Why I Dance: Wendy Whelan

February 28, 2009

With diamond-like clarity, Wendy Whelan dances a wide variety of starring roles with New York City Ballet. While growing up in Kentucky, she trained at Louisville Ballet Academy. At 13 she came to NYC to study at the School of American Ballet and joined NYCB five years later. Since 1991, when she was named a principal, she has brought her special brand of luster to Balanchine’s
Agon, Jewels, Mozartiana, Liebeslieder Walzer, Union Jack and many more. She has also made her mark in Robbins’ The Cage, Peter Martins’ Swan Lake, and Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH. But it is as Christopher Wheeldon’s muse that she has proved an utterly beguiling ballerina, imbuing his oddly broken lines with a haunting depth. She created lead roles in his Polyphonia, Liturgy, After the Rain, and The Nightingale and the Rose. A 2007 Dance Magazine Award recipient, Whelan has also performed as a guest artist with The Royal Ballet, the Kirov Ballet, and Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company.

I have always needed to dance; my life has never been without it. I’ve been a practitioner of the art form since nearly the day I could walk. My mother thought a toddler ballet class would be a great outlet for my excessive energy. It proved to be the perfect creative release and, as she’d hoped, it buffered the rough play I exhibited toward my baby sister. How lucky for me to find, through these lessons, not only a heightened awareness of my body, but also a vocation.

I was about 7 when I saw a real ballet dancer up close. I was waiting to attend my first rehearsal as a mouse in the Louisville Ballet’s Nutcracker. I stood in the doorway watching her take company class. Her name was Karen, and she stood out to me for her beautiful arching lines. We eventually became friends. I will never forget her or all the beauty swirling around in that room. The building was an old factory, the dancers were wearing layers of colorful warmers, and the sunlight that showered through the windows covered them in golden warmth. The smell of leather and sweat, the sound of rosin being crushed, the creative wit and humor of the dancers balancing out the quiet intensity of their work—I found it all intoxicating.

I saw then, as I do now, the world of dance as an intimate and sensual place where deep bonds are built through the collaborative effort of making the unnatural seem effortless. Dancers who work together day after day can’t help but know each other’s mannerisms and weaknesses, vulnerabilities and strengths. We are constantly revealing ourselves to each other through our movement; learning from and teaching each other without even trying. I am inspired by the deep connections I have cultivated with my colleagues through dance.

I have been fortunate to work with some great teachers and choreographers and have gained tremendous insight from them. They always spark my creativity. With them, I make daily discoveries by translating their ideas into my body. I rarely get there in one try, which requires me to look inside myself for answers. I think of this as my daily bread because without this kind of creative exercise I feel empty.

I love to perform, but the process of working toward each performance enriches me just as much. I have always loved class for the purpose of gaining control of my body. Class is the place where I awaken my thought process each day. I love to feed my body ideas, and I get a tremendous thrill when it responds positively to a good one. It’s amazing to apply a correction and moments later gain an ability that had previously been challenging. I love rehearsals for the alchemy of a partnership, the unexpected surprises that occur, or the poetry in the unfolding of a step.

Dance has always been my silent partner. We communicate each day and, like every relationship, sometimes struggle to understand each other. Dancing has worked me to the extremes of exhaustion and exhilaration. It has given me anxiety and soothed me from it. It has nursed me through heartache. Dance has asked me to define my individuality and to redefine my notions of beauty. It has made me aware of my ego and the complexities of having one. Dance has shown me the beauty of humility and has helped me develop a capacity for awareness. As dancers we work within an art form that lives and dies in nearly the same instant and, in this sense, offers us powerful lessons in mortality.

Wendy Whelan and Nikolaj Hübbe in Balanchine’s
Liebeslieder Walzer. Photo by Erin Baiano/Paul Kolnik Studio, Courtesy NYCB, © Balanchine Trust.