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!"
Imagine this scenario: You get a text from a friend just as you're heading into ballet class, and have to answer as quickly as possible. Now, if you were heading into a juggling class, or water polo match, or fencing practice, you'd be able to send a quick emoji in response. But alas, you're forced to type out a full sentence. Because, to the ballet world's collective frustration, There. Is. No. Ballet. Emoji. Until now...
According to Emojipedia, the site for all things emoji-related, a ballet shoe emoji is slated to come out later this year (the exact date hasn't been announced yet) as part of Emoji Version 12.0. The proposal came from Australia-based tech company manager and ballet fan Rüdiger Landmann. Landmann proposed three separate ballet emojis: a ballerina, a male ballet dancer and a pair of pointe shoes. Only the pointe shoe emoji was approved, and we'll be honest, it doesn't look like any pointe shoe we've ever seen. It's more like a pink loafer with ribbons attached. But we're trying not to complain, as this is definitely a (wobbly, given the shape of that shoe) step in the right direction.
You might still be thinking wistfully of the figure skating choreography at the 2018 Winter Olympics or already looking forward to the gymnastics competition at next summer's games, but we're officially marking our calendars for Paris 2024. Why? There's an excellent chance that break dancing will make its Olympic debut.
The jukebox musical is a bonafide Broadway staple. Everyone from ABBA to Elvis and Billy Joel to The Beach Boys has been given the Great White Way treatment, and shows with Alanis Morissette's and Michael Jackson's hits are on their way. The big question on our minds is, What current artists' songs might we hear on Broadway in the future?
The fourth wall has come down, and it has opened up a whole new kind of gig for dancers. Since Sleep No More became a hit in 2011, immersive theater experiences have been shattering expectations by inviting audiences to move through the world of the performance as they please. What kind of skill set does this burgeoning art form demand?
For choreographer Raja Feather Kelly, music is simple: "There's good music and there's bad music and I love good music and I love to hate bad music."
But, true to form, Kelly—whose past few months have included choreographing the Skittles Super Bowl musical and earning one of our first-ever Harkness Promise Awards—had some surprises up his sleeve when he made us a playlist he describes as "for moody Geminis who work over 12 hours a day and need a playlist that can shuffle and never disappoint."
Though the playlist has some whiplash-inducing twists and turns—from Coheed and Cambria to Carly Rae Jepsen to Missy Elliott to Schubert—there is a through-line: "Music that makes you feel like you're in your own movie. I love walking through the street feeling like I'm on a runway, living my best life."
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Growing up, I never saw a problem with my dancing and neither did my Muslim-Egyptian dad or my non-Muslim, American mom. They raised me to understand that the core principles of Islam, of any religion, are meant to help us be better people. When I married my Pakistani husband, who comes from a more conservative approach to Islam, I suddenly encountered perceptions of dance that made me question everything: Is it okay to expose a lot of skin? Is it wrong to dance with other men? Is dance inherently sexual? What guidelines come from our holy book, the Quran, and what are cultural views that have become entwined in Islam?
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No matter how much anti–Valentine's Day sentiment I'm feeling in a given year, there's something about dancer couples that still makes me swoon. Here's a collection of wonderful posts from this year, but be warned: Continued scrolling is likely to give you a severe case of the warm fuzzies.
When Rennie Harris first heard that Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater had tapped him to create a new hour-long work, and to become the company's first artist in residence, he laughed.
"I'm a street dance choreographer. I do street dance on street dancers," he says. "I've never set an hour-long piece on any other company outside my own, and definitely not on a modern dance company."
Lately I've been having recurring dreams: I'm in an audition and I can't remember the combination. Or, I'm rehearsing for an upcoming show, onstage, and I don't know what comes next. Each time I wake up relieved that it was only a dream.
However, this is the reality of how I often felt throughout my dance career. Once I knew the steps, there was no undoing it. It was the process of getting there that haunts me to this day.
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?
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It's no longer just Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and the few pointe-clad male character parts, like in Cinderella or Alexei Ratmansky's The Bright Stream. Some male dancers are starting to experiment with pointe shoes to strengthen their feet or expand their artistic possibilities. Michelle Dorrance even challenged the men in her cast at American Ballet Theatre to perform on pointe last season (although only Tyler Maloney ended up actually doing it onstage).
The one problem? Pointe shoes have traditionally only been designed for women. Until now.
Camille Sturdivant, a former member of the Blue Valley Northwest High School dance team is suing the school district, alleging that she was barred from performing in a dance because her skin was "too dark."
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You wander through the grocery aisles, sizing up the newest trends on the shelves. Although you're eager to try a new energy bar, you question a strange ingredient and decide to leave it behind. Your afternoons are consumed with research as you sort through endless stories about "detox" miracles.
What started as an innocent attempt to eat healthier has turned into a time-consuming ritual with little room for error, and an underlying fear surrounding your food choices.