Kindness Counts: How Wendy Whelan Changed NYCB

There were many wonderful things about the new documentary Wendy Whelan: Restless Creature. One of them was her vulnerability in talking about leaving New York City Ballet after 30 years. I was almost crying too. But what keeps ringing in my mind is something Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic director and former NYCB dancer Peter Boal says.

The filmmakers, Adam Schlesinger and Linda Saffire, followed Whelan for a year, and caught glimpses of some of her conversations with old friends. Whelan and Boal, who had danced together when they were both principals at NYCB, meet together for a chat in the plaza of Lincoln Center. He expresses his admiration for her in words something like this: “You knew everyone's name. When you walked into a room, you would say hello to everyone. You changed the culture at City Ballet. Before you, dancers were like, Get out of my way."

I know what he means. I've seen Whelan greet not only other dancers, but also security guards, with effervescence. (Disclaimer: I appear in about three seconds of the film.) Her effect on other dancers was so clear the night of her farewell. Besides her contagious exuberance onstage in the excerpt from Dances at a Gathering, the endless applause from the company at her final curtain call made it clear how well loved she was.

I wondered whether the positive effect of her presence still holds, now that it's been two years since she left NYCB. I asked two corps dancers, Silas Farley and Claire Kretzschmar, whom I ran into at the New York Film Festival screening on October 10, whether her warming effect still holds. They both said absolutely—they still feel her influence in the work environment.

Whelan really does care about the people she works with. One of the most moving scenes in the film is when she talks about what she will miss. She gets teary when discussing the relationships she's formed over the years. And in this "Why I Dance" from 2009, you can see that she has made attachments to teachers, choreographers and other dancers. That's not unusual for a dancer, but Whelan spreads her good cheer and loving nature to the whole company.

I hope that dancers everywhere can apply Whelan's sense of community on a daily basis. Dancers' lives are difficult and we all compete with each other to some degree. But that should not dampen our appreciation for our peers. Kindness counts.

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May 2021