Photos of Wendy Whelan by Nisian Hughes.
Interview by Scott Dowd. Entire contents ©Fearless Designs, Inc. All rights reserved.
One of the world’s great ballerinas is coming home this spring for a single performance of Restless Creature, the first full production of the Wendy Whelan New Works Initiative. Whelan and her collaborators—choreographers Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks and Alejandro Cerrudo—have been working together for nearly three years. They had planned a tour for last spring but it had to be postponed to allow Whelan to rehabilitate following hip surgery to repair a labrum muscle tear. Since her subsequent retirement from New York City Ballet, Whelan has devoted herself to the creation of the next phase in her life and career. I spoke by telephone with Wendy from her home in New York City, and we talked about the new challenges she has created for herself and…what comes next.
Scott Dowd: How long did you consider retiring before you made the final decision?
Wendy Whelan: I wasn’t necessarily thinking about retiring from New York City Ballet, but I was thinking about the “next thing.” I didn’t know if that would happen while I was still dancing with New York City Ballet. I wasn’t sure how it would happen. I think the idea of leaving really happened when I had the surgery in 2013.
WW: That’s when I started thinking, “I don’t know if my body wants to do this anymore.”
SD: That must have been emotionally, as well as physically, traumatic.
WW: It was terrifying. I was absolutely terrified. It was the biggest thing ever.
SD: It isn’t as though you can work around a hip injury.
WW: I definitely tried.
SD: How long did you struggle with the injury prior to surgery?
WW: Almost a year.
SD: Your “next thing” turns out to be Restless Creature. How long did the evolutionary process take?
WW: About half a year before the injury, around the beginning of 2012, I started putting this together and seeking out my collaborators and producers.
SD: What events sparked the idea?
WW: I had been considering various possibilities, thinking about what I would want to do next, who I would want to work with and what the theme would be. I knew something would happen. I just didn’t know what form it was going to take. I didn’t know if it would be based on work with other mature dancers. I wasn’t sure if it would be balletic form, although my thought in general was that it would not be balletic. It sort of arose naturally in my imagination. My husband helped me talk it through in the developmental stage—to get to the reality of what I wanted to do. What became Restless Creature just seemed to be it—this felt the strongest to me.
SD: What does the title say about the process and the piece?
WW: “Creature” was kind of a given. I was thinking about a title and I liked that the word “create” was in there. During my career the word “creature” has come up as a description of my physicality. In a conversation with my producer, the word “restless” came up and it felt exactly right: my restless energy is the reason I started dancing when I was three years old. At the time I decided to do this project, I was in my mid-forties and again restless. I was struggling to figure out how I was moving forward and what that new thing would look like—what it would be. I was restless to create something.
SD: Which elements came to you first?
WW: I knew I wanted to work on new works with living choreographers.
SD: You have worked with hundreds of choreographers over the years. How did you decide on these four?
WW: They kept popping up in front of me. I shared a performance with Kyle Abraham at a gala, probably six or seven years ago, at City Center Fall for Dance. I saw him perform, and he just blew my mind. I was absolutely stricken with him. My whole perception of dance was changed by him.
SD: That is a profound impact.
WW: Yes, he was on my mind for a number of years. Every time I saw him, we had conversations, which slowly grew our relationship. I had another series of performances at Fire Island Dance Festival and Kyle was there. That’s where I saw Brian Brooks: The Moving Company and thought how interesting it would be for me to try that kind of movement. Then I met him and I thought, “Wow! I just love this person.” I had been taking class at the same time with Joshua Beamish in New York and discovered that he was a really talented choreographer. I got into the studio with him and tried out some things. I thought he was really interesting and a fascinating mover. My producer recommended to me Alejandro Cerrudo from Hubbard Street Dance in Chicago. I saw his work and thought, “This is the perfect foursome.” I was right: they are perfect for me. And they all agreed to do it.
SD: They not only choreographed the work, but each of them is dancing with you in a duet. So you have to change styles four times during the performance. How different are they?
WW: Their styles are very different. Each has a different flavor or texture, but that’s what I was looking for. I wanted to transition from one to the other and not have them be too similar.
SD: Kyle Abraham’s work is inspired by some pretty weighty topics, even though they aren’t expressly part of the dance.
WW: He is a very outspoken, powerful dance-maker. I can’t speak highly enough about his work.
SD: Reading about him, he is dealing with concepts such as loss of communication in a community, juxtaposed with the tragedies of Alzheimer’s disease, aphasia…
WW: …and lots of race issues. Really deep, personal things inspire his work. But he doesn’t attempt to make a literal portrayal on stage. When I first suggested to Kyle that I would like to work with him, he looked at me like I was crazy. I think I was wearing pointe shoes and a tutu and he was like, “You want to dance like me?” But I thought it would be incredible just to get a taste of what he’s doing. It was very, very scary for me to be in that studio in the beginning. Maybe it was scary for him as well, but I thought, “Whoa! This is going to be a huge challenge for me.” And it was. We looked at each other from across the room like, “Who are you? You’re a different element from me. You’re not anything like me.” The dance reflects that: it’s like two opposing elements coming together. We see the similarities, but we’re a little afraid of each other; we come together and change each other in the process. There is a tension and a dynamic and a real energy between us.
SD: For non-dancers like me, can you explain the difference between ballet and the kind of dance Kyle is making?
WW: A dancer like Kyle has so much articulation in his torso and his pelvis that radiates through his body; he’s practically a break-dancer. He knows how to use his body in a way that I, as a ballet dancer, don’t naturally understand. He has elevated that sensibility to art. He is also very emotional and understands theatre and drama. Our approach to dance is very different. His may be more consistently internal. Ballet can require an external approach at times—putting on a certain air, a certain posture. Whereas, his is a very deep, internal combustion—he is exploding from within. It’s a different temperature. I really had to dig in and find my spine with him. I had to use my torso and other parts of my body in ways that I had never developed. It was a big challenge and frustrating at times, but I loved the challenge! I definitely feel like a new person from dancing with him and learning from him. That’s what I wanted. I wanted to find a different part of myself.
SD: You have made it no secret that you were diagnosed with scoliosis at age twelve. So you have been training your spine and torso to compensate throughout your entire career.
WW: Yes. I spent time in a body cast and later in a back brace, which was great for my spine at the time. But it sets up a posture that is very straight and still and sort of…safe. This requires me to go into a little-bit-less-safe territory and open up something that has been somewhat locked.
SD: It should be encouraging for anyone who has scoliosis to see what can actually be accomplished. You have had an extraordinary career by any standard.
WW: I haven’t overcome it, but I have learned how to deal with it and how to work with it, and not be afraid of it.
SD: You are doing a piece with Brian Beamish titled Conditional Sentences.
WW: Yes, he has altered it from the one at the premiere. It’s a brand new take on the original material, and I absolutely love it. We introduced it in January as we began the new tour. It’s set now to the music of J. S. Bach, and the element I find in the reworked piece is the conversation. It’s like two smart and witty people having an interesting conversation. It’s very much a dialogue, back and forth, with a great deal of articulation and segmentation of the body.
SD: Brian Brooks’ work is First Fall, set to the music of Philip Glass.
WW: He was the first person with whom I made one of these pieces. We premiered it for the Vale International Dance Festival in late summer of 2012. He was the first person I made the jump for, like, “Okay, I’m going to try this!” He asked me to take my shoes off and everything was brand new with Brian. He welcomed me with open arms and a smile on his face, and I never looked back. I realized, “This is where I want to be.” He has been absolutely pivotal in my decision to continue in this direction.
SD: So you intend to pursue this course after this project is complete.
WW: Definitely. I have two more projects after this with different kinds of interesting choreographers.
SD: You have an international reputation as one of the great ballerinas of your generation, so I imagine there are any number of people willing to back you. But how did you go about funding this entirely original idea?
WW: I have private funding and I have some established funding from grants. But I’ve sought out the majority of it myself. My producers have helped discover co-commissioners. They have also booked the show and found presenters so that people want to get behind the show.
SD: You said your producers also recommended Alejandro Cerrudo. How did you begin that relationship?
WW: I saw his work on videotape. I had seen Hubbard Street Dance, but I hadn’t seen his work. I had an idea of who he was but really didn’t know him. Once I saw him dance, I said, “Let’s go for it.” He said yes, and I flew out to Chicago. He picked me up at the airport and we went straight to the studio and worked together for five hours that first day. Over the course of that weekend, we put in about twenty-one studio hours. We literally dove in the pool together and started swimming. We have a very trusting connection and the kind of rapport that makes me love working with him.
SD: You mentioned future projects. How long will Restless Creature tour?
WW: That is really up to the guys. It’s my project, but I’m free now to do it. They are very much in demand, so I have to work with their schedules. I wouldn’t want anything for them but more commissions and more work. I want them to become even more well known, which is happening more and more through this project. They are awesome people and great artists, and I want them to fly. If they become too busy to continue, I will be making new projects. I will not do Restless Creature without the four of them.
SD: You mentioned being intimidated by the challenges. Were any of these guys intimidated by you and your reputation at the onset?
WW: They all say they were. But I felt the exact same intimidation. All I thought about was my own concern: “I’m not good enough for them. I wish I could pick this up quicker.” But they have all said they were scared to death to touch me or go into the studio with me at first. I would never have known.
SD: It’s hard to believe that someone with fifty ballets in her repertoire would be intimidated by anything.
WW: The key word there is “ballet.” I’ve done ballet, but these guys are not ballet dancers. I’m diving into their language, which is very different for a balletically trained body—especially one that has been so serious, and so well trained, for so long. Luckily, I have worked with a lot of contemporary choreographers along the way. But, still, my body naturally holds itself a certain way. I had to break down a lot of what I know and reinvestigate myself.
SD: That’s a great way to approach life in your forties. You never want to stop growing, right?
WW: Exactly right.
The Wendy Whelan New Works Initiative’s Restless Creature will be performed only once in Louisville. To get your tickets for the single performance on Saturday, May 23, at 8 p.m., call The Kentucky Center Box Office at 502.584.7777, or go to kentuckycenter.org.