Thursday, October 9, 2014

Wendy Whelan is one of the great dancers of the past twenty-five years. In honor of her retirement from the New York City Ballet on October 18, we’re reprinting a poem written many years ago, when she first rose to prominence.

Wendy Whelan

The lines in her arms,
calf muscles like fists
then elongated,
and her swiftness      
cut through space,
define it.

An exotic,
she moves,
when she moves
time stops.

When she danced with Hübbe,
she was different,
they danced
as if they were
in flagrante delicto,
which is the way
it's supposed to seem.

To see her dance
in Stravinsky Violin Concerto,
very close to perfection,
eternity in a moment,
we want it to last forever.

Is this art or is it life?

Poem written at the bar at Sperry’s, Saratoga Springs, NY, 1994, Steven Fraccaro.

Wendy Whelan first came to my attention in 1989 when she danced in Episodes, Balanchine’s choreography set to the astringent Webern music. After that, it was a progression through the Balanchine leotard ballets, various new pieces, her slinky rendition of the Coffee “Arabian Dance” in The Nutcracker, but ultimately her handling of the woman’s part in the second pas de trois in Agon that defined her as a virtuoso.

That was in 1993. Soon afterwards, she inherited the lead ballerina role in Agon, the most demanding role in the Balanchine modernist canon. There have been numerous very accomplished dancers who have danced this part—Diana Adams, Allegra Kent, Suzanne Farrell, many others. But Whelan brought something else, not herself so much as an exact depiction of the music, the slicing angularity and drama of what Stravinsky and Balanchine must have intended. When she danced, it wasn’t about her, it was about the precise movement of arm and leg, about something both fierce and mysterious.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at the various video clips of Diana Adams, Suzanne  Farrell, Darci Bussell, anyone else in Agon. Then watch Whelan dance the pas de deux in the film “Bringing Back Balanchine.” Is there really any question?

Strangely enough, she was also quite magical at the opposite end of the spectrum, in one of Balanchine’s most romantic ballets, Liebeslieder Walzer and in Opus19/The Dreamer by Jerome Robbins. These performances will stay in my mind forever.

Although retiring from City Ballet, Whelan is continuing to dance, with a series of projects scheduled for this year and next. These include Wendy Whelan: Restless Creature and upcoming collaborations with Edward Watson and with Basil Twist.