I Think I Found the Key to Wendy Whelan's Mystery

October 27, 2009

I’ve always found her quality of alertness something really special, but I know it’s more than that that makes her an amazing dancer. Last night Damian Woetzel hosted an evening of Wendy Whelan dancing and talking in a new series called “Studio 5 at City Center.” To see a dancer of Wendy’s caliber perform Balanchine, Robbins,  Ratmansky, Wheeldon in an intimate space—what a treat!. Watching her close up, you see the juiciness, you see her enjoying the pulls within her body.

She performed the duet from Agon with Jared Angle (which, Damian pointed out, was created by NYCB there at City Center in 1957), a solo variation from Robbins’ crazy The Cage, an excerpt from Balanchine’s Chaconne (unbelievably soft and floaty), and many other wonders. “You never stop learning,” was one of her mottos.

Damian, who was wearing jeans, jumped right in to dance a section of Mozartiana with her—now that was fun.  (It might be nice to see more duets where one partner wears jeans and boots to the other partner’s leotard & tights.) She also did a delicious section of Forsythe’s Herman Schmerman, after which Damian called her a “linguist” because she learns a new language each time. (For this there was a tape of Thom Willems’ music, but for most other bits, Cameron Grant played piano.) She danced Apollo with ABT’s David Hallberg, and later Tiler Peck performed the opening passage of Theme and Variations with Hallberg. Damian called this a “détente” between the two big companies. Ratmansky’s new/old Bolero is part of the Morphoses season at City Center this week, and Wendy showed a section of it here—rangy, really nice movement. Ratmansky on Whelan: “I love her sense of humor and self-irony. I’ve worked with many great ballerinas, and she is the most normal.”

Of course Christopher Wheeldon showed up (his own company, with Whelan, opens this week at City Center). In a casual, but spectacular tribute, he said, “I don’t think I many anything good until I worked with Wendy.” And she proceeded to dance his Continuum, originally made for SFB—so spare, so expectant.

One clue to Whelan’s dance spirit is that, in addition to being precise in her body, she can also be vulnerable. Turns out, this is very conscious. “When I had my first injury,” she said, “I learned I can be vulnerable.

Her last gift to us was dancing Balanchine’s romantic Liebeslieder Walzer with Jared Angle. At one point, she was walking toward the corner where I was sitting and I could see her face looking upward as she extended her arm as though to touch the air, I suddenly realized that she is actually SEEING something. I don’t know if she is seeing the trees or the forest, or seeing a divine being or seeing into herself, but she sees something out there. Where another dancer is just doing the movement and trying to approximate a mood, all her senses are alive and taking the world in—on both physical and spiritual levels. Maybe this is the reason I can’t get enough of her dancing. She is not only an object for us to perceive, but she is actively perceiving too. Totally present. Another way to think about it is that she has reached a spiritual level, minus the usual diva theatricality that often goes with that. I think that is way, as Damian said (and I’ve said and felt too), she has taken ballet into the 21st century.