In late 1984, a promising School of American Ballet student became an apprentice with New York City Ballet. That's a rite of passage in the world of the Company, but in the case of this particular young dancer: Wendy Whelan: it launched the remarkable career of a most distinctive, inquisitive, and versatile ballerina.
When Whelan brings that exceptional NYCB career to a close on October 18, she will leave three decades' worth of audiences with vivid memories of her exciting, intelligent, and individual performances in a repertory that is unmatched for its diversity. Her dozens of leading roles range from The Novice in The Cage to Theme and Variations, from Agon to Diamonds, from Episodes to Swan Lake. She has originated numerous roles, in ballets ranging from Jerome Robbins' final work for the Company to Alexei Ratmansky's first. And the eight roles created for her by Christopher Wheeldon represent one of the most fascinating collaborations in contemporary ballet, through which both artists expanded into bold new territory.
"After 30 years with NYCB, it will be very bittersweet to say goodbye to Wendy," said NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins. "She has put her unmistakable stamp on so many roles, from our heritage repertory of classic works by Mr. B and Jerry Robbins, to countless ballets tailor-made for her extraordinary gifts."
Whelan's time with NYCB not only bridged multiple generations of the Company (she recalls that such veteran luminaries as Francisco Moncion and Jacques d'Amboise were in class when she first arrived), but coincided with the difficult but necessary transition following the death of George Balanchine, as it forged a post-Balanchine identity and brought a broad range of new choreographers into its studios.
Whelan began taking ballet class at age three in her native Louisville, Kentucky. As an adolescent student at Louisville Ballet Academy, she had an influential teacher who greatly admired Balanchine. "He brought that love for Balanchine to his students," she recalled during an interview outside the Rose Building, after a day of rehearsal for her final Saratoga season with NYCB.
In 1981, she earned a place in the School of American Ballet's summer course (her audition in Cincinnati was led by Suzanne Farrell); "That summer was my first NYCB Balanchine experience," said Whelan, and she "never really looked back."
By the fall of 1982, she was a New Yorker, studying at SAB and attending the Professional Children's School. Her first chance to perform in a Balanchine ballet: in the School's 1983 Workshop, in the corps of Western Symphony: was on the day that the choreographer died. So aside from a momentary glimpse of Balanchine during her student years, she missed out on having any first-hand experience with him.
For the 1984 Workshop, Whelan danced the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty, and was coached for the role by Peter Martins. "I remember having a really good rehearsal with him," she said. She clearly made a strong impression; by the end of that year, she was an NYCB apprentice.
A pivotal time for Whelan came when Martins initiated the American Music Festival and Diamond Project Festivals, which brought in a large, diverse group of choreographers. "Peter was trying to give new energy and new ideas to the company. From that point on, I was steadily working with visiting choreographers on a regular basis. And that's what I thrived on. I gained a lot of confidence, and found that those people brought out a certain strength in me."
She faced the inevitable competition: and frustration: for prominent roles. "I was really eager to make my mark, but it seemed to take a little while. But I'm glad things didn't come as fast as I wanted them to, because it made me that much more ready: more capable, and more grateful when it did come."
"And then it came really fast." Early on, Whelan demonstrated a particular affinity for Balanchine's leotard ballets: some of his most intricate, sophisticated works. Even before she became a soloist in 1989, she danced the central duet of Symphony in Three Movements.
The range of Whelan's repertory was gradually broadening. In December 1990, she made her debuts in Robbins' The Cage (a role in which she gave many memorable performances, combining ferocity and vulnerability) and as the Sugar Plum Fairy, a few weeks apart. In the six months that followed, she was tasked with her first performances of Stravinsky Violin Concerto, "Diamonds" from Jewels, and the second movement of Symphony in C, before she was made principal dancer in June 1991. As Eurydice in Orpheus, her astringent intensity was memorably poignant, while in Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, she revealed a commanding authority and regal expansiveness.
In addition to her steadily expanding Balanchine and Robbins repertory, Whelan became an unofficial muse to two major choreographers. Starting with Polyphonia, the 2000 ballet that launched a new and exciting phase of Wheeldon's choreography, she appeared in a steady series of his premieres. "The first time we worked together set the tone," said Whelan, who clearly cherishes her experiences with Wheeldon. "Chris let me be a partial collaborator, and decide what felt right to me. It was organic: and I think it paid off for both of us."
"Wendy was born with a God-given talent and she has worked hard to fine-tune herself, and allow those of us lucky enough to work with her to help guide her," said Wheeldon. "She is curious, opinionated, open, trusting, collaborative, and simply the most beautiful physically and mentally articulate being. She will always remain the first and most important influence on my career."
Alexei Ratmansky has also created pivotal roles for Whelan. While he was creating the first, Russian Seasons, Whelan said, "I just knew I was working with a genius." He offered roles with a dramatic flavor, allowing her to create a character onstage. "He's a craftsman, and he's a poet too."
Whelan has been very open about the hip injury and resulting surgery that kept her offstage for nearly a year, until last spring. Of the difficult experience of relinquishing longstanding roles, she said, "letting my ballets go, over the past few years, was hard. But I'm at peace with that, and I'm grateful."
The ending of her majestic career with the Company means finding a new focus for her dancing. "Here, at New York City Ballet, I'm the veteran ballerina. Now I want to be the young one who doesn't know anything again. The way to do that is to dive into something unknown." With Restless Creature, the evening of works by four contemporary choreographers which she launched last year, she has taken her initial plunge. "It's given me a new lease on inspiration and curiosity. It's opened up my whole world. I see now that there isn't just one way to dance."
Susan Reiter is a freelance performing arts journalist who covers dance for TDF Stages and contributes regularly to the Los Angeles Times, Playbill, Dance Australia, and other publications.