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Wendy Whelan
Women in Dance

Wendy Whelan

In her thirty years with New York City Ballet, Whelan demonstrated virtuosity, expressivity, fearlessness, and musicality, and she’s now commissioning new dances to build a career beyond City Ballet.

By Maura Keefe
Photo by Em Watson, 2013

Whelan’s Career as a Dancer

In her extensive and prolific career at New York City Ballet, Whelan has danced in the repertories of some extraordinary choreographers including George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and William Forsythe. She originated roles in dances by Alexei Ratmansky, Wayne McGregor, Jorma Elo, and notably, in seven of the ten ballets made for the company by Christopher Wheeldon. She has demonstrated virtuosity, expressivity, fearlessness, and musicality. She has also built a career beyond City Ballet, notably with her commissioning new dances that resulted in Restless Creature. Co-commissioned by Jacob’s Pillow, Restless Creature paired Whelan with four different choreographer/dancers, taking into account her seemingly inexhaustible talent and voracious appetite for dancing.

First Fall from Restless Creature

A Question from Peter Boal

Peter Boal, former New York City Ballet principal dancer and current artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, first provided Whelan with an opportunity to not just take what was offered to her in the way of choreographic bounty, but to select for herself. In an interview at the Pillow in 2004, when in residence with his pick up ensemble Peter Boal and Company, Boal related that he had asked Whelan what works she wanted to dance—a new experience for her.

Herman Schmerman

More than a decade later, Whelan counted that as a pivotal question. As she said in a New York Times interview, it was “Boal’s invitation…to draw up a wish list of choreographers, that first inspired her to imagine herself in the driver’s seat.”Claudia La Rocco, “A Dancer Who Can Remember The Giants.” New York Times, January 20, 2012

Wendy Whelan backstage before Restless Creature, 2013 (Photo: Christopher Duggan)

Restless Creature

With Restless Creature, Whelan sat squarely in that driver’s seat. She looked around the dance world at dancing that intrigued her, made her wonder what it would be like to be inside of. She looked at movement sensibilities removed from her own experience.

Wendy Whelan and Alejandro Cerrudo in Restless Creature, 2013 (Photo: Christopher Duggan)
Wendy Whelan and Alejandro Cerrudo in Restless Creature, 2013
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Whelan selected four choreographers she had danced alongside of, at galas or in the Fall for Dance Festival or in ballet class, but with whom she had never danced: Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks, and Alejandro Cerrudo. Not only does each of the four men regularly make work, three for their own companies and Cerrudo as resident choreographer for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, they also all dance. They don’t dance like each other, they don’t dance like Whelan, and they don’t really choreograph duets that look like a pas de deux. Each one of them created a new duet with Whelan in the studio, exploring the possibilities of the duet form.

Wendy Whelan and Kyle Abraham in Restless Creature, 2013
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Wendy Whelan and Kyle Abraham in Restless Creature, 2013 (Photo: Christopher Duggan)

In a PillowTalk called “The Art of Promotion” in 2013, Whelan talked about both Restless Creature and other artistic endeavor of that summer—her photographs were part of the Shooting Stars exhibition in Blake’s Barn. She said,

“To me the process is everything. I’m a huge process-oriented person. I love the creative, the development of something. I love feeling something growing, learning about what I’m making or a part of. I find that I still dance because I’m still looking for more information, and more ideas, and constantly developing thoughts and philosophies [about what] I do and what I see. It’s much more interesting to me—the process—rather than even the result. And if I can show the part of process within the work which I hope to do with Restless Creature, that’s my goal.”


Wendy Whelan's photographs in the Shooting Stars exhibit, 2013 (Photo: Em Watson)

In a Ballet News interview, Whelan talked about what she looks for in a partner:

I really enjoy a partner who is relaxed and confident; I can feel that right away in a person. I respond well to a partner who can meet me half way creatively, someone I can get into the zone with, where we can almost riff together or mind read each other’s needs during a dance. Going on stage together is like going into an unknown world together and there is nothing better than knowing you can trust your partner and that you’re there for each other no matter what happens during the performance.“Cupcakes & Conversation with Wendy Whelan, Principal, New York City Ballet” Ballet News, December 12, 2012

Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks in Restless Creature, 2013 (Photo: Christopher Duggan)
Wendy Whelan, Brian Brooks, Joshua Beamish, Alejandro Cerrudo, and Kyle Abraham in a Post-Show Talk with Maura Keefe, 2013
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Whelan and Martha Graham Dance Company principal dancer Lloyd Knight danced together at the Pillow’s Gala in 2013. They performed the rarely seen Martha Graham duet Moon, part of Canticle for Innocent Comedians (1952), further demonstrating Whelan’s wide-ranging curiosity and talent as a dancer.

Wendy Whelan and Lloyd Knight in Martha Graham's Moon, 2013
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In 2016, Whelan and choreographer Brian Brooks returned to the Pillow with an evening-length performance called Some of a Thousand Words.

Some of a Thousand Words

With elegance and clarity, with abandon and precision, Whelan has demonstrated again and again the creativity of a dancer.

PUBLISHED March 2017

Maura Keefe is a contemporary dance historian. She is a scholar in residence at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, where she writes about, lectures on, and interviews artists from around the world.Read Bio

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