The Ballerina: Wendy Whelan

September 17, 2012

I’m a dancer, in my favorite reoccuring dream, gracefully leaping through the air with such intoxicating speed that I’m lost in a state of ecstasy… as close to flying as I’ll ever get.

 

It’s not often that I go to the ballet, but when I do, I’m deeply moved by the beauty and freedom the dancers possess on stage. Not long ago, I was lucky enough to see Wendy Whelan’s live performance in After the Rain. She and her partner, Craig Hall, were exquisite, as one, pure poetry. It was a transformative experience that gave me a greater appreciation for the art form of dance.

 

I still can’t believe that Wendy granted me this interview. I’ll treasure it forever…

 

where are you from?
I am from Louisville, Kentucky.

what kind of dancer are you and how long have you been dancing?
I am a ballet dancer. I have been a member of the New York City Ballet for 25 years.
I started dancing at age 3, which makes it 40 years since I began my studies.  I got very serious about ballet when I was 10 years old and started taking classes every day. I moved to NYC at age 15 (by myself), to continue my studies in the most advanced level at the School of American Ballet. I became a professional at age 18.

what does it feel like to be on stage performing?  do you notice the crowd or are you lost in dance?
Performing has evolved a lot for me over all these years. There is sort of a mental barrier to get over as a performer  to not notice the audience. To be able to control this takes experience, and sometimes I can still get quite nervous. Very often these days I can luckily get lost in a dance and fall into a zone which is a very beautiful place to be, it can be TOTALLY blissful and well worth ALL those many years of practice with all the physical and emotional struggle that comes with it.

which performances make you proud?
It’s hard for me to think of any particular performances that I am most proud of. I am truly proud of each performance that I don’t mess up!:) This may sound a little strange, but I am mostly proud of these random moments when I feel physically aware of my growth and transformation as an artist. I have definitely felt this, now and again, as a student, and then as a soloist and principal dancer. There is usually a level of calm and grounded confidence that washes over me at these times and I feel so incredibly happy.  I know deep inside that I have reached a new plateau and in some strange kind of metaphorical way it feels like I have received some sort of true “invisible” medal of honor, from myself. I have felt that maybe ten times, randomly in the span of my career. Kind of an amazing surprise acknowledgment that comes (from myself to myself).

who is your all time favorite dancer and how would you spend an evening with him/her?
I have a few favorite dancers, but the one dancer that holds the most mystique to me is Tanaquil LeClerq. She died in 2000. She was the great choreographer George Balanchine’s last wife. I met her once or twice many years ago. The greatest compliment that I ever received was that I resembled her as a dancer with my long lean line, though I honestly don’t think I do. She was incredibly beautiful. I have pictures of her pasted to my theater case (a suitcase, that carries all my theater supplies).  She seems, to me, one of the chicest, smartest, and wittiest of Balanchine’s dancers. Someone I think who is extraordinary in so many ways. She contracted polio at the height of her career, at age 28. She is definitely one of the most interesting and profound dance artists in all of ballet history.

would you encourage your child to follow your footsteps as a dancer?
I would only encourage the child in the way that my mother encouraged me, supportively and from afar.  The child must have the desire to do it from within. I think a great dancer is born and not necessarily made. A great teacher will just sculpt what is already there to begin with naturally. A ballet dancer has to be born with, most importantly, a special combination of body and soul. This is something most people don’t actually realize.

what inspired you to become a dancer?
I was put into dancing at age 3 because I was very hyper and used to get rough with my baby sister, (Incidentally, my baby sister is now a homicide detective!) My mom thought dancing would be a good physical release and focus forming outlet for me. She had danced as a youngster too so she signed me up for classes with her old teacher.(My mother quit dancing in high school and took up sports:) I was really into the improvisational aspect of it. I used to dance around the house to ballet music all the time.  I decided to get serious after auditioning for and playing the part of a mouse in a performance of the Louisville Ballet’s Nutcracker. Being able to see what goes into a “real” ballet performance, with serious dancers, costumes, sets and an orchestra  got me very excited to do more of it.  After I transferred to the Louisville Ballet School and they let me know I had some talent and potential, I decided to get serious about it, and honestly nothing made me happier than “going to ballet”.

what do you do when you’re not dancing?
I find that when I am not dancing I really enjoy sleeping a LOT,  and I have become very into photography. I am obsessed with taking pictures. In fact I just put together a book of my photographs on Blurb.com. I am very excited to get it soon in the mail. My husband is a visual artist, and he thinks I have a really good eye. He is very encouraging to me.

what do you do to unwind that you probably shouldn’t as a dancer?
This question makes me laugh… Um… let’s see…I think probably what I shouldn’t do is “shop” because as a dancer we don’t make a ton of money, and the career isn’t a long one – so I should probably be saving every penny I make  🙂

what’s are your favorite online shops?
I LOVE ebay! I also look at consignment shops online like clothesheaven.com and thesnob.net. I also am a member of gilt.com and they have amazing sales every day. I can get very bad on there.  I now have two little nieces, and my best friend has two little boys and I really enjoy being their Aunt Wendy and finding them cute clothes.

what is your is your most delicious creation in the kitchen?
Oh boy, I don’t really cook. It’s terrible…I have one of the most amazing kitchens in all of NYC, and I am at a total loss for how to use it. I can make a nice breakfast of beautiful scrambled eggs with toast and tea, but I’ve never really otherwise had a calling for the kitchen.

what do you collect?
When I was younger I used to have a box collection… now I have a designer bag collection!

Photos by Kyle Forman. Illustration by Andrea Selby