Dancer Wendy Whelan leaves ballet, becomes a freelance modernist

Wendy Whelan works with students at the Colburn Dance Academy on Oct. 31, 2014. (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los Angeles Times)

In a ballet studio overlooking Grand Avenue downtown, long-limbed, bone-thin Wendy Whelan melts into the arms of her partner, Jared Angle, before sinking into a taut, high backbend off the floor.

Then, in the last moment of their duet, he slides under her and she relaxes into him, as if in peaceful sleep or perhaps united with him in death, like Romeo and Juliet.

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Appropriately, it's an image both contemporary and classic. Over the last 30 years Whelan became a star ballerina at New York City Ballet by excelling not only in the homegrown neoclassical masterworks of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins but, increasingly, in ballets created for her by such internationally celebrated choreographers as William Forsythe, Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky.

Last month, the 47-year-old Whelan left the company for a career as a freelance modernist. Her final days at NYCB prompted published tributes galore, including one in Vanity Fair from Mikhail Baryshnikov.

"The German sociologist Erich Fromm said that creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties. That's what Wendy has, in my opinion—courage," Baryshnikov wrote. "She will definitely grow as an artist, and that's what it's all about. It may sound like a silly pun, but when I say there's a certain grace to these next steps, I mean it in the most sincere way."

Just after her departure, she joined Angle (a NYCB principal) on Bunker Hill for a weekend of teaching and performing as part of the new dance initiative at the Colburn School, its pre-professional dance academy.

In a class with 12 handpicked young ballet students, she's meticulous yet spirited, sometimes advising them to curb their eagerness because it resembles children rushing onstage for their first "Nutcracker:" "Don't distort the step by trying too hard."

Later, the other extreme: "Don't be shy, don't be stingy — be generous." Fewer than half of them ever saw her onstage, but this is the YouTube generation, so when she commands, "there's no tension, only intention," they know who's speaking and why it matters.

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Observers tried to define what made Whelan's performances unique and perhaps none came closer than her former company colleague Jenifer Ringer — now director of the Colburn Dance Academy.

"She creates an inner world for herself in every ballet and brings the audience into that world," Ringer said after watching Whelan and Angle rehearse. "There's so much mental-emotional work in her dancing in addition to the physical-technical work."

To Angle, "there's a steely, resolute integrity to everything she does. When I first partnered her, I was shocked at how easy it was — how much in control she is. She's always in the moment, redefining her reality every day."

Whelan's self-assessment is even simpler. "I am open-minded," she declares. "I try to dig as deep as I can into everything in front of me, and I keep digging at it year after year, decade after decade."

But she doesn't want all that work to show onstage. For Whelan a good performance is "when I am completely open and lost in the moment and not thinking about what I'm doing. If I can get lost and feel my body relax and open, I'm in heaven."

Both tension and intention figure strongly in Whelan's description of dancing time-honored Balanchine ballets at Lincoln Center. "For example, I had to try to fit myself into a piece of choreography that was made for Suzanne Farrell," she recalls, speaking of one of Balanchine's most celebrated ballerinas. "I'm not Suzanne Farrell, not even remotely close. Those are big shoes to try to fit in, and I always struggled with that."

Both tension and intention figure strongly in Whelan's description of dancing time-honored Balanchine ballets at Lincoln Center. "For example, I had to try to fit myself into a piece of choreography that was made for Suzanne Farrell," she recalls, speaking of one of Balanchine's most celebrated ballerinas. "I'm not Suzanne Farrell, not even remotely close. Those are big shoes to try to fit in, and I always struggled with that."

Both tension and intention figure strongly in Whelan's description of dancing time-honored Balanchine ballets at Lincoln Center. "For example, I had to try to fit myself into a piece of choreography that was made for Suzanne Farrell," she recalls, speaking of one of Balanchine's most celebrated ballerinas. "I'm not Suzanne Farrell, not even remotely close. Those are big shoes to try to fit in, and I always struggled with that."

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Both tension and intention figure strongly in Whelan's description of dancing time-honored Balanchine ballets at Lincoln Center. "For example, I had to try to fit myself into a piece of choreography that was made for Suzanne Farrell," she recalls, speaking of one of Balanchine's most celebrated ballerinas. "I'm not Suzanne Farrell, not even remotely close. Those are big shoes to try to fit in, and I always struggled with that."

Both tension and intention figure strongly in Whelan's description of dancing time-honored Balanchine ballets at Lincoln Center. "For example, I had to try to fit myself into a piece of choreography that was made for Suzanne Farrell," she recalls, speaking of one of Balanchine's most celebrated ballerinas. "I'm not Suzanne Farrell, not even remotely close. Those are big shoes to try to fit in, and I always struggled with that."

Both tension and intention figure strongly in Whelan's description of dancing time-honored Balanchine ballets at Lincoln Center. "For example, I had to try to fit myself into a piece of choreography that was made for Suzanne Farrell," she recalls, speaking of one of Balanchine's most celebrated ballerinas. "I'm not Suzanne Farrell, not even remotely close. Those are big shoes to try to fit in, and I always struggled with that."

Both tension and intention figure strongly in Whelan's description of dancing time-honored Balanchine ballets at Lincoln Center. "For example, I had to try to fit myself into a piece of choreography that was made for Suzanne Farrell," she recalls, speaking of one of Balanchine's most celebrated ballerinas. "I'm not Suzanne Farrell, not even remotely close. Those are big shoes to try to fit in, and I always struggled with that."

Both tension and intention figure strongly in Whelan's description of dancing time-honored Balanchine ballets at Lincoln Center. "For example, I had to try to fit myself into a piece of choreography that was made for Suzanne Farrell," she recalls, speaking of one of Balanchine's most celebrated ballerinas. "I'm not Suzanne Farrell, not even remotely close. Those are big shoes to try to fit in, and I always struggled with that."

Both tension and intention figure strongly in Whelan's description of dancing time-honored Balanchine ballets at Lincoln Center. "For example, I had to try to fit myself into a piece of choreography that was made for Suzanne Farrell," she recalls, speaking of one of Balanchine's most celebrated ballerinas. "I'm not Suzanne Farrell, not even remotely close. Those are big shoes to try to fit in, and I always struggled with that."

Both tension and intention figure strongly in Whelan's description of dancing time-honored Balanchine ballets at Lincoln Center. "For example, I had to try to fit myself into a piece of choreography that was made for Suzanne Farrell," she recalls, speaking of one of Balanchine's most celebrated ballerinas. "I'm not Suzanne Farrell, not even remotely close. Those are big shoes to try to fit in, and I always struggled with that."

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