Ballerina Wendy Whelan on Creating a New Identity and Being the Subject of a Documentary.
Wendy Whelan has inspired many with her technical strength and artistic versatility. Here, she shares with us her excitement about “Restless Creature,” a documentary directed by Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger, presenting an intimate portrait of Whelan as she prepares to leave New York City Ballet after an astounding 30-year career.
What’s your current training regimen?
Well, I do take a ballet class every day, but it’s generally a different pace with a different kind of energetic focus. It’s a little more open, a little more gentle on the body, a little more organic. There are a lot of modern dancers in the class I take, a lot of older people in the class I take. That said, it’s still a two-hour ballet class so it’s a very full class, but it’s just got a different kind of brushstroke than the speedier one hour-and-a-half ballet technique that I did when I was in New York City Ballet.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I look back and I have no regrets, truly. Everything led me to the place where I am now. The confusion in the transition of letting go of my old patterns and opening up to new patterns was the biggest challenge, and I’m proud of the way I figured it out. I probably would not want to be so hard on myself, but I think it’s only natural to struggle to get to that place and struggle to let go a little bit.
Do you have any sort of ritual that you do before you perform?
Before I perform I generally do a certain grouping of exercises on the floor: opening up of my body, breathing, and opening up of my spine. Then I do a pretty gentle barre to open up my hips, the back of my legs, and my feet.
I also do gyrotonics and I’ve been doing yoga a little bit more. Just kind of doing more to open up my body rather than try to fit it into that old ballet mentality that I really needed to have to have a serious ballet career for so long.
How do you keep yourself in peak health?
I try to drink a lot of liquid; water and tea, those are my main drinks. I took a lot of sugar out of my diet—not everything, but a lot. I try to be good to my cellular turnover. I try a little bit more to counter all the ballet movement that I do in ballet class. I try to move my body opposite throughout the class so that it’s not always open, open, open…. I’m referring to the opposition to counter myself and keep myself a little more balanced so that I can go both ways.
What can you share about the upcoming documentary?
I’m proud to have been able to share that last 16 months of my ballet career with an audience on a screen. I went into it not knowing that I would retire from the ballet company—you know, all this stuff was just really in the moment. None of it was really planned, except for my doing the contemporary program of “Restless Creature.” The surgery and the retirement and all that stuff happened while we were filming it, so I’m grateful for how it all turned out…. It’s not something I originally intended to do or even really wanted to do, but I’m glad I did it and I’m glad to give a voice to that certain time in a dancer’s life when transition happens and changes happen and you have to make a new identity.
What have you been learning about yourself as a dancer?
I kind of listened to my gut through this whole thing…and that happened throughout the filming [of the documentary]. I really went with my instincts and I really listened to a deeper part of myself to carry me forward. So I’m continuing that. I’m committing myself fully to contemporary dance now. I don’t wear pointe shoes anymore, and all of this just seems correct to me and it’s what my body is telling me. I’m just letting my body tell me now what it wants to do…and it’s happier!
What was one of your favorite performance experiences?
Any time I’ve performed on one of the major stages, whether it be Covent Garden or the Paris Opera or the Bolshoi or the Mariinsky; those are really the top memorable moments for me. Being able to look back on my career and know that I’ve performed on each of those stages as a ballerina is… I’m really grateful for that opportunity and that I’ve had those moments on those stages.
Is there a dance company or performance that you recommend every dancer see?
Well, I always say to see Batsheva. Whenever the Batsheva [Dance Company] is in town I try to see them. I love that company. I also love Hubbard Street, and I also love to see whenever the Juilliard school does a performance. Those are the main things that I am drawn to, but I also try to see a lot of different kinds of things. Whenever I hear of something that I don’t really know, I try to check it out. It’s generally more contemporary work that I really get myself to go and see. Generally, during the season of ABT and City Ballet I go and see a couple performances by those companies at Lincoln Center.
How would you typically prepare for an audition?
You know, I really only had one audition in my life and that was when I was 14 or 15. When I was that young I listened to what my teachers would say, like wearing a certain kind of leotard that you’ll be noticed in. I remember my teacher telling me not to wear makeup so I would be even younger looking—I thought that was funny. At my audition, when I made it to SAB they were like, “Put makeup on!” I thought, Oh, OK. One’s saying don’t and the other’s saying do it! Go in and feel as open and confident and relaxed as you can be. Try to be loose and available for whoever you are auditioning for to connect with you.
What’s next? What would you like to do moving forward?
I’m hoping to work on my next project with more theater-based choreographers—not typical Broadway theater-based, but they do contemporary and modern dance with an element of theater and sometimes text. I’ve never done that and I’d really, really like to try that and use my voice as part of the tool, as my instrument.
By Victoria Dombroski | backstage.com