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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Ballet Superstar Wendy Whelan Finds a New Footing in "Restless Creature"

Posted By on Wed, Jan 14, 2015 at 10:28 AM

click to enlarge CHRISTOPHER DUGGAN
  • Christopher Duggan

After an unprecedented 30-year career with the famed New York City Ballet, legendary ballerina Wendy Whelan has performed the lead in (virtually) every one of the ballet of the company’s vast repertoire, and has originated principal roles in around 40 ballets by every major choreographer in the world. But who’s counting? And now, 2015 brings new things for Whelan, who retired from City Ballet late last year.

This year she'll follow in the footsteps of ballet legends like Mikhail Baryshnikov and Sylvie Guillem, and make the transition from ballet superstar to contemporary solo artist. In her upcoming show, Restless Creature, Whelan presents four original works by choreographers Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks, and Alejandro Cerrudo. Let’s thank our lucky stars that haven’t seen the last of her.

SF Weekly spoke to Whelan about Restless Creature.

click to enlarge CHRISTOPHER DUGGAN
  • Christopher Duggan
While at New York City Ballet, were there choreographers who pushed you, or made you want to transition toward from classical to a more modern or contemporary style?

Yeah, over my whole career I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many different choreographers. A few of them were modern and contemporary, and they really kind of opened my eyes to what I had in me naturally… So, I guess it was really my time at New York City Ballet, and having those choreographers come and visit, then choosing me to work with, [that] kind of opened me up.

Is it challenging to go from working on the familiar repertory of NYCB to focusing on a smaller, more specific project?

I made all of this work while I was at still at New York City Ballet and I was dealing with my hip injury. But this was incredibly challenging for me! Not only because I was dealing with my body issues, but I was really going to a place I had never been with these four different choreographers. None of them worked with pointe shoes, and I didn’t want to work with pointe shoes. So, much of the movement quality was designed in ways I never really worked before to that degree of detail. Because I think when New York City Ballet invites choreographers to come, [the choreographers] know that they’re working on ballet dancers, and they have a certain idea of what that ballet body does. They somewhat cater to us. And I was going in the other direction; I didn’t want that. I wanted to dive into their world that much more. So I kind of asked them not to cater to me. 
click to enlarge ROSE EICHENBAUM
  • Rose Eichenbaum

So are you feeling comfortable without the pointe shoes yet?


I am! I was scared at first — for some reason I thought it would hurt me feet more than pointe shoes! I don’t know why, I guess I just found them to be protective over all the years. So as soon as I had a mentor look over and say, “you’re not going to get the feeling of this movement quality until you take the shoes off,” — I did. And even though it was a little scary at first I [knew] what she was saying. There’s a whole other element of the grip with the floor and dealing with the texture of the skin on the floor. It helped me “drop my weight down” in a way I didn’t really expect or understand until I did it. And I’m still really working on that — it’s something really different for me. But it’s something I’m enjoying playing with.

And in Restless Creatures you perform each piece with the actual choreographer of said piece?

That was the whole point — to work with the choreographers [themselves]. I really went out and searched for choreographers who still perform their own work — or still perform, in general - and found the ones that really spoke to me.

As far as the other elements go - costumes, sets, etc. - Did you have a lot of say in those as well?

Yeah! It was my whole say, pretty much. I mean, I really tried to make the choreographers pleased and get what they wanted, but I also had to make sure that they all worked for one show.

click to enlarge CHRISTOPHER DUGGAN
  • Christopher Duggan
So how do you ask four different choreographers to, in a sense, collaborate on a show like that?

I had my husband [artist David Michalek] kind of oversee the elements of combining everything; trying to get an overall look, and overall idea for the works. And I was trying to go for a real study of chemistry between myself and each partner/choreographer ; seeing how different elements created something unique for each piece. I really wanted things to be kind of bare, and minimum, and pure, and simple. I didn’t want to cover up. I wanted to expose the bare bones of these different elements - meaning me and my very different choreographers coming together. What happens when we come to the studio and make something together? And how different is it going to be from the other collaborations? I just wanted it to be about that chemistry and collaborations between those unique duos.

San Francisco Performances presents Restless Creature at on January 15 at 7:30 p.m. and continues through January 16th at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (701 Mission). Tickets are $40-$60; visit sfperformances.org for more information. 

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Laura Jaye Cramer

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