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Flash Ballet Review Reprint,
1-4: Out There: Wendy Whelan
A Visit from Outer Space
By Daniel Jacobson
(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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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.
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 piquÚs.
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.
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
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
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
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" Ü 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.
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
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
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
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
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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the unparalleled quarterly of the dance world, edited by Francis
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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 email@example.com
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