she replied, “No, I really wouldn’t have.  I had to break the pattern.  It was locked in like a piece of mylar, this is what you do, everyday.”  Although the discipline “frees” your spirit, the schedule can “freeze” your life.  Her ankle cast, while conjuring suffocating memories of her scoliosis confinement, created a break in her relentless schedule and gave her a glimpse into life outside of dance.  Having internalized those lessons in optimism from her teachers, she recognized her opportunity for growth.  
In a world where New York City Ballet exists and where the opposite is also true, there must necessarily exist a choreographer like Kyle Abraham.  His choreography has been described as a “ rough-around-the edges approach to a singular blend of hip hop, both lyrical and hard-hitting, and glued together by modern dance and ballet” (Jane Varnish, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).  Seeing his work, Whelan thought, “If I could ever dance like that from where I am now, I would be an amazing dancer.”  So she invited Abraham to choreograph a duet for the two of them as part of Restless Creature.  To give you an idea of the intensity of the challenge she has before her, famed ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov says it took him 20 years to fully transition into modern dance.  
While the early rehearsals were overwhelming, Whelan now feels like they are onto something.  “It was incredibly intimidating to start with him.  Just watching them [assistants Chalvar Monteiro and Rena Butler], I thought oh man, I’ve bitten off too much.”  So far, they’ve come to a compromise where “he’s doing his thing and he’s given me a limited vocabulary to try to embody.”  Her initial instincts are strong and she continues to be “intrigued and enamored by what he is doing” and enjoys the challenge of “biting into it, trying it.”  Modern dance and ballet have much in common, but their opposing qualities can make the two dance forms seem incongruous when seen on stage together.  
In process with Brian Brooks
             photo by Erin Baiano
The physicality and chemistry that Whelan feels when working with men sustains her inspiration and electrifies the space, which is why she chose to only collaborate with men on her first project.  Acknowledging the awkwardness of this admission, she says, “there’s something about pleasing the man.  You get excited when you please the man.  Gay or straight there’s a physical, sexual dynamic that gets in there and charges the piece.  It’s a power balance between a man and a woman.”  She has not felt this creative tension with female choreographers thus far.  “Maybe it’s from being in the dance world for so long, you know, Black Swan,” citing the Darren Aronofsky thriller.  Although she has only experienced a few “weird things,” the fantastic extremes portrayed by Natalie Portman’s character reveal a culture in the ballet world that puts women on high alert with one another.  
As the opposite is also true, she says “let’s get real and let’s think about another aspect of it that’s not built on this romantic ideal.  Let’s get off the pedestal, and jump down, get off and walk with everybody else.”  While the image of a tiaraed ballerina with long, clean lines defines the ideal, Wendy Whelan does not fear looking contorted or jagged onstage.  In fact, she often portrays ‘the novice’ in Jerome Robbins’ The Cage where a predatory female insect species teaches its young novice how to kill the male members.  She tells Wendy Perron in the article “Jerome Robbins Roles for Ballerina’s” (Dance Magazine, May 2012) that “I could use my weird assets.  Jerry let me go with that ballet.”  Whelan never saw herself as a “purebred Balanchine ballerina” but rather as a continuation of the Jerome Robbins legacy, especially since she experienced his exploration and experimentation first hand and felt a kindred curiosity.  It seems his celebration of her unique qualities gave him a special place in her heart.
Rutgers professor Daniel M. Ogilvie is a pioneer on the topic of the undesired self.  While most people spend their lives attempting to narrow the gap between their ideal self and their real self, Ogilvie sees real benefit in giving the undesired self its attention.  “The ideal self is cognitive while the undesired self is completely visceral and non-conceptual.”  In other words, the ideal self lies in images of beauty and perfection while the undesired self lives in the realities of an aging body.  One of the amazing aspects about the human condition lies in the way that body and brain harmony rely on the equal presence of both the ideal and undesired forces.  Too much ideal self and reality is lost.  Too much undesired self and stagnation ensues.  Whelan may have more of a handle on this topic than she realizes: “So you can feel one way but if you really search for it, you can find the opposite of it. So I try to do that all the time and I find it helps when you are struggling with something.  Even when you’re feeling high and mighty, it will keep you grounded so that you’re like, you know what? The opposite is always true.  It keeps you in tow.”
The day before our interview was not only her birthday.  It was the day she coached a younger dancer on one of her most renowned duets for a festival that for the first time in fifteen years did not invite Wendy to perform.  She always knew there was an “expiration date” when it came to ballerinas “of a certain age.”  Directors tend to “just look at that number more than anything and they say, move on.”  Although she had always watched on as the oldest dancers dealt with moving on from company life, she had not seen the inevitable move coming until it became her reality.  “This is the life part of the art,” she said on our interview.  “Right now I’m looking at this moment as the true moment of grace.”  She is acutely aware that as a ballerina “you’re a princess in the middle of the stage one second, with the lights on you, and then it’s over.”


Wendy Whelan was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky.  She began her dance training at age three.  Four years later she performed the role of a mouse in the Louisville Ballet’s production of  The Nutcracker.  In 1982, Ms. Whelan moved to New York to continue her studies full-time at the School of American Ballet and the Professional Children’s School.  She was invited to become a member of the New York City Ballet corps de ballet in 1986 and was promoted to principal dancer in 1991.  Ms. Whelan has performed the full spectrum of the Balanchine repertory.  Her roles range from the abstract ballets of Balanchine’s Agon, Episodes and  Symphony in Three Movements  to his more romantic works including  Liebeslieder Walzer, A Midsummer Nights Dream, and La Sonnambula.  She has danced the full-length classics such as Peter Martins’ Swan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty.  She worked closely with Jerome Robbins on many of his ballets, most notably, The Cage, Dances at a Gathering, In the Night and Opus 19/ The Dreamer.  Christopher Wheeldon has created leading roles for Ms Whelan in 13 of his ballets including,  Polyphonia, Liturgy, and After the Rain.  She has originated featured roles in the ballets of Alexei Ratmansky, as well as works by William Forsythe, Wayne McGregor, Jorma Elo, Shen Wei and Twyla Tharp.  In 2007, Ms Whelan performed with Morphoses the Wheeldon Company and was subsequently nominated for an Olivier Award and a Critics Circle Award for her performances on the London stage. She has been a guest artist with the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden and with the Kirov Ballet at the Maryinsky Theater in St Petersburg.  She received the 2007 Dance Magazine Award and in 2009 was given a Doctorate of Arts, honoris causa, from Bellarmine University.  In 2011, she was honored with both The Jerome Robbins Award and a Bessie award for her Sustained Achievement in Performance.  Ms. Whelan appeared as Arabian Coffee in the film version of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker and has appeared in numerous televised broadcasts of Live From Lincoln Center, on PBS.  In 2010, she starred in the dance film Labyrinth Within, by the award winning Swedish choreographer and filmmaker, Pontus Lidberg.

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