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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Goodbye Wendy


On October 18, 2014 Wendy Whelan danced her last performance with the New York City Ballet. The house was jam-packed -- tickets sold out minutes after they went for general sale, and I met someone who had gotten a last minute ticket by arriving at 6 am for standing room. It was an emotional occasion. The stage was crowded with past and present NYCB dancers -- octogenarian Jacque d'Amboise delighted the audience by waltzing Wendy around during her lengthy curtain calls. There were former partners Damian Woetzel, Jock Soto, and Philip Neal, all looking handsome and elegant as ever. Many ABT dancers were spotted in the audience -- David Hallberg, Irina Dvorovenko, Gillian Murphy and Ethan Stiefel. It seems as if the entire dance world was there to pay tribute to this remarkable ballerina.




The program that Wendy chose displayed her shrewdness and intelligence. It carefully highlighted what she could still do -- in particular, use her remarkable body as a sculptural instrument to carve positions in the air. In La Sonnambula her tiny, wispy frame still looked as ghostly as ever, her large eyes spooky and soulless. Robert Fairchild, Sara Mearns, and Daniel Ulbricht, all stars in their own right, tacitly toned down their usual high-energy performances so the spotlight was on Wendy.

The second chunk of the programming was perhaps the best. Excerpts from Dances at a Gathering that ended with that always crowdpleasing move of the peach girl (Wendy) being thrown and twisted in the air (and Zachary Catazaro making a great catch). The adagio from Ratmansky's Concerto DSCH was maybe THE highlight of the evening. Tyler Angle partnered Wendy as if she were a goddess, and the choreography showed off the tender, lyrical side of Wendy's dancing that was often forgotten when she was in her prime, as people considered her to be that kickass B&W ballet queen who could contort her body into any shape she wanted. And finally, there was the inevitable After the Rain pas de deux with Craig Hall. For 10 minutes, the audience was pindrop silent as Arvo Pärt's beautiful scored played in the background and Wendy and Craig carved themselves into the by-now very familiar shapes of Wheeldon's signature work.



Now, here's the thing. After the Rain has become such a Wendy calling card that the NYCB has programmed this piece to death since its premiere. Is it a great piece of choreography? Well, as my friend pointed out during intermission ... not exactly? It's effective, and the acrobatic poses are striking, but Wendy made it into a repertory staple. I can't picture other ballerinas being able to move through those poses with such slow control, and displaying such strength even as she fell into Craig Hall's chest repeatedly. One wonderful thing about Wendy: she could make pieces better than they actually were just by being her.

In between the works in the second part of the program there were two brief films of Wendy. Both showed her earthy fun sense of humor. They also showed beautiful clips of her earlier days. I'll always remember Wendy as that unbeatably flexible girl in the Agon pas de deux who could also be a beautiful Sugarplum Fairy (her shoulder jumps were always awe-inspiring). If there was a role Wendy was outright bad in, I can't remember it.

The final piece on the program was a little oddity. A joint effort by Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky, called By 2 With & From, the score was a Max Richter adaptation of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. The choreography was basically a tribute to Wendy -- Tyler Angle and Craig Hall took turns partnering Wendy in moments that were alternately solemn (the Wheeldon half) and more offbeat and fun (the Ratmansky half). The final pose was Wendy being held aloft in the air, her back arched proudly for the last time.

And then it was time for the floral tributes, the cheering, the bows, the confetti, the streamers. But maybe the most touching tribute from Wendy came from a security guard who had checked my bags when I first picked up the tickets earlier that evening. "Wendy could do anything," he said. "And she is a nice girl." I murmured something about them all being nice, and he said, "No, but she was NICE." So many people turned up for Wendy Whelan's farewell not simply because they admired her. She was loved.

8 comments:

  1. I know next to nothing about ballet, Ivy. But even so, when I watched the clip of After the Rain that you posted, even I knew I was seeing something very special.

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  2. She is NICE. I've seen her at the Bolton's near Lincoln Center, being....nice. The salesladies there like her. And in recent years she seems to have become a maternal presence to the younger ballerinas.

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    1. The dance world can be really bitchy and gossipy. It says something about Wendy that I've never heard a bad word about her. Zip. Nada. Nothing.

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  3. So who do you think is gonna be the Alpha Lady at NYCB now? Who will take Wendy's place as the maternal presence? She was such a positive role model for the younger ballerinas: a trouper, total lack of angst about her work, welcoming to younger members, helped them with stuff like proper pointe shoe care. Etc. I've heard so many stories about how Hayden (who I loved) could be very mean & intimidating to younger ballerinas. Not Wendy. She felt that part of her job was making younger dancers feel wanted.

    I really do think that a personnel change like this is quite significant, much more so than Kistler, who was frankly an anachronism long before she retired. Altho Whelan was never a muse to one of the company gods - not her fault, she came along too late - her presence was significant because she stabilized the company when it was in turmoil.

    Now what? NYCB has an almost embarrassing wealth of ballerina riches. Will they start to squabble with Wendy gone? What do you think? Maybe I'm making too much of this but as you say, the dance world is gossipy!

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    1. I don't know, Maria K is now the senior ballerina but I don't know what she's like offstage. I think Wendy is probably already missed :(

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    2. I have also heard that Maria Tallchief and Suzanne Farrell were not exactly warm and welcoming towards the younger ballerinas ...

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  4. Maria K. is a lovely person, but not a leader type. That could change.

    Most of the NYCB ballerinas of the Balanchine era were hyper-competitive and not welcoming to younger ballerinas but that was because God was in charge. :)

    Well, we'll see how things shake out. I have to hand it to Martins: he's presided over an amazing flourishing of ballerina talent. Kudos to parents, luck, Mazzo & Schorer, but he deserves credit.

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