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Flash Ballet Review Reprint, 1-4: Out There: Wendy Whelan
A Visit from Outer Space

By Daniel Jacobson
Ballet Review

(Editor's note: The following article was originally published in the Summer 2000 issue of Ballet Review, and is reprinted with the permission of Ballet Review. Subscribe to Ballet Review, the unparalleled quarterly of the dance world, edited by Francis Mason. Just as The Dance Insider has mastered the art of the fast review by knowledgeable dancers, Ballet Review concentrates on perspectives and the long view of dance and dancers. To subscribe, contact BR at 212-924-5183 or e-mail at info@balletreview.com.)

All ballerinas are composites of their natural endowments -- what they are given by God and their genes -- and the acts of will by which they shape their bodies toward the ideals of harmonious proportion that underlie the steps and positions of classical ballet. This process of molding the body to the contours of an invisible paradigm, which takes many years and the stamina and will of a world-class athlete to bear fruit, yields as many kinds of ballerinas as there are kinds of women.

And yet the basic types may be just two: the earthly and the extraterrestrial. The earthly ballerinas are those for whom dance is an agency of personal glamour, women who wear their dancing like expensive perfume, a heady essence that magnetizes their admirers. They are vessels: they contain their dancing and are contained by it; the lineaments of movement they produce return them to a hermetic system, perfect in form and perfectly sealed. The extraterrestrials are those who through their dancing achieve a kind of transparency, constructing the invisible architecture of a virtual world beyond themselves. New York City Ballet's Wendy Whelan is, beyond all doubt, one of the extraterrestrials.

Beyond the Box, a Paradox

Even though Whelan is not a native New Yorker, she is an authentic New York wonder: all glass and steel, strong and transparent, aglow with the sunset and the stars -- and quick as a Manhattan minute, moving with a kind of shimmering legerdemain. There is something about a Whelan performance that reminds you of those sci-fi movies where people appear and disappear in a time-space warp. Indeed, sometimes the actuality of Whelan onstage nearly vanishes into the principles of line and motion she so precisely limns. Her pas de chat seems to conjure itself into invisibility: when the leg is brought up in passe, it virtually disappears in its own movement, a quicksilver flash on the mirror surface of a lake.

To be sure, this quality is not universally admired. To those who prefer earthly ballerinas, Whelan may appear too rigorously abstract: all angles and planes, a geometry lesson on pointe. Her body is as stripped down for action as a whippet's, and as free of blandishments. A high waist and low thorax give her a "clothespin" silhouette. Her broad shoulders triangulate with her narrow hips. Even her profile is plane geometry; a straight line runs from her forehead to the tip of her nose, echoed by a prominent jaw and high cheekbones. It's the look one often sees featured in the pages of fashion magazines: austere, elongated, and terminally chic.

It is also a look with almost raw notes of emphasis. Her limbs are boldly articulated, the joints of elbow, shoulder, and knee clearly visible. The arms are sinewy, the legs lean and muscular, the hands broad flourishes (reminiscent of those of former NYCB ballerina Maria Calegari). It's a body with built-in exclamation points. You don't need opera glasses to see the details; this is a dancer who reads to the back row of the house. Photographs of Whelan in such signature roles as Balanchine's "Agon" and the Novice in Jerome Robbins's "The Cage" reveal exactly those stark visual details that make her unforgettable in spiky modern works: her T-squared silhouette seems etched with an engraver's burin.

There is something poignant in the spectacle of such an unmediated anatomy, its machinery so exposed, presenting itself as an agent of beauty. In repose, Whelan sometimes has the unconscious pathos of a puppet not yet come to life, and perhaps also the numinous, larger-than-life presence that Heinrich von Kleist memorably found in puppet theater. Only a true, a great artist forces us to look so clinically at her instrument. It is a risk she takes; and, as in all heroic endeavors, great risks overcome yield great rewards.

Virtual Reality

When Whelan starts to dance she sheds all trace of the ugly duckling. Her austere physique enhances, and is enhanced by, the beautiful "line" of classical dancing, the implied line that reaches out into the surrounding space. Her developpe unfurls like a banner. Her grand battement a la seconde en l'air, freely hinged at the hip, richly released, arcs upward as if carried by water or wind, expanding the air around it. As she moves into the encircling embrace with her partner in the adagio of "Concerto Barocco," her swan neck thrust forward forms an elegant S-curve with her supple shoulders and spine. The ravishing arc of her backbend is a perfect scimitar, and you could cut yourself on the razor-sharp trajectory and lightning speed of her piqus.

Whelan's port de bras is equally expressive. Her open arms are wings on which she soars out in efface. The hands trail exquisite grace notes. Like the ornamental finials on the roofs of classical buildings, they embellish as they define, declaring the completion of an achieved composition. (Such grace in port de bras did not apparently come naturally to Whelan, who claimed in an interview with BR that in her early student days she had "really long, dangly, goofy arms," for which one of her teachers constantly chided her. "I didn't know what to do with them," said Whelan. "Sometimes I still don't, but I feel that within the past few years I've been able to feel my toes and fingertips more. I've just gotten a little farther out into my body.")

Even her preparations suggest a virtual reality beyond themselves; starting her pirouette, she reaches forward as if opening a door to a secret garden. She makes you see the dance with a kind of double vision, the warp a series of still, indelible images and the weft, continuous movement creating an invisible architecture in the surrounding space.

Roots

Like most City Ballet dancers, Whelan is a transplant from the great American elsewhere. Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, she received her first professional training at the Louisville Ballet Academy. She was determined to succeed from an early age (she started her ballet career as a mouse in the local annual production of "The Nutcracker."). "I worked like a dog as a kid," she told BR, "and I was very strong. Strong and determined and confident and focused." In 1981 she won a summer scholarship to the School of American Ballet, the academy of New York City Ballet. (She remembers her audition in Cincinnati for Suzanne Farrell as "very scary.") The summer session led to a full-time enrollment in SAB and eventually, in 1984, graduation into NYCB's apprentice program. Her career advanced swiftly thereafter: she joined the corps de ballet in 1986, was promoted to soloist in 1989, and to principal in 1991.

She must have realized early on in her training (and if she didn't notice, her teachers would surely have pointed it out) that she had nowhere to hide with that body; she would never be a conventionally pretty ballerina, plush and curvy, able to conceal less-than-perfect technique in the lush line of a curvaceous thigh or alluring shoulder. Her path was clear: she would have to train her unique instrument to transmit the classical language of ballet in a streamlined, modern idiom, that is, to become an avatar of the New York City Ballet style defined by Balanchine. She and NYCB were destined for each other.

Now in her early thirties and a principal dancer with NYCB for ten years, Whelan has covered roles running the gamut of the repertory. Her strength and speed, her effortless extensions, and her crisp allegro technique made her a first choice for many of the most demanding roles as well as attracting the attention of choreographers within and outside City Ballet. As a member of the first post-Balanchine cohort of ballerinas at the company (those who rose to the rank of principal following Balanchine's death), Whelan missed the opportunity of having Mr. B create roles on her, which he almost certainly would have done. But she was immediately noticed by Jerome Robbins, who saw that she was cast as the predatory-chic protagonist of his 1950s ballet The Cage, a role she feels was particularly important in her development. She remembers Robbins's coaching with gratitude: "That was a gift from Jerry. It opened me up. He really let me go with that and made me feel I could be creative with it."

With Balanchine no longer around to create dances tailored to her unique talents, Whelan has had to make her mark in the contemporary vehicles by post-Balanchine choreographers who have created roles for her that show off her fearless athleticism and limitless extensions. Both Robbins and NYCB ballet master in chief Peter Martins have done so, Robbins in "Brandenburg" and Martins in "Adams Violin Concerto," "Ash," "Jazz," "Les Petits Riens," and "Reliquary," as have guest choreographers who include Ulysses Dove ("Red Angels"), Kevin O'Day ("Open Strings," "Huoah," and "Swerve Poems"), Robert La Fosse ("Concerto in Five Movements"), and Christopher d'Amboise ("Circle of Fifths" and "Triptych"). In the winter season beginning in January 2000, Twyla Tharp cast her to dance the pas de deux in her new ballet set to Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.

Guest choreographers invited to create new dances for City Ballet love the constructed, Japanese origami plastique that Whelan brings to their work. Christopher d'Amboise recently made her the centerpiece of "Triptych," his new ballet set to Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion, & Celesta that premiered last June as part of the Diamond Project, City Ballet's semi-annual festival of new work. In "Triptych," Whelan is the ice-blue queen bee in a subterranean hive of dun-colored drones, with Albert Evans in red as her consort and Jock Soto as a kind of spirit guide.

Whelan tosses off the repeated motif of a high battement with flexed foot with an almost bored aplomb. Smooth and slinky, she unfolds her limbs to the music's shimmering high frequency harmonics with a slow languor, as if slipping into something comfortable. Then, in a murky canonic trio for Whelan, Soto, and corps member Kristin Sloan, Whelan's limbs seem to disengage, moving in and out of the Balanchine-like intertwinings like the ratchets and levers of an intricate watchworks. And, in the fiery gypsy finale, in which the corps members pivot like turnstiles as the principals pass through their ranks, Whelan and Evans up the ante with blurring allegro floorwork and strangely beautiful lifts.

F/X (Special Effects)

Whelan has been a particularly effective advocate of the spasmodic ballets of William Forsythe ("Behind the China Dogs" and "Herman Schmerman"), whose percussive, whiplash moves she executes with unflappable equanimity. (She was coached very briefly by Forsythe when first learning his ballets; Whelan told BR that at first "it was like learning Chinese to work with him because I had no clue what this was about" but that she eventually "figured a lot out on my own, and freed myself up a lot with it.")

As for the Balanchine backlist that is the core of City Ballet's repertory, she has been particularly featured in Mr. B's "leotard" ballets to Stravinsky's spiky scores, such as "Agon" and "Symphony in Three Movements," and Stravinsky Violin Concerto. She has the ideal body for Balanchine's bold designs, those orthogonal projections of classical technique that are to "Swan Lake" what Picasso's demoiselles of Avignon were to Ingres's Turkish bathers. Whelan is a fearless dancer who seems to be unfazed by the most extreme physical demands and the most exposed gestural language.

In the great, and greatly difficult pas de deux of "Agon" she is breathtaking in her execution of Balanchine's daring contortions, still jaw-dropping after all these years. She is just out there, giving you everything. She makes the physical "stunts," such as the extreme splits while lying on her back and the arabesque supported by the partner who suddenly collapses to the ground beneath her, look inevitable and, although hitherto unknown in the language of classical ballet, classically elegant.

The edge and penetration of her attack is almost scary, like Keanu Reeves morphing into another reality level in "The Matrix." It's especially thrilling to watch her come into position at the end of a phrase; those lines of virtual movement come back to their center like the spheres of an orrery aligning themselves in a celestial conjunction.

Her legwork, too, is machine-tooled and sheened. Her steps into pique have a crystalline precision, her pirouettes the clean, still balance of a gyroscope. Placed precisely on a plumb line, they trace an invisible and perfect sphere. In tendu, her toe darts to the floor with an authority that brooks no opposition. Dancing the "Sanguinic" solo in Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments," her high forward battements are like arrows shivering at their mark.

A Touch of Velvet

And yet, even as Whelan carves up space with her precision tools, she radiates a kind of aristocratic reserve and delicacy. In spite of the outre nature of the contortions Balanchine gave the pas de deux in "Agon" shocking both in what they ask of the dancer and what they expose of her -- Whelan makes them seem as courtly as a reverence. She slips into these outrageous poses as if stepping into a carriage, with imperial authority and impeccable technique, as regal as a Petipa princess. She endows Balanchine's modernist configurations with a generosity of execution, a rounding and softening, the "good manners" of classical form that raise gesture to a spiritual exercise.

In the Bransle Gai from "Agon" (her performance was captured on video in the Balanchine Celebration of 1996), she "reads" the music's infectious motif for castanets (one, two, one-and two-and) with gleaming precision, yet smooths the sharp corners of the steps with velvet at the edges. Far from being at odds with Balanchine's vision, she completes it with a tender femininity, with suppleness and catlike grace. Her approach to the choreography is as carefully laid out as the vistas of a French garden, and allows you to see as far; but within those formalities she limns a Watteau-like melancholy, trailing and degage, bringing you back to the origins of ballet in the courts of Louis XIV and XV.

Repertory: Everybody's Girl

Given her singular traits and abilities, it has been easy to type Whelan as a modern -- too easy, in fact. In some ways it has worked to her disadvantage. Once she emerged from the corps in 1989, Peter Martins tended to cast her prominently in the modern repertory and as an afterthought in the more conventionally classical roles. Sometimes it seems that, like Anybody's, the tomboy in "West Side Story," Whelan just doesn't get any respect. She has been taken for granted, often treated as a "utility" dancer, with the punishing performance schedule that implies: back-to-back performances of repertory all over the map: Titania one night and the "Agon" pas de deux the next. She has had to wait for her place in the romantic ballets, in latter years pushed by Martins to a prominence they never had under Balanchine, through Martins's new stagings of such nineteenth-century repertory staples as "The Sleeping Beauty" and "Swan Lake." One rarely saw her in the first cast of this repertory; when she has appeared as Aurora or Odette, critics have occasionally been less than kind, unfairly dismissing her as technically impeccable but a cold fish.

And yet her performances in Balanchine's romantic ballets ("Liebeslieder Walzer," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Theme and Variations") as well as his classical showpieces ("Divertimento No. 15," "Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux," "Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2") have demonstrated not only technical brilliance but a tender sensuality. When she appears in "Chaconne," walking slowly downstage in a gauzy romantic gown, hair loose and falling over her face to the side, arms lifting through the veil of hair, she creates an image both voluptuous and deeply moving. The emotion of the moment is something Whelan herself feels deeply, as she told BR: "[When I did] "Chaconne" this season, and the first music started and my newly elongated hair was down, I walked out onstage and tears rolled out of my eyes. Water was just pouring out of my eyes and I was just standing there. Very silly. It was beautiful, though. I loved it. Then I had to move and I was on to other things."

The Professor of Desire

There is more than a touch of the pedagogue in Whelan's performances, in the way in which she opens out the steps for your inspection. Not that they are dry or disconnected, but rather that they are fully expounded, as in those exploded 3-D diagrams that explain the relationships between the parts of complex objects. Whelan discloses the steps, opening them out like a merchant unrolling a rug (look at the workmanship, feel the texture). She reveals the hidden outline of movement, underscoring and highlighting its contours, as if she is saying, "Look at the tip of my toe; now watch the shift of my shoulder blade. Watch this arch of my back."

She is a laboratory of motion, clinically clear and open, and achingly expressive. Parsing the steps into their constituent elements, Whelan makes you see the pieces and the movement in full, with all the dots connected. Given this degree of care, the steps become transparent; you see through them to the geometries they imply. This is one of the most satisfying feelings you get from watching Whelan perform: the sense that she has placed each step before you as a gift, which she unwraps before your eyes.

Adagio: Lyricism with a Steel Armature

Whelan commands superb effects in adagio passages, where she isolates and frames Balanchine's intricately interwoven steps in a series of unforgettable images. As Titania in Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," she is aristocratic and classically poised, yet there is a generosity and freedom, a melting suppleness in her dancing that tips the scales toward human warmth. In the introspective duet from the second, Opus 65, section of "Liebeslieder Walzer" (No. 13, "Nein, Geliebter, setze dich"), she slides the leg forward in a half slump, the body gone limp, yielding, then recovers, snaps back into place for the completion of the step. She allows the phrase to breathe with languid melancholy on the way to a finish as absolute as water closing upon a sinking stone.

Her Odette in the new Peter Martins production of "Swan Lake" brings new shades of meaning to an overly familiar role. In the Act 2 pas de deux, she clarifies every familiar step, isolating the famous images of this key passage of classical dance. She also draws you deeply into the tragic emotion of the pas de deux, its clairvoyance into the dark future. Her Odette seems aware of her fate in advance, even as she gives herself to the swooning surrender of the pas de deux. With her wonderfully supple spine, she allows her deep arabesques penchees to plummet straight down as if from a great height, a suicide bomber who sees ground zero beneath and either cannot or does not care to change course.

A great part of Whelan's magic in adagio comes from the breathing room she allows at the end of the dance phrase. It is an effect she achieves by slowing down the movement just a hair before finishing the phrase, letting it expand and soften with that velvet edge. In the adagio of "Concerto Barocco," Whelan gives just a little rubato to her slow spins into developpe en avant so that they bloom from the center of the turn. She achieves a similar effect in the slow turn on pointe under her partner in the "Swan Lake" pas de deux -- she seems to expand within the turn like the lotus disclosing its jewel.

Telling, too, is the way in which she negotiates between adagio lyrical phrasing and allegro brilliance. In the adagio of Balanchine's "Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux," her rapid petits battements are a blur of movement that is suddenly stilled when she finishes the step; she negotiates transitions from speedy allegro to stop-time repose with perfect poise. The musicality of her phrasing against the beat pays off in her variation, especially in the delicately syncopated sous-sus against the beat that create a wonderful cross-talk with the music. The expansion of the phrase at the close is sweetly drawn out, an expanding ripple ending in a little feathered flourish. Whelan's phrasing breathes with the music, in the way she cadences into perfect stasis, so that she gives the impression of being caught in, when she is in fact creating, a larger breathing fabric of movement of which she is the center.

Allegro: Fire in the Belly

If Whelan is melting in lyrical adagio roles (or parts of roles), she is equally dazzling in allegro passages where her speed and precision combine with musical expression to stunning effect. Her Odile in "Swan Lake" is a superbly icy creation. In the Black Swan pas de deux, her leg sweeps from developpe en avant to curl around Prince Siegfried's back like a giant pincer. Her arabesque on pointe is held just that extra bit beyond the beat for emphasis and bravado, so vivid a part of Whelan's technical apparatus and here so appropriate to the character. (In none of the performances I saw did she complete the full sequence of thirty-two fouettes, but this is a petty cavil for a performance of this magnitude and detail.)

In the classical movement that concludes "Chaconne" she is brilliant and regal, ablaze with the glamour of the role. She banishes the ground beneath her feet with a flurry of buttery entrechats. Whelan has something of the same gamine grace that made Farrell, on whom the role was created, so moving in the role. But unlike Farrell, whose dreamy, withdrawn gaze and pensive moue gave her such sensual allure, Whelan is no flirt. She forges ahead, self-contained, creating frames of sensual geometry out of which she steps clear-eyed into each succeeding moment.

In "Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto" (Ballet Imperial), she ties firecrackers to the tail of the first movement with a series of pique turns ending in chaine that drill a smoking trail across the stage, terrifying in their efficiency, finishing with a jete as feathery as a Fragonard ribbon. She scorches the floor with those turns and then reverses out of them in the opposite direction, a race-car driver popping the clutch around a hairpin curve -- astonishing. In the fiery gypsy rondo of "Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet," Whelan fairly explodes with arrowlike energy and razor-sharp placement, but she also plays teasingly with rubato, slowing down around the beat or drolly syncopating with a little forward swing of the leg that brings to mind Marlene Dietrich coming through the beaded curtain in "Shanghai Express."

Whelan expands musical time by breathing with the music's breath; she fills the music's pulse and gives it amplitude, sifting through its rhythms and oppositions. Her Titania in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" has an otherworldly composure. Slowly unwinding out of supported pirouettes in the wedding divertissement she traces intricate patterns in the air, spiraling upward with a perfectly calibrated rallentando at the end of the phrase, then opens out with a flourish ending at the tips of the fingers. Her supported arabesques on pointe are suspended in a liquid element, weightless and timeless. Whether she is diving into pique arabesque or unwinding into attitude devant, Whelan floats and then clicks into place like the tumblers meshing in a lock.

Finally, Whelan breaks your heart because she exposes, with matter-of-fact humility, ballet's tragic paradox: the doomed endeavor to impose upon the human form a platonic ideal of line and proportion. All such efforts are approximate, but the closer the mortal dancer comes to the immaterial essence, the more eloquent the tension between the ideal and its momentary embodiment. It is at this intersection of abstract form and human anatomy that ballet reveals itself as a tragic art. Whelan takes you to that place of grace.

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