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Wendy Whelan has Reinvented Herself—And Doesn't Care What You Think About It
Wendy Whelan gave away all her leotards in December. It was a Christmas surprise for her Ballet Academy East students—and an experiment. By getting rid of her uniform of more than 30 years, she hoped her muscle memory would let go of old movement patterns.
"The minute I got myself out of leotards, my body opened up: I didn't feel so strict and tight and bound," she says. "I never expected you could change so much from the outside-in."
Leaving the ballet world—and life inside such a massive institution as New York City Ballet—has been a revelatory experience for the former reigning ballerina. Since retiring from the company in 2014, she's taken on everything from dance theater collaborations with Royal Ballet star Edward Watson to a multidisciplinary opera choreographed by David Neumann to grounded modern dance duets with Brian Brooks.
She doesn't have a defined vision of where she's going so much as a mission to explore what's possible. With no structured company schedule telling her what to do, she can seek out whatever work she wants, with whomever she connects with.
"I feel like I can be myself," says Whelan, who's turning 50 this month. "I'm thinking and doing things I never would have imagined as a ballet dancer."
Giving away her leotards at BAE. Photo via @wendyw on Instagram
"You want more air around your face," says coach Risa Steinberg after a run-through. "A sense of waft." Whelan widens her eyes, smiles, then gives Brooks a high five: "We texted about 'waft'!"
It's clear that the studio is her happy place, and moving is her most natural mode of being. In a T-shirt and Adidas pants, her hair in a loose braid down her back, she works on using more plié, bringing her pelvis with her, moving through her back space.
Yet even in this new vocabulary with its new challenges, she retains the same enigmatic qualities that made her a ballet star. The arc of her toes—now in socks—etches the space with precision; a simple lift of her arm feels poetic even if you can't quite figure out why.
"I don't intend to make masterpieces—that's not my goal," Whelan says later. (Indeed, some of her projects have met mixed reception.) "I just want to move, and be challenged by people I'm inspired by."
Rehearsing with Brooks. Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy Whelan
In her bracingly forthright manner—she's as equally allergic to ego as she is to false modesty—Whelan says she feels her choices have been judged by some in the ballet world. Once, shortly after retiring, she introduced Brooks to an administrator from NYCB, who looked down at Brooks' bare feet and literally rolled his eyes.
"There's a hierarchy in dance where ballet is the higher art and that's the way a lot of people see it," she says. "I don't know what to think or say about that."
She admits she can fall back into that hierarchical mindset when she's in her former stomping grounds. "I feel a pang of an old thing; it's a little like a scar," she says.
But what she's doing now feels like the right choice: It's more "her" for where she is at this point in her career. As much as she loves ballet, what she wants most is to just keep moving. "I'm not trying to be something I was or something I'm not. And if somebody wants to roll their eyes at that, so be it."
Her new focus isn't entirely surprising. "She's always had a contemporary sensibility as a person and a dancer," says New York City–based choreographer Kathy Westwater, who's known Whelan since they were both preteen ballet students in Louisville, Kentucky. She adds that throughout her ballet career, Whelan was well-known as a muse, bringing her mysterious je ne sais quoi to the creative process with choreographers like William Forsythe and Christopher Wheeldon.
In Wheeldon's Liturgy. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy Dancers Responding to AIDS
"Although she'd never call herself a choreographer, her intuitive suggestions and her instincts contribute on an exceptional level," says Brooks. "The way she moves, she's like the aria of an opera—that suspension, that lift, the way she holds a moment with her extension or her port de bras or her focus."
Brooks says that he had an epiphany recently while watching Wheeldon's After the Rain. Having previously seen Whelan in the piece, he saw it performed by other dancers and could still see Whelan in the choreography, particularly her physical sense of timing. "Her urge to suspend, pause, elongate—I saw that integrated, and I feel it when collaborating with her."
Part of Whelan's magic in the studio comes down to how easy to work with, how humble, she is. "She's an anti-diva," says her husband, the acclaimed photographer David Michalek, who confesses that her habit of getting to know every security guard and crew member was part of what made him fall in love with her.
"She leads with, 'Teach me. Show me something I don't know,' " says Brooks. Back in rehearsal, when Brooks mentions he doesn't want to draw the focus off her, she facetiously jokes, "Oh, no, you couldn't upstage the divine Ms. W."
Those who don't know Whelan are often surprised by her whip-smart sense of humor—particularly her shockingly dirty jokes. "She can make a brother blush!" exclaims Kyle Abraham, who choreographed on her for Restless Creature, during her last year at NYCB. "It's like, 'Oh, you really are so real.' "
Whelan doesn't take for granted any of what she's doing today. For four years, she struggled with debilitating hip pain, and feared she might have to leave dancing behind. In Restless Creature, a documentary about her last year with NYCB (hitting select theaters this month), footage shows the terror in her face and her quick breaths as she talks about how the pain might affect her ability to dance.
"From what I knew, when you get a hip replacement, you don't dance again," she says. "I watched Suzanne Farrell get her hip replaced, and then retire. I watched Merrill Ashley get her hip replaced, and then retire."
Whelan had a surgical reconstruction on her hip in 2013 but avoided total hip replacement surgery until December 2015, when the pain got so bad that her husband had to carry her down the street because she couldn't walk. She found a doctor who used a new surgical method that allowed her to do everything from jumps to the splits again eight months later. She now has about 90 percent of her abilities back for what she wants to do. "To get my hip back, I feel like I got my life back."
Even more than that, life feels bigger for her now. For one thing, she's gotten political and has lost any inhibitions about sharing her views. Friends now seriously encourage her to run for senate, despite her lack of a college degree.
"I was never like that as a ballet dancer, never, never," she says. "When you're in one building with a group of people for 10 hours a day for 30 years, you get really good at navigating that bubble."
As much as she cherishes her time being part of that, she knows how lucky she is to experience the world outside of it, too. "Being able to use my voice, to have the confidence to say, 'This is how I think,' I'm digging that." She adds, "A lot of people don't like me anymore on Instagram. And that's okay."
Her worldview has evolved along with her changing expectations of herself. As Michalek puts it, "Crudely speaking, at NYCB she was an employee. People were making decisions for her." Now, she's become an entrepreneur, arranging projects, gathering collaborators, securing funding, finding management.
Almost all of the projects she's done since 2014 are opportunities she's orchestrated herself. Few artists approach her to collaborate, which she guesses might be due partly to her outsized reputation as a ballet star. "But," she says, "if someone wants to call me, I'm always open to hear!"
My dance coach wants my word that I'll keep competing under his school's name for the next year and not audition. I'm 18 years old and already doing lead roles and winning medals. I love his teaching, but shouldn't I be ready to go out and get a job?
—Gil, Las Vegas, NV
How do we make ballet, a traditionally homogeneous art form, relevant to and reflective of an increasingly diverse and globalized era? While established companies are shifting slowly, Richard Siegal/Ballet of Difference, though less than 2 years old, has something of a head start. The guiding force of the company, which is based in Germany, is bringing differences together in the same room and, ultimately, on the same stage.
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
Claude Debussy's only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, emphasizes clarity and subtlety over high-flung drama as a deadly love triangle unfolds. Opera Vlaanderen and Royal Ballet of Flanders are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the composer's death with a new production of the landmark opera that is sure to be anything but traditional: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet are choreographing and directing, while boundary-pushing performance artist Marina Abramović collaborates on the design. Antwerp, Feb. 2–13. Ghent, Feb. 23–March 4. operaballet.be/en.
Black History Month offers a time to reflect on the artists who have shaped the dance field as we know it today. But equally important is celebrating the black artists who represent the next generation. These seven up-and-comers are making waves across all kinds of styles and across the country:
When a new director began transforming Atlanta Ballet a couple of years ago, longtime dancer Alessa Rogers decided to finally explore her dream of dancing in Europe. "I always had this wanderlust," she says. She wasn't set on a particular city or company, but thought learning French would be fun. She began her research that September, making note of repertoire and the number of dancers as well as which companies employed foreign, non–European Union dancers. "I saw that Ballet du Rhin was looking for dancers," says Rogers. "They also had a new director coming in, so I thought it could be an opportunity." After sending a video, Rogers traveled during her layoff week to take company class. She was offered a job on the spot.
Uprooting and moving out of the country, far away from your support system, language and customs, is not something to take lightly. While it can push you as an artist and be an exciting opportunity for personal growth, working as a dancer in a foreign country comes with its challenges. Lots of research and an adventurous spirit are required.
Justin Lynch is surprisingly nonchalant about the struggles of being a full-time lawyer and a professional dancer. "All dancers in New York City are experts at juggling multiple endeavors," he says. "What I'm doing is no different from what any other dancer does—it's just that what I'm juggling is different."
While we agree that freelance dancers are pro multitaskers, we don't really buy Lynch's claim that what he does isn't extraordinary. In fact, we're pretty mind-boggled by the career he's built for himself.
At the annual Gala de Danza in Los Cabos, Mexico, the lineup of performers is usually pretty typical gala fare: You can expect celebrity performers like Lil Buck, reality stars like Ballet West's Beckanne Sisk and "So You Think You Can Dance" finalist Tate McRae, plus principals from top companies like New York City Ballet's Tiler Peck and Daniel Ulbricht.
What's absolutely not typical? The venue.
At 5'10" I felt like an ant in the studio with Alonzo King LINES Ballet. The San Francisco-based company is full of statuesque dancers whose passion is infectious. Every story was told not only through their movement, but through the expression on their faces and their connection to one another.
We talked to artistic director Alonzo King about his love of collaborations and why he thinks politicians need to dance more.