After retiring from New York City Ballet last October, Wendy Whelan had no intention of curtailing the physical and intellectual movement that's been the hallmark of her esteemed career. Instead, the ballerina with a gift for contemporary dance turned her considerable energy and insatiable curiosity towards developing new collaborative projects and creating the Wendy Whelan New Works Initiative.
Whelan started by engaging four dancer-choreographers in creating a suite of four duets dubbed Restless Creature, a name that clearly reflects the dancer's own spirit of artistic adventure. Each choreographer dances the duet he created, with Whelan, as part of the innovative suite, which premièred at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts in 2013.
Whelan has been dancing for more than four decades. Born in 1967, she started dance lessons at age three in her hometown of Louisville, and danced in The Nutcracker with the Louisville Ballet at age 8. Diagnosed with scoliosis at 12, she danced for most of her teens with her torso wrapped in a hard cast. She studied ballet at the Louisville Ballet Academy and School of American Ballet. At 17, she became an apprentice with New York City Ballet. By 1989 she was a soloist; by 1991 a principal dancer.
Asked what advice she'd give now to her 17-year-old self, Whelan shared a trio of sage snippets: Trust yourself. Be patient with yourself. You've got a long way to go, baby!
During her 30 years with New York City Ballet, Whelan danced numerous works from the Balanchine repertory and originated featured roles in ballets for renowned choreographers that include Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky, Jerome Robbins, and Twyla Tharp. Today she's an artistic associate at New York's City Center, which will be her home for creating new dance works through the fall 2016.
But before she delves into brand-new projects, Arizona audiences will have an opportunity to see Restless Creature -- featuring Whelan dancing with Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks, and Alejandro Cerrudo -- on Tuesday, February 3, at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. It features a 2015 work by Beamish, which replaces his Waltz Epoca originally included in the suite.
Restless Creature opens with Ego et Tu (2013), choreographed by and danced with Alejandro Cerrudo, which is set to music by Max Richter, Philip Glass, Ólafur Arnalds, and Gavin Bryars.
Cerrudo dances with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, which performed at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts in January 2013 with a program that included two works he'd choreographed. The following year he set an untitled world première work on Ballet Arizona dancers, which was performed as part of that year's Director's Choice.
Whelan says Ego et Tu has the feel of an artist and his muse. "I'm his paintbrush -- the instrument of his creative imagination," she says. "He's teaching me while we're playing. I feel like his protégé in the piece."
Restless Creature continues with Conditional Sentences (2015), choreographed by and danced with Joshua Beamish, who founded MOVE: the company in Canada in 2005 to further dance awareness and appreciation at the local to international level. His piece is set to music by J.S. Bach from Glenn Gould Plays Bach.
The dance has the feel of a conversation, according to Whelan, who notes that Beamish is 20 years her junior. "It's sort of a playful intellectual interchange on stage," she says. "We have very different energies."
It's followed by The Serpent and the Smoke (2013), choreographed by and danced with Kyle Abraham, whose New York-based company Abraham.In.Motion specializes in interdisciplinary performance. It's set to music by German pianist Hauschka and Icelandist cellist Hildur Gudnadóttir.
Whelan describes the dance as "very intense and sensual, and sort of filled with electricity." It's a very intense piece to do, she says, in part because she finds dancing with Abraham intimidating. "I get nervous dancing next to him." Still, Whelan says her excitement outweighs her insecurity. "It's an intimate, beautiful tension we have," Whelan says of their duet.
Restless Creature closes with First Fall (2012), choreographed by and danced with Brian Brooks, and set to music by Philip Glass. Brooks heads the New York-based Brian Brooks Moving Company, and his choreography credits include A Midsummer Night's Dream (2013), directed by Julie Taymor of The Lion King and Spider-Man on Broadway fame.
Whelan has spent more time with Brooks than with other Restless Creature collaborators, and says they have a "very close relationship." She describes the dance as "close and intimate, like we're entangled" -- adding that they're "constantly moving with each other's body and force of movement."
The project presented challenges, she says.
"Choreographers, not all, but most, have a hard time dancing their own work or want to keep changing it," says Whelan. "It's hard for them to settle on a finished product."
There's also the difficulty of watching your own work while dancing, which prompted Whelan to bring on board Risa Steinberg, who teaches modern dance at The Juilliard School and danced for many years with the Limón Dance Company. "She's renowned as a coach," says Whelan, "and has an impeccable eye."
Whelan says her newest project, a full evening of new works she'll perform with Edward Watson, principal dancer for The Royal Ballet of London, will première in London in July. Not yet titled, its U.S. première at New York City Center is scheduled for spring 2016. Several choreographers, including Brooklyn-based Annie-B Parson, are creating the works.
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While Whelan has been evolving as an artist, the world of arts and culture has undergone its own monumental shift. Today's artists can follow their own paths, she says, thanks to Facebook, Instagram and YouTube -- which open the door to "what's happening between cultures and intercontinentally." She's optimistic about their role in fueling collaborations like those she's enjoyed creating.
Whelan knows that some people love ballet, and others hate it. It's important for everybody to find their own thing, she says. Still, with all the ballroom dancing on TV nowadays, she figures "classical ballet is the one that's probably needing a little more public attention."
Wendy Whelan performs Restless Creature at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts Tuesday, February 3. Tickets start at $39. For information or tickets, visit Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts online or call the box office at 480-499-8587.