At a Tuesday evening Master’s Tea, New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan described herself as a dancer, not a prima ballerina.
In front of a crowd of roughly 30 members of the Yale community, director of the Yale dance studies curriculum Emily Coates ’06 GRD ’11 — Whelan’s friend and former colleague at the New York City Ballet — asked Whelen questions about her childhood, her career at the company and her commitment to dancing new works. Whelan also reflected on her collaborations with choreographers such as Jerome Robbins, Christopher Weeldon and Alexei Ratmansky.
Whelan is best known for her performances of works by George Balanchine — the founder of the School of American Ballet and former director of the NYCB. Though her technique is often associated with Balanchine’s style, Whelan explained that she only passed him in a hallway once, and did not know him personally. Still, she said that Balanchine’s spirit has been incredibly present in her life.
Upon joining the New York City Ballet in 1986, Whelan said she was surrounded by dancers who had been hand-picked by Balanchine himself. She performed her first steps of Balanchine choreography at a School of American Ballet workshop the very night that he died.
“All of Balanchine’s ballerinas were unique,” Whelan said. “They were glamorous, smart, funny and strong. And I was intoxicated by that world,”
A native of Louisville, KY, Whelan said she was an energetic child, adding that ballet was a way for her to release her energy. Her enthusiasm carried over to the NYCB, she explained, where choreographers would often pick her to lead the other dancers across the floor.
Coates described Whelan as not only a performer, but as an innovator as well. Coates said that Whelan has been instrumental in working with new choreographers to push ballet forward throughout her career. In a world where dancers may be discouraged from expressing their opinions, Whelan explained, she cherishes the opportunity to leave her own mark on ballet.
After 30 years with the NYCB, Whelan plans to retire from the company after fall 2014. Her next solo project is titled “Restless Creature.” Whelan explained that at age 46 she feels “parched” at NYCB, as there is little left for her to do there.
“I want to go towards what feeds me,” Whelan explained, adding that ‘Restless Creature’ is a way for her to continue growing as a dancer.
Naomi Roselaar ’17, who attended the talk, said she was excited to see Whelan in person after watching her star in a movie as part of Coates’s course “Dance on Film.” Other students interviewed shared Reslaar’s enthusiasm at the opportunity to see the artist in person.
Wheland’s honesty was one of the most striking features of the talk for Eliza Dach ’17, a member of Yale Dancers who attended the event.
“Most people have this idea that ballet is precise and impersonal,” she said. “I like that [Whelan] said that she dances without a mask.”
Whelan will perform “Restless Creature” at the Shubert Theatre in Boston and the Joyce Theatre in New York City, among others, in spring 2014.