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!"
For the past 3 years, choreographer Stephen Petronio has been reviving groundbreaking works of postmodern dance through his BLOODLINES project. This season, although his company will be performing a work by Merce Cunningham, his own choreography moves in a more luxurious direction. We stepped into the studio with Petronio and his dancers where they were busy creating a new work, Hardness 10, named for the categorization of diamonds.
'Tis the season to have some fun in the kitchen. If you want to get more creative than simply baking another pumpkin pie, try these Nutcracker-themed treats—created by and for dancers. These recipes from former Boston Ballet and Joffrey Ballet dancers were first published in Dance Magazine's December 1990 issue. Today, they're still guaranteed to turn any holiday party or dressing room into a true Land of the Sweets.
It's no secret that affording college is a challenge for many students. And for dancers, there are added complications, like the relative lack of merit scholarships that take artistic talent into consideration and the improbability of a stable salary to pay off loans post-graduation. But no matter your budget, a smart approach to the application process can help you focus less on money and more on your training.
According to Drexel University performing arts department head Miriam Giguere, figuring out the kind of financial assistance a school offers is just as important as navigating what kind of dance program you want. Here's how to incorporate finances into your decision-making process:
When dancers get injured, they often think they should eat less. The thought process goes something like, Since I'm not able to move as much as I usually do, I'm not burning enough calories to justify the portions I'm used to.
But the truth is, scaling back your meals could actually be detrimental to your healing process.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"
Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.
Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.
As we approach Thanksgiving, there's much to be grateful for. Perhaps one of the most important things on your list is dance. Whether you're a full-time company member, an aspiring professional, an audience member, or you simply delight in dancing in your daydreams, this art form is a creative escape.
That's not to say that being a dancer is easy: Pursuing such a competitive career can be heartbreaking, especially when you're faced with rejection.
La Folía, a short dance film by director Adam Grannick that was recently released online, echoes these sentiments in under 12 minutes.
It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.
—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT