Wendy Whelan's Farewell

October 19, 2014

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.