Wendy Whelan’s Farewell at New York City Ballet

Wendy Whelan in George Balanchine's "Symphony in Three Movements", photo courtesy of New York City Ballet

Wendy Whelan in George Balanchine’s “Symphony in Three Movements”, photo courtesy of New York City Ballet

“There is so much untapped movement in me.” These are some of the words Wendy Whelan shared in a video clip shown last Saturday evening at her final performance as a principal dancer with New York City Ballet. Even though she has already had a remarkable 30-year career with the company, and at 47, is a dinosaur in the ballet world, Whelan is in no way retiring from dancing. Thankfully. According to Whelan, she has a lot more to say through dance now than she ever did in her twenties.

While it is a huge loss for City Ballet, where she debuted countless original roles by rising choreographers and put her own unique stamp on myriad roles in works by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, the tone at Saturday’s farewell was celebratory and upbeat. Footage from a forthcoming documentary about Whelan emphasized that she is already making moves in the contemporary dance world. Her Restless Creature collaboration with four contemporary choreographers continues touring this spring, and she has other projects in the works. If it’s not already clear, every dancer and choreographer is dying to work with her.

Wendy Whelan and Albert Evans in Balanchine's "Agon", photo by Paul Kolnik

Wendy Whelan and Albert Evans in George Balanchine’s “Agon”, photo by Paul Kolnik

My first glimpse of Whelan was sometime in 1992. I was seven years old and fortunate to regularly attend New York City Ballet performances with my parents. I was watching Balanchine’s Agon, which doesn’t look anything like what a very young, aspiring ballet dancer imagines ballet to be. I remember focusing on one dancer the whole time. She had sharp features and a severity to her movement and poise that was riveting. During intermission, I looked through the principal’s photos in my Playbill and identified the dancer as Whelan. She became a favorite. Her ethereal, otherworldly quality in works including Opus 19/The Dreamer and La Sonnambula (performed at her farewell to breathtaking effect) spoke to me in a way that is still difficult to describe.

In a 2006 New York Times article, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon said the following about Whelan, and it’s one of my favorite – and most accurate, I think – descriptions of her:

“Wendy can take your breath away and you don’t understand why – you don’t understand why watching a leg unfold can speak volumes, or how she can make you feel there is something inexpressibly beautiful about it. Something about Wendy reminds me of the dangerous beauty you see in an orchid.”

Wendy Whelan as the Sleepwalker in Balanchine's "La Sonnambula", photo by Paul Kolnik

Wendy Whelan as the Sleepwalker in George Balanchine’s “La Sonnambula”, photo by Paul Kolnik

Whelan soared when rising choreographers, most notably Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky, started creating works for her. And over the years, she has emphasized that new work is what drives her. From Polyphonia to Liturgy to Concerto DSCH to Russian Seasons, Whelan has shown that – perhaps more than any other dancer at NYCB – her utterly singular dance language comes through in new ballets. Wheeldon has referred to her as his muse. While many other dancers have stepped in to roles that she has originated, they still “belong” to her – she has made them so distinctively her own.

On Saturday she performed excerpts from Wheeldon’s After the Rain and Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH, both which include strong themes of belonging and departing. In the former, she was the air to Craig Hall’s earth, moving with a transcendent mystical power. In DSCH, there was a somber tone that showed Whelan’s lyrical side as she and Tyler Angle moved among a tight-knit community. It felt all too real, as she stepped away from this group of younger dancers in the final scene.

Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall in Christopher Wheeldon's "After the Rain", photo by Bill Cooper

Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall in Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain”, photo by Bill Cooper

Given Whelan’s affinity for new work and commitment to continue dancing post-NYCB, it was fitting that her farewell included a world premiere, By 2 With & From, which was choreographed by both Wheeldon and Ratmansky for the occasion. It will not be performed again, which feels right. Set to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons recomposed by Max Richter, Whelan was playful and sharp in her partnering with Angle and Hall – two younger dancers who learned much about pas de deux from their work with Whelan. Most of the piece was a blur as I tried to savor her final moments on this stage. The ballet ended with Whelan aloft, looking up, with the other dancers gazing in her direction.

I have never seen a stage full of colleagues and friends showing so much respect, love, and admiration for a fellow dancer. The bows, tears, and cheers went on for forty-five minutes. It was not good-bye, but rather thank you for so much talent, integrity, and artistry, and good luck with the next stage of an already phenomenal career. Onward.

Wendy Whelan's final bow with New York City Ballet

Wendy Whelan’s final bow with New York City Ballet, photo by Evan Namerow

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Petition to Live Stream Wendy Whelan’s Farewell Performance

wendy_whelanOn October 18, Wendy Whelan will end her 30-year career at New York City Ballet with a farewell performance. It sold out in minutes, and plenty of her fans won’t be able to watch in person. Over the weekend, a petition was started on Facebook to get New York City Ballet to live stream the performance. The page already has more than 1,000 likes. If you support this effort, go ahead and give it a thumbs up. It will be quite a win if City Ballet listens and moves forward with live streaming. And it would surely be memorable and meaningful for Whelan’s fans around the world.

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Alexei Ratmansky at the New York Public Library

Alexei Ratmansky, photo by Paul Kolnik

This Wednesday, October 8, choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, who is the current Artistic Director of the Bolshoi Ballet and Artist in Residence at American Ballet Theatre, will sit down with Paul Holdengräber to discuss his career. Get tickets here. The event is a co-presentation with NYU’s new Center for Ballet and the Arts.

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Ira Glass, Monica Bill Barnes, & Anna Bass at Town Hall

Monica Bill Barnes, Ira Glass, and Anna Bass, photo by David Bazemore

Monica Bill Barnes, Ira Glass, and Anna Bass, photo by David Bazemore

Sitting in the dark on Thursday night at Town Hall, radio host Ira Glass and dancers Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass can be heard debating how to start their show. Ira suggests a segment not unlike what listeners hear on This American Life. The dancers prefer something with more sparkle and pizzazz. They get their way, bursting out from behind a red curtain in sequenced dresses with confetti showering onto the stage. So begins Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host, which the trio has been touring across the country and made its NYC debut this past week.

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YoungArts Awareness Day – #KeepArtsAlive

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Today, the National YoungArts Foundation (YoungArts), the non-profit organization that contributes to the cultural vitality of the nation by supporting the artistic development of talented young artists, is celebrating YoungArts Awareness Day, a nationwide initiative to help “keep arts alive.” Encouraging everyone who has a creative instinct to take part, YoungArts Awareness Day is featuring pop-up performances and events in Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, and New York City.

Throughout the day, YoungArts invites all artists to share their work and tell their personal story of why the arts matter on social media and to connect with YoungArts Awareness Day through the tags #keepartsalive, #youngarts, and #youngartsawarenessday.

In New York, YoungArts Alumni will be doing “Pop-Up” performances at Time Warner Center in Columbus Circle from 12:00-1:30 PM EST. YoungArts Alumni include:

  • Pascal LeBoeuf (2004, Jazz Keyboard)
  • Josh Page (2008, Classical Voice)
  • Bihn Park (2014, Cello)
  • Gabe Schnider (2011, Jazz Guitar)
  • Third Story, featuring alumni Elliott Skinner (2013, Jazz Voice), Richard Saunders (2008, Jazz Voice) and Ben Lusher (2010, Jazz Voice)
  • Caleb Teicher (2011, Tap)
  • Grace Weber, (2006, Pop Voice)
  • Mark Whitfield, Jr, (2009, Jazz Percussion)
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