Wendy Whelan Photo Christopher Duggan

Wendy Whelan
Photo Christopher Duggan

Works & Process at the Guggenheim: Wendy Whelan and Edward Watson
June 14, 2015

Marni LaRose

When Wendy Whelan appears on stage in black stilettos and, later, in red fluffy slippers, it is apparent, that the universe is shifting — and indeed it is.

This weekend’s Works & Process at the Guggenheim Peter B. Lewis Theater featured former New York City Ballet Principal and Royal Ballet Principal Edward Watson in three excerpts that will be part of a longer Other Stories program at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre in London this July. It will also be presented in a somewhat modified version at New York City Center in March of 2016, featuring additional choreographers including Christopher Wheeldon.

The presentation included an insightful and engaging panel discussion, moderated by Stanford Makishi, with the dancers and two of the choreographers, Annie-B Parson and Danièle Desnoyers.

When Wendy Whelan received a Bessie Award for Sustained Achievement in Performance in October of 2011, she suggested “uptown should meet downtown.” She pantomimed a phone to her ear, challenging dancers and choreographers to “call me.” For those who only know her as a world class prima ballerina, this seemed far-fetched. Just two years later, in August of 2013, a program fittingly titled Restless Creature had its world premiere at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. In this, the first of three projects Whelan has lined up, she commissioned four male choreographers to develop contemporary pieces and dance with her in them. This second project intentionally features three female choreographers as part of the mix.

The first dance excerpt presented was a duet choreographed by Arthur Pita. Whelan appears on stage in high-heel tango shoes, hair down, back to the audience. With hands up, elbows out, she slowly gathers her long, loose hair and twists it. Arms extended, she holds the twist of hair straight up, overhead. Her partner, Edward Watson, a strapping presence against her willowy frame, enters and takes it from her, leading her across the room to Kurt Weill’s Tango Ballad. It’s an interesting “dance prop” and a defining part of the choreography.

Edward Watson Photo Charlotte MacMillan

Edward Watson
Photo Charlotte MacMillan

During the talk back, Whelan discussed the logistics of learning tango, including the politics of leading and following, something she and Watson are both only starting to master. Clearly, Whelan has a fondness for her partner whom she calls “hilarious” and whom she hand-picked to participate in this project. Whelan danced with Watson briefly a decade ago in a Christopher Wheeldon piece and he is their bridge. Not only did they meet during one of his performances but both have been muses for his developing works. So it is fitting that they will dance together in a new work created for them by the choreographer when the program plays at City Center next year. Watson, who has always sought out developing work apart from what he describes as his “day job” at The Royal Ballet, professed that he simply wanted to dance with Whelan. He is not the only one to feel that way. Choreographers and dancers alike seem ready to accept Whelan’s offers to collaborate. She is clearly running this new show, albeit with dignity and without ego, and has a cache of ideas waiting to find expression.

Annie-B Parson developed the second piece presented at the Guggenheim as a solo in which she explores the notion of ‘erasure’. The beauty of attending a Works & Process performance is that the audience gets to see inside the mind of the creators and the work as it develops.

Parson had Whelan demonstrate an excerpt initially choreographed to Stravinsky. Whelan, who has danced Stravinsky for decades, brings that history and dance memory to the score and that is another component in influencing and informing the work. Parson’s interest in erasure literally led her to erase Stravinsky from the piece. We had the rare opportunity to see that first step — the Stravinsky choreography — and then to see the same choreography danced to Dark Full Ride, a percussion piece by Julie Wolfe. It was a fascinating experience in which we are able to witness the dance taking on shadows of interpretation. Of course, all the pieces presented at the Guggenheim are only partially developed and are stripped bare of lighting, costume and set interactions, which inevitably shape and add to the meaning of the work. In this format, they have an austere beauty.

Danièle Desnoyers’ duet, set to the French song L’Oiseau Mechanique by Stéphanie Lapointe, was the more lyrical of the three pieces at this Works & Process presentation. It draws on the vocabulary most familiar to its two ballet-based dancers. Developing a dance to a song is unusual for Desnoyers and during her discussion on the work she described how the lyrical story inevitably had an influence on the movement. Whelan is, understandably, most adept at, and most comfortable, in this piece.

As comfortable as Wendy Whelan is in her own skin as a person, she clearly, at this point prefers to be outside her comfort zone as a dancer. Ballet requires that everything pull up, be light, and turned out. The vernacular of contemporary dance is antithetically opposed to these notions. During the panel discussion, Whelan professed that grounding herself to the floor and adding weight to her overall movement continue to be her two biggest challenges. But she stated that she loves the freedom and release inherent in the work — and it shows.

Whelan has clearly “let her hair down” in every sense of the word. She admits she must be willing to “make a fool of herself” during the learning process. For a person of her universal renown and success, this must be quite humbling. But that is precisely the quest she has chosen: to explore the challenges of new forms, to learn, expand and to grow. She does so with a blend of honesty, inquisitiveness, intelligence and humor. Through it all, her natural grace, genuine character, and humility shine through. Though virtuosity may, at times, be lacking during this exploration process, majesty is never lacking.

Rarely in dance history has a performer so on top of her world opened herself up to being so vulnerable. Whelan’s thirst to re-discover and re-define herself is insatiable. Her generous spirit allows us the opportunity to go on that journey with her. Whelan calls these collaborations “play dates.” Happily, we have been invited.

Works & Process at the Guggenheim: Wendy Whelan and Edward Watson was coproduced by The Royal Ballet and New York City Center.

Other Stories is at the Linbury Studio Theatre, London, July 9-12. Click here here for details.