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!"
The connections dancers make in college are no joke. For recent alum Gabrielle Hamilton, working with guest choreographer John Heginbotham at Point Park University put her on the fast track to Broadway—not in an ensemble role, but as the lead dancer in one of this season's hottest tickets: Daniel Fish's arresting reboot of Oklahoma!
We caught up with Hamilton about starring in the show's dream ballet and her delightfully bizarre pre-show ritual.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Last Friday, through an appeal to an independent arbitrator, the American Guild of Musical Artists successfully reinstated NYCB principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro, previously fired for allegedly circulating sexually explicit texts containing nude photos.
AGMA opposed Ramasar and Catazaro's terminations in order to prevent the setting of a dangerous precedent that would allow dancers to be fired under less understandable consequences. But we cannot allow future cases to dictate the way we handle this situation—particularly a union committed to "doing everything in [its] power to ensure you have a respectful environment in which to work."
But according to the H+ | The Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory, one in every three dancers in New York City lives under the poverty line, and may lack the resources to purchase the ingredients they need to make nutritious meals.
Not to mention the fact that dancers are busy, and often running around from class to rehearsal to performance to side hustle, grabbing whatever they can get to eat on-the-go.
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.
You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.
"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.