Arts & Entertainment

Wendy Whelan: A beloved American ballerina, ending an era

In this Oct. 3, 2014 photo, ballerina Wendy Whelan warms before a rehearsal, in the Rose Building of the Lincoln Center complex, in New York. After 30 years with City Ballet, Whelan dances her final performance Saturday, Oct. 18.
In this Oct. 3, 2014 photo, ballerina Wendy Whelan warms before a rehearsal, in the Rose Building of the Lincoln Center complex, in New York. After 30 years with City Ballet, Whelan dances her final performance Saturday, Oct. 18.
Richard Drew/AP

It's a sunny October afternoon, and Wendy Whelan, who's been enthralling audiences for three decades at New York City Ballet, is engaged in her favorite activity: Getting down and dirty in the rehearsal studio, trying to figure things out.

She swoops high onto her partner's shoulders, soaring with the music, an otherworldy look on her face. Then — oops! — she breaks into giggles when an attempted landing doesn't quite work. Time to rejigger.

Whelan, whose famous intensity onstage is belied by her frequent, easy laugh offstage, says she experiences sheer joy in rehearsals like this one. Maybe that's because she's spending it with colleagues she adores, longtime partners Craig Hall and Tyler Angle. Maybe it's also because at 47 — easily twice the age of many colleagues — she's in high-level form, having made a remarkable recovery from a hip reconstruction last year that saved her from a potentially career-ending condition.

And maybe it's because she's ending that ballet career now — on her own terms, and because she's ready.

After 30 years with City Ballet, almost to the day, Whelan dances her final performance Saturday, one that's sure to be marked by tears, hugs, and countless bouquets. Whelan is such a popular figure with NYCB audiences that the show sold out within minutes.

"I hope I'm not nervous," Whelan says of the big night. "But I know I will be."

And though retirements often are bittersweet affairs — in their implicit acknowledgment of time passing and bodies changing — Whelan says she has no regrets. "Nope!" she says. "It feels absolutely right."

Things didn't always feel so right. About three years ago, Whelan was pulled — too early, she thinks — from the role of the Sugarplum Fairy in "The Nutcracker," which she'd danced for many years. It felt, she says, "like the beginning of the end." A few months later, she began feeling serious pain in her hip. She felt like her heart was influencing her body, and vice versa.

Whelan had certainly dealt with physical adversity before. Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, she was fiercely determined to become a ballerina. But her teachers noticed a spine curvature. At 12, she was diagnosed with scoliosis. One week a month, she'd go into the hospital and spend 20 hours a day in traction. At week's end, she'd be plastered into a body cast.

Even in that plaster cast, Whelan would attend ballet class. "It weighed 15 pounds — I got really strong," she says. Finally, she graduated to a plastic brace, which she wore for five more years.

At 17, Whelan joined City Ballet. Although she missed working with the legendary George Balanchine, spotting him only once in a hallway before he died, she worked with another key NYCB figure, Jerome Robbins. But she became best known for collaborations with contemporary choreographers, serving as a muse for, most famously, Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky — the two most accomplished choreographers in classical dance today.

"Chris and Alexei, they've really fed me for the last 10 years — kept me curious and excited and creative," Whelan says.

Wheeldon, in turn, has credited Whelan for launching his own career, with the 2001 work "Polyphonia." Four years later, he created "After the Rain" for her. In its breathtaking pas de deux, she appears — long hair flowing, no pointe shoes, in just a light pink leotard — almost to fly off into the air. She'll perform that work at her farewell, along with pieces by Ratmansky, Balanchine and Robbins.

To finish it off, Whelan will debut a special piece, created by both Wheeldon and Ratmansky at her request, with partners Hall and Angle.

Angle credits his partner with teaching him and many others about perseverance.

"For Wendy, it's about working, working, working until she gets it right," Angle says.

Just the other night, Angle says, he and Whelan were taking bows. "I turned and said, 'I hope you're having as much fun this season as I am,'" he says. "It's been so wonderful seeing her enjoy herself."

Whelan is definitively not hanging up her dance shoes. She's been moving gradually into modern dance, and is booked solid with numerous projects, including a tour next year with "Restless Creature," a series of duets with four modern choreographers.

"Exploration. That's what I love," Whelan says.

But for now, she has to stay fit and healthy for a few more days. She's not overly concerned. Karma, she says, is with her.

"I've paid some big dues," she says. "I've earned a good farewell."