It has happened occasionally that someone I’m talking with will mention New York City Ballet principle Wendy Whelan at which I point my ears perk up and I will likely cut them off by saying, ‘Wendy Whelan? I know her!‘ and launch into a story I’ve told probably too many times, as if it somehow makes me better because of this connection.
It is in fact, one of my favorite moments of my professional life. It starts with Wendy’s return to her hometown of Louisville Kentucky to dance in Adam Hougland’s premiere of The Rite of Spring with the Louisville Ballet Company, which includes an onstage dramatic shower of water on the lead soloist, Wendy.
At one point, it was necessary to test the water under the lights and I ended up being the one hosed down in a warehouse in Kentucky with only Artistic Director Bruce, Adam, and Wendy as the audience. A weird experience. I’ve described it better here, in this talk about body doubles, but here is the picture that Wendy herself snapped of me. and sent in an email titled ,‘super girl stunt double’.
What I remember about Wendy are three main points:
- The absolutely perfect technique in class (it’s not weird to remember someone for their tendus is it?)
- The true artistry onstage- because I admit at one point I just thought, ‘ok well she just has a perfect body for technique so of course she’s good’. Nope. She really connects with the music, with the spirit of the work, with the audience. At one point in Rite of Spring the character has to basically thrash about it the water and I remember thinking, ‘wow, she is really GOING for it’ in a way that requires as much heart as it does technique.
- How personable, light-hearted, and funny she was, She actually smiled and laughed during class and in the hallways with the dancers of LBC. Driving over to the warehouse I remember she asked me about my life, and I remember telling her about being diabetic and we talked a little about Zippora Karz, famous NYCB Ballerina who developed type 1 diabetes (how great and strange to talk with one idol about antother idol). I wish I had asked her more questions, the stupidity and selfishness of youth. I also remember that she and Adam talked about the best places in Louisville to go for dinner or drinks and then thinking, ‘she’s talking about food like a normal person’. It was very crucial for me at this time in my life to hear someone who had made it, who was the perfect image of ballet to have a healthy relationship with body image and taking care of the body. I suggest this viedo interview she gave in regards to body image, pretty powerful stuff.
It seems to me that this is Wendy- both normal person and extraordinary person. Judging from how facebook has blown up with pictures and anecdotes about her as a friend and performer, Wendy has been an inspiration to many and we are better for having known her, or seen her or heard her story.
On October 18th, Wendy danced a special farewell performance with New York City Ballet after a three decade career with the famous company. She joined as an apprentice in 1984 and was moved to corps in 86, soloist in 89, principle in 91. She has danced more than 50 major ballets and original roles with choreographers the likes of Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky, William Forsythe and Wayne McGregor. I would imagine saying goodbye would be very hard, hopefully made a little easier by so many so many fans, including this one, saying thank you.
So here’s a poem for Wendy, well, really for “Allegro’ the publication of the School of American ballet in 1995 by James Merrill. I found it in my treasured, ‘Tributes’ Celebrating 50 Years of New York City Ballet book. If I ever meet Wendy again, I sure hope I’m carrying it with me and that she will autograph it, even if she doesn’t remember me. I think most of us will remember her.
More Tributes and poems to dancers: Little Ode to Suzanne Farrell / Between the Bookends