Moving Forward Video by Lisa Rinehart
“As a child, I wanted to grow up to be an artist or an athlete. It was only later that I realized dance is both of those things combined.”
Wendy Whelan, widely considered one of the world’s leading dancers, began dance lessons at the age of three with Virginia Wooton in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. At the age of eight, she performed as a mouse in the Louisville Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker. From that first performance, she was smitten. “Once I got to perform — to see the dancers and to have an orchestra playing right there in the pit, and see stage makeup, see the costume designs up close — once I knew ballet was a collaborative effort for all of these incredible artists, that’s when I knew I wanted to do it for the rest of my life.”
Wendy began intense professional training at the Louisville Ballet Academy. In 1981, her teachers, Cecile Gibson and Robert Dicello, encouraged Wendy to audition for Suzanne Farrell, who was scouting students for the School of American Ballet, the training ground for New York City Ballet and top ballet companies around the world, co-founded in 1933 by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein. Wendy was accepted to the summer program at age 14; a year later, after her second summer program, she moved to New York to continue her studies as a full-time student. In 1984, she was named an apprentice with New York City Ballet and joined the corps de ballet a year later.
Wendy went on to spend 30 years at New York City Ballet, dancing virtually all the major Balanchine roles, and working closely with Jerome Robbins on many of his ballets and originating roles in ballets by such notable choreographers as William Forsythe, Twyla Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky, Christopher Wheeldon, Jorma Elo, Shen Wei, and Wayne MacGregor. She was promoted to soloist in 1989 and to principal dancer in 1991.
Her most notable choreographic collaboration at NYCB was with Christopher Wheeldon, who created roles for Wendy in 13 of his ballets, including Polyphonia, Liturgy, and After the Rain. At his own company, Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company, Chris again chose Wendy for several new works, and in 2007, she was nominated in London for both an Olivier Award and a Critics Circle Award for her performances.
Wendy has been a guest artist with The Royal Ballet and the Kirov Ballet and has perfomed all over the U.S., South America, Europe, and Asia. She received the Dance Magazine Award in 2007, and in 2009 was given a Doctorate of Arts, honoris causa, from Bellarmine University. In 2011, she received both The Jerome Robbins Award and a Bessie Award for her Sustained Achievement in Performance.
In 2012, as her career at New York City Ballet began to wind down, Wendy began to develop new collaborative projects. Her inaugural project, Restless Creature, premiered at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in 2013. “I needed some new inspirations and some new challenges in my life,” she says. “Being a ballet dancer I was feeling the end of something, and I needed the beginning of something else. Restless Creature is an exploration for me. I chose four young male choreographers from the contemporary world to make works for me to dance with them.” The works created by these four dancer/choreographers — Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Bryan Brooks, and Alejandro Cerrudo — were presented together on one program and premiered in August 2013 at The Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. In summer 2014, Restless Creature will travel to London and Vail, and will start a U.S. tour in January 2015.
One week after the Jacob’s Pillow performances, Wendy had reconstructive surgery on her hip. After months of rehabilitation and physical therapy, she returned to the stage to perform during New York City Ballet’s spring 2014 season. Wendy’s final performance with New York City Ballet is scheduled for October 18, 2014, but her career continues: Her second solo project, a full evening of new works, choreographed for Wendy and Edward Watson of The Royal Ballet, is scheduled to premiere at the Royal Opera House in London in 2015. In addition, Wendy was recently appointed an artistic associate at New York City Center for two years, starting November 2014.
“I’m deciding who I want to dance with, I’m deciding what I want to do each day, it’s not a place I’ve been at in my career before this,” Wendy says. “It’s daunting and scary, and it’s so beautiful. I honestly feel like I’m bursting with something.”