Wendy Whelan: Curious and Open (With a Sense of Humor)

co-authored by Ellen Dobbyn-Blackmore
New York City Ballet's Wendy Whelan, photo by David Michalek

Wendy Whelan, the much beloved principal dancer for New York City Ballet, is already a legend. Her career has spanned an astonishing 29 years during which she has done pretty much everything imaginable. Her repertoire is essentially an encyclopedia of New York City Ballet's great roles for women augmented with guest appearances across the globe. She has become an institution unto herself but everything has to end someday, even Wendy Whelan's illustrious career.

Following hip surgery, Whelan has undergone extensive physical therapy and recently resumed performing in her Restless Creature project. Her final show with NYC Ballet is coming up on October 18th, however she is far from done with performing. She will continue to collaborate with choreographers on new works and is set to embark on a whole new career that will have her teaching at Ballet Academy East (BAE).

Whelan granted an interview following her class at BAE during which she talked about leaving the stage and what's important to her as a dancer, teacher and artist. There's a genuine, unpretentious openness and honesty to Whelan that makes it easy to see why she is so well liked. She will be missed like few others when she steps down from NYC Ballet. Her remarks have been edited for brevity and continuity.

AB-D: Are you still on schedule to do your final show with New York City Ballet on October 18th?

WW: I have a few ballets in the fall season and then the last one on October 18th. Next year I have a tour with my Restless Creature program and I have two other projects that I'm working on.

AB-D: Is there a plan for your final performance yet?

WW: It's not public knowledge yet. I'm still developing what I want to do and feeling out the level to which I can push my leg and hip. It won't be Bugaku or Agon, I'll tell you that.

AB-D: Are you going to be choreographing?

WW: I'm not going to choreograph ever. I can barely choreograph combinations. I'm always going to seek collaborators and choreographers that I want to work with.

AB-D: So, this is the end of one long chapter and the beginning of another. What are your thoughts as this one wraps up?

WW: I'm so ready to open a new chapter. My body is feeling better and I'm feeling stronger. I'm doing all of class now which is great. I did lots of rehab and I'm gaining confidence. I did Restless Creature and danced for an hour straight for seven shows.

AB-D: Is teaching part of your next phase?

WW: Yes. I'm trying all kinds of things I've never done before. Contemporary, flat, bare feet, teaching, fundraising. All the things I never had to do as a ballerina. Some people are able to multi-task and do things like going to college. I was never able to do that. I had to give it everything. I've taught a tiny bit in the past but more in the last three years.

AB-D: You seemed like you were very much in control of the class you just taught.

WW: I try to plan it. If I don't know what I'm doing they're not going to know what they're doing and I want them to be able to relax because they know what they're doing.

AB-D: What do you think of the girls at BAE?

WW: I love them. They come in and they're focused, they know their bodies. It's a really good energy. You can see how smart they all are. You can tell it just by the way they're standing at the barre. They've all got a lot of homework that they're doing and they're focusing the same amount of energy on ballet.

AB-D: I noticed that you're very personal and close when you give corrections.

WW: They're all different. Each one is in a different place. Some are more closed up and some are more open. They're like jewels but each one has a different cut. You have to make them shine and cut open another facet if you can.

AB-D: Are you planning on teaching regularly at BAE?

WW: They've offered me a class on Tuesdays teaching the advanced girls. I've taught here before a little so I know them a bit more. I know their personalities a little bit and that helps.

AB-D: What do you think made a dance teacher effective for you when you were young?

WW: Well, I had to like them. I had to want to go and be with them. I had to find them engaging and interesting. I liked the challenges that they posed and I liked watching how they dealt with the other students. I liked hearing a lot of corrections because I could take from one girl's correction and apply it to myself. I like when they're really engaged in their class. I never worked well with teachers who didn't talk a whole lot.

AB-D: Do you think the average person knows how much of your mind is engaged in being a dancer?

WW: No, I don't think so. I was talking to somebody the other day about art in education in general for young people and how starting to play the violin at three or four or starting ballet at three or four gets your mind going in learning how to deal with abstraction. You're starting it while your mind is really fresh and your mind is grappling with difficult things like envisioning structure, musicality and physicality. When you start at such a young age, I think it opens up a part of your brain that helps everything else that you do in life including school and other human beings. I think it does wonders for a child to start in any art form because of that mysterious thing that you have to figure out in your brain to click it open. When you don't do that as a young kid, I don't think that you ever get that part of your brain functioning in quite the same way.

AB-D: Most girls don't become ballerinas. What do you see in students that tells you they're going to become professional dancers?

WW: They're generally a little more confident and more open. Their bodies move more naturally. It's kind of a coordination thing that's natural. There are certain people who are born with a quality of natural movement and an understanding of their coordination and physicality. They know how to economize on movement and put it together structurally.

AB-D: Does teaching change the way you dance?

WW: Yes. I hear myself saying things that my teachers told me and it's all what I've been told and what I believe and what's worked for me. All the things I'm telling them are the things that I love about dancing. I want them to feed from it and feel something new in their bodies and minds.

AB-D: You're kind of a legend for lasting so long. What would you tell the girls in today's class about how to last as a dancer?

WW: You have to stay curious. You have to stay open. You have to keep a good sense of humor. You have to work with a knowledgeable technique and good structure which is what has drawn me to this school. Darla (Hoover) teaches really clean alignment that will keep you from getting injured. If you're taught with bad structure, you're going to have injuries. I was lucky to have a teacher that gave me the same thing that Darla's giving them.

AB-D: You're going to be performing a lot less in the future. Will you miss it?

WW: I've always enjoyed my time in the studio and the process of my work more than anything, even more than performing. I love working in a studio with a choreographer, first and foremost. That's my passion. I got that with Jerry Robbins, Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky and all the choreographers that I've worked with. That's my thing. If I perform here and there, that's amazing but I just like digging into the process. Part of that I'll get from these students in a different way from working with a choreographer but I think it will feed that part of me that loves the process. I don't have a sad feeling about leaving the stage for the most part. I'll be out there doing my own thing. There's something about performing that keeps your body in an amazing, rigorous state of strength and power - that I'll miss. But my main love is working things out.

Wendy Whelan will be performing in the opening night gala on September 23rd and has some ballets scheduled for the fall season before her final performance on October 18th. This is the end of one of the greatest tenures in the history of New York City Ballet and will be the most highly sought ticket of the season. Good bye, Wendy, and thanks for all the memories.