Last September, at an event at New York City Center, the former New York City Ballet star Damian Woetzel looked Wendy Whelan in the eye and said, "You're gipping the system." Whelan laughed heartily. The 30-year veteran of New York City Ballet was about to retire, at the age of 47. Unlike most ballerinas in the late stages of their careers, however, she wasn't planning to quit dancing. She had already launched her own independent project, an evening of duets called Restless Creature, which had premiered at Jacob's Pillow in the summer of 2013. A tour was planned for the months after her farewell at City Ballet, with a New York premiere at the Joyce in May. Before taking her leave from one career, Whelan had begun a new one, still a dancer, but on her own terms.
First, she had to settle a score with her body. Not long after the Jacob's Pillow appearance in 2013, Whelan underwent surgery on her right hip for a complex labral tear. Without getting too graphic, the labrum is a ring of cartilage that lines the hip joint, where the femur meets the socket. Rupture means pain and loss of flexibility. As Whelan has explained, "I couldn't do a fifth position": which is like a pianist not being able to play a C Major chord. After trying every kind of therapy she could find, Whelan finally decided to go under the knife. Her recovery was re- markable but slow. By last fall she was back onstage at New York City Ballet, debuting in an extraordinary role created for her by Alexei Ratmansky in his Pictures at an Exhibition. It captured her unique qualities: that ineffable poetry, the ability to make every moment count, and her powerful presence.
She had more dancing to do. This determination to belie the clich_ of the dancer transitioning gracefully into full-time teaching or directing is not unique to Whelan. Still, it's a rare dancer who pulls it off. The few who have: Baryshnikov, Sylvie Guillem: did so not only by dint of their taste and choices, but because they were able to convince the public that they had more in them. Whelan has already begun that process with Restless Creature. She has often spoken of the elation she feels in the studio, developing new steps alongside a choreographer. With Restless Creature, she took the process one step further by asking the choreographers to be her partners onstage. "I wanted to feel that much closer to the source of the idea," she says.
The experience has whetted her appetite for more: new collaborators, new ways of moving, new theatrical combinations. Whelan is famously restless: ergo, the title. "I always worked with new choreographers," she told Woetzel at the talk. "That has been my passion throughout my career, and it's leading forward to my next phase." For the next project, she has teamed up with the Royal Ballet star Edward Watson, a dancer with a similar curiosity and drive. The two met in 2007 when they were both invited to dance with Christopher Wheeldon's company Morphoses. Whelan immediately felt drawn to her lanky, intense British counterpart. "He has something quirky and odd, like me, and a similar kind of integrity in what he does," she says. Other Stories will be made up of solos and duets made for the two dancers by a quintet of choreographers, three of them women. The evening, which was co-commissioned by New York City Center and the Royal Ballet (and pro- duced by the Joyce), will premiere at London's Linbury Studio in July, and at New York City Center next February.
Much of the material will be developed at City Center, where Whelan now holds the title of Artistic Associate. The posi- tion was created for her by Arlene Shuler, City Center's President & CEO, as a kind of trampoline for her present and future initiatives. "She's been in one place her whole professional life," says Shuler, "and it became clear it might be helpful to her to have a place as an artistic home as she moves into the next phase of her career." Like City Center's Choreography Fellow- ships, the arrangement provides studio space, business advice, and general support, both moral and financial. In return, Whelan will hold open studio hours, act as an ambassador for dance at the theater, and take over the Studio 5 conversation series from Damian Woetzel. Her first event is a conversation with Jacques d'Amboise: an American dance legend: and his two chil- dren, Christopher and Charlotte, both of whom have distinguished careers in ballet and on Broadway. D'Amboise's grand- daughter Shelby, a student at the School of American Ballet, will also take part. "I want to really put the focus on them," says Whelan, "and allow them to discuss what's deeply unique about them and about their work, and for the audience to be able to find a personal connection."
In some ways, City Center had already become a second home, even before the appointment. "This building healed me," Whelan told Woetzel last September. "It's where I took my first class after surgery," she elaborated more recently. "I love the energy and musicality. There are lots of modern dancers in the class, and regular people. And my physical therapist is on the seventh floor. I really listen to my body now." It's here that she began to recover her strength and learn her limits, and build the confidence to know that she needn't be defined by them. With the backing of the associateship, she can feel free to experiment. "I'm incredibly confident," she says of life outside the confines of a large, well-funded ballet company, "but of course it's scary."
She's not letting that hold her back. After the Watson collaboration, Whelan will embark on an ambitious joint venture with American Opera Projects: an opera based on the Noh drama Hagoromo. It will be conceived and directed by Whelan's husband, the photographer and artist David Michalek, with music by Nathan Davis and choreography by the eccentric, witty dancemaker David Neumann. Best of all, Whelan will get to perform alongside Jock Soto, her longtime partner at City Bal- let, who retired almost a decade before her, in 2005.
"It's a f'ing huge project!" the famously straight-shooting Whelan exclaimed re- cently, with a hint of disbelief. But she's game.
Marina Harss is a freelance culture writer in New York.