Wendy Whelan, who needs no introduction to any balletomane, and is arguably the greatest dancer the New York City Ballet had within its ranks since the days of Suzanne Farrell, gave her farewell performance last week. She is 47 and, despite a full reconstructive hip surgery a few years ago, remains vibrantly healthy and has spoken confidently of continuing her career independently.
Along with every other student of ballet my age, I grew up with Wendy Whelan. She loomed a huge, goddess-like presence over the entirety of the world of ballet. She joined NYCB just as I was becoming a serious young student, and I have watched in awe and gratitude as her artistry took shape, evolved, and influenced younger dancers.
It is apparent from the stage that there is a deep, seemingly unending force of strength and will that drive her creative and physical gifts. It is unsurprising to learn that as a child she was diagnosed with severe scoliosis, and trained for years in a full back brace. (How, then, did she develop such an exquisitely arched arabesque? Miraculous.) Her body and her persona are a wonderful study in contrasts: she is as stunningly muscular as she is startlingly thin, she is seemingly spontaneous even as her movement is obvious in its intelligent training; and as much as her often translucent, heartbreaking delicacy calls to mind the archetypal muse, she is clearly utterly independent, free.
Throughout her career, particularly at its beginning, when NYCB was adrift and charting its new course after the death of Balanchine, Whelan had her detractors: she was too thin, too angular, her epaulement (upper body movement) was too disjointed. Alastair Macauley, the primary dance critic for the New York Times, who in my mind has a fossilized and leaden concept of what ballet is today, led the charge in these criticisms.
Over the last thirty years, they have been silenced. Whelan is at any moment on stage thoughtful, passionate, erotic, cerebral or simply technical purity itself. She described in an interview that often in her dreams she sees herself as a “building of steel and glass.” This is nowhere more apparent than in her collaboration with the choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who has created almost a dozen ballets with her.
I have seen her dance many times on stage, always with thrilling excitement. However, it was seeing her at the Vail Dance Festival perform the now famous pas-de-deux “After the Rain” with Craig Hall during which I experienced one of the more transcendent moments of my life. Surrounded by the chilled mountain air, the audience hushed to a unified wonder, Whelan And Hall melted, parted, and became one: with each other to be sure, but also with the music and with us, grateful observers.
It is in these rare moments one sees that art is an oblation, and Whelan has been for dance a treasured chalice.