Performance

Wendy City

Tyler Angle and Wendy Whelan rehearsing on September 18, 2014. Photo: Paul Kolnik.

1.

WENDY WHELAN is twenty-two minutes late for her thirty-minute rehearsal with fellow New York City Ballet principal Robert Fairchild, who had been preparing to head out but now, smart man, quickly slips off his street shoes and gets back into studio gear.

“Sorry!” Whelan mouths, her face making an exaggerated smile-cringe as she rushes to put on her own pointe shoes. Apparently she thought the rehearsal began a half hour later than it did.

Somehow this isn’t even remotely obnoxious. If anybody is thinking irritable thoughts, they’re well hidden. (As one of the company’s publicists says to me as we’re walking out, “ ‘Anything for Wendy.’ That’s what everyone in this building says—and they mean it.”)

What I’m thinking, as I watch Whelan and Fairchild zip through their scene in Balanchine’s La sonnambula (at the beginning she is rushing so much that she actually sleep-runs through one passage, getting far ahead of the music—it’s all wrong, but still it’s beautiful, weightless, spooky), is that this is the last time I will ever come to City Ballet to watch Wendy Whelan rehearse.

All of it seems pleasingly fitting—that she’s so late, that she’s rehearsing a role in which the woman, as muse, is also beyond reach, already in another world. And, especially, that as I was waiting in the lobby for the publicist to escort me up, I watched Jock Soto enter and duck into an elevator—retired from City Ballet for ten years, and a teacher at the company’s School of American Ballet, he remains in my mind inextricably bound up with Whelan. Soto-Whelan-Christopher Wheeldon: a trinity that opened up a desperately needed new space for ballet to live in the House of Balanchine.

“I could feel my heart in dancing for the first time,” Whelan says of her collaboration with these two in a New York Times profile by Roslyn Sulcas.

I can’t think of a more accurate description of what it was like—always—to watch her dance in that house. You could feel her heart—intelligent, authoritative, beating hard—in every exactly calibrated step.

Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky, By 2 With & From, 2014. Performance view, October 18, 2014, New York City Ballet. Tyler Angle, Wendy Whelan, and Craig Hall. Photo: Paul Kolnik.

2.

Fairchild joined City Ballet in 2006, twenty years after Whelan. He never met Balanchine, of course. Whelan says she glimpsed the great man only once, just after she arrived as an SAB student, just before he died. She went on to become an anchor for the company in the hard years that followed, as City Ballet struggled to figure out what it was or could be without its brilliant cofounder.

Now, in 2014, all that is (ancient, recent) history. And now, on Monday, October 20th, so, too, is Whelan’s City Ballet career, a singular three-decade sweep in which she ignited much of the best ballet choreography that’s been made post-Balanchine. There has been startlingly, dishearteningly little of lasting importance created in these years (and certainly not once you excise the American outlier William Forsythe, or modern dance crossovers like Twyla Tharp). What’s come, minus a very recent crop of promising young talents, has been almost exclusively from Alexei Ratmansky and Wheeldon, both of whom have by far done their best work for City Ballet, and, particularly, for and with Whelan.

And so, of course, these two men joined forces to create By 2 With & From, a piece d’occasion for Whelan’s City Ballet retirement performance on Saturday, a nearly three-hour event for which tickets sold out in about eleven minutes. People dressed as if for a gala, but the mood throughout the evening was hushed, heart in hand. People you don’t usually see crying were wiping their eyes.

Whelan danced in every ballet: La sonnambula (1946), as well as excerpts from Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering (1969), Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH (2008), and Wheeldon’s After the Rain (2005). Does it need to be said that she was both transcendent and deeply human in each, that, as she always does, she made time do what she wanted it to do? Does it need to be said that retirements aren’t typically the occasions for premieres, but that in this case, how could it be otherwise? Here, the muse (again that troubling, troublesome word) was the generator, the reason for this work’s being.

By 2 With & From, which was set to Vivaldi (recomposed by Max Richter), was the final piece of the night, of course, and it was over too soon, just as it felt like the audience was fully sinking into “Part II: Autumn and Winter,” choreographed by Ratmansky. Wheeldon had “Spring and Summer”—and in each section you saw the choreographers go-tos, Wheeldon’s sculptural bodies wheeling through space, Ratmansky’s quicksilver flashes of humor and whimsy through darker, heavier currents. Mostly, though, you saw Whelan, which is what you see every time she dances—not in a showboat way, but as a miraculous inevitability. “See how she leads the dance”: these words were written by the former City Ballet star Jacques d’Amboise, who was sitting in front of me on Saturday (and later joined the parade of those paying tribute to Whelan on stage). Sorry, Jacques, I couldn’t help but look over your shoulder as you scrawled all those notes. See how she leads the dance. It follows her so gladly.

I wonder if By 2 With & From (whose cast was completed by Whelan’s steady partners Tyler Angle and Craig Hall) will ever be performed again. I hope it isn’t. And also I wonder—even while knowing that this is silly, and says more about me and my relationship to the past than to the present and future lives of these ballets, this company—how so many of the works Ratmansky and Wheeldon created for and with and on Whelan will ever be performed again.

Wendy Whelan takes a bow following her New York City Ballet farewell performance on October 18, 2014. Photo: Paul Kolnik.

3.

In that same interview with Sulcas, Whelan pointed to Baryshnikov as a model, as she moves into a post–City Ballet career that won’t see her confining herself to the classroom, as is so (too) often the case for women in this art form.

Who can argue with Misha as model?

But. What about another road, one that keeps the dancer-as-creator in a central role? The Saturday before Whelan’s retirement, I was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to see Moment Marigold, a new work by Jodi Melnick, an artist whose dancing is also inextricably tied with the choreography it inhabits—in this case her own.

Like Whelan, Melnick’s career has included dancing for giants (Tharp, Trisha Brown). Like Whelan, Melnick is a precision instrument for getting at the sublime, a dancer who unfurls a leg and tells you everything you never knew you needed to know. Like Whelan, Melnick offers a different idea of what a dancer’s “prime” can be.

I don’t know if Whelan has any interest in choreography. And I don’t want to hijack her for a feminist call to arms in the ballet.

But a gal can dream. That’s what I was doing anyway the Saturday before at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, even before Melnick held the stage alone for a moment, wielding a small knife as she scythed through steps, as I remembered something Whelan said to me in a profile I did of her a few years earlier, about how she feels in Wheeldon’s ballet Polyphonia: “I feel like a switchblade in that, like a very shiny, dangerous, elegant tool.”

I can only imagine all the choreographers salivating over the idea of getting their hands on such a tool. And so they should. But perhaps, just perhaps … a blade as fine as this will one day want to cut its own cloth.

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