“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.
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.”
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.
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.