Wendy Whelan's Farewell
Everyone came prepared with tissues or hankies. But in the end, there weren’t many tears—at least not as many as predicted—because Whelan herself projected such joy.
I was very moved by her during the first ballet, Balanchine’s Sonnambula. It was an eerie choice for a farewell because the Sleepwalker seems to be a ghost who has come back to life. Whelan’s timing, especially in the moment when she ducks under the Poet’s (Robert Fairchild's) arm, reflects her intuitiveness. The Sleepwalker doesn’t see him, but feels his presence. That’s when I teared up. Like the Sleepwalker, Whelan’s dancing is so much about intuition, about knowing something from the other senses beside sight. Yes, she uses her intelligence to think through every move, but onstage it’s a matter of instinct.
When she reappeared as the girl in apricot (yellow, really) in an excerpt from Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering, she lifted and opened her arms with a fullness that spoke of her joy. The radiance in her face gave off sparks of happiness, making the five other dancers more buoyant than usual. Her jump may not be as high as it once was, but she spread sunshine all over the stage.
In Wheeldon’s After the Rain, Whelan’s attention to every small movement equals the delicacy of the pianist and violinist playing the spare notes of Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel. There is something spiritual about that kind of attention; it pulls the audience into a welcome quietness every time. When Craig Hall lifts her, she has a special kind of lightness. It’s not the ethereal, fluttery lightness of a romantic sylph; it’s the lightness of a mind with no baggage, a mind that’s active and at peace with itself. Air is her element.
And yet she can be close to the earth too. In the pièce d’occasion for the evening, she stooped to the floor in Ratmansky’s section (which I believe she does in both his Russian Seasons and his recent Pictures at an Exhibition). He also choreographed her being lifted by Tyler Angle and Craig Hall, her two regular partners, in a way that allowed her to recede upstage…a poignant fading away that was exquisitely right for the occasion.
Because of her Restless Creature project and other plans for the future (see my “10 Minutes With…” in the September issue) the modern dancers in the audience were less weepy than the ballet-only crowd. We know we will see her in the future. As I wrote in Dance Magazine in March 2003 (it’s in my book too), “Wendy Whelan is the ballerina modern dancers love.” Now of course the whole ballet world loves her—for her generous nature as well as for her era-defining dancing.
As is the custom with farewells, fellow principals and others of note walked onstage to pay their respects. Whelan hugged or kissed each one, or was lifted and twirled. Legendary ballet star Jacques d’Amboise started waltzing with her. Graceful and gracious in her spontaneity, she gave the love back to each person. (Her graciousness was also pointed out by Jennifer Stahl in this posting last week.)
If you haven’s seen it on Facebook yet, below is a clip of Wendy's accepting a hug from her husband David Michalek, then jumping/lilting for joy, and you will see why she changed the mood in the entire Koch Theater from sadness to laughter. I think everyone felt glad to be living in the time of Wendy Whelan.
The coming weeks see not one, but two companies that can best be described as French cultural mash-ups landing at New York City's Joyce Theater.
It was a Christmas Eve that The Lion King dancer India Bolds will never forget.
Exhausted from a long week of performances, Bolds was clueless when she saw her cast mates randomly dancing in Broadway's Minskoff Theater lobby, and even more confused when they morphed into a choreographed flash mob. But when her boyfriend of four years, Dale Browne, popped up in the mob wearing a beautiful blue suit, she realized what was coming.
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
Back in the 80s, Molissa Fenley introduced a luscious, almost Eastern-feeling torque in the body that made her work compelling to watch. Her sculptural shapes and fierce momentum showed a different kind of female strength than we had seen. Now, as part of The Kitchen's series on composer Julius Eastman, Fenley has remounted her 1986 Geologic Moments, the second half of which she had developed with Eastman. The result, which premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music, is a richly textured piece in both music and dance. (The first half has music by Philip Glass.)
When Paul Taylor created Beloved Renegade on Laura Halzack in 2008, he gave unequivocal instructions. She was the figure, sometimes referred to as the angel of death, who circles dancer Michael Trusnovec in a compassionate, yet emphatic way.
"He choreographed every single step for me," she says. "He showed it to me—do this développé, reach here, turn here, a very specific idea," she says. His guidance was that she be cool and sweet. Then, she says, "he just let me become her. That's where I really earned Paul's trust."
From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.
Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'
I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.
When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."
But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series