La Sonnambula, Dances at a Gathering (excerpt), Concerto DSCH (excerpt). After the Rain (pas de deux), By 2 With & From

David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY; October 18, 2014

Jerry Hochman

Wendy Whelan's farewell bow. Photo © Paul Kolnik.

Wendy Whelan’s farewell bow.
Photo © Paul Kolnik.

Last night was Wendy Whelan’s farewell performance with New York City Ballet, after thirty years.

That sentence alone should be sufficient to recognize and memorialize the evening and its significance. But the occasion was much more than just a farewell. For one, there was no sorrow, and no tears (at least none seen). Instead, it was a joyous celebration of a remarkable dancing career. But it also marked a turning point (yes, I use the phrase advisedly), in multiple respects, for her, for NYCB, and for NYCB audiences. It was an ending to cherish, and it marked new beginnings to embrace.

Unlike other recent ‘farewells’ I’ve seen, where the evening’s focus is on the retiring dancer’s performance in an iconic full length role, this was an evening devoted to Ms. Whelan, and to showcasing her performances in a variety of dances – some of Wendy Whelan’s Greatest Hits – that displayed her broad performing range: from Balanchine (“La Sonnambula”) to Robbins (excerpt from “Dances at a Gathering”) to Ratmansky (excerpt from “Concerto DSCH”) to Wheeldon (“After the Rain Pas due Deux”). A delightful piece d’occasion choreographed for her by Mr. Wheeldon and Mr. Ratmansky concluded the evening.

But as beautifully as Ms. Whelan still performs them, the dances were secondary. It was all about her – as it should have been. And to the many memories I have of her over the years, the sight of Ms. Whelan jumping for joy during the series of post-performance curtain calls, and of seeing her impromptu ‘last waltz’ with former NYCB principal dancer Jacques D’Amboise, may be the fondest of them all.

It’s not easy to earn the sobriquet ‘soul of the company’, but for much of her NYCB career, that’s the way I, and others, have described her. I can’t easily explain what that means – except to say that Wendy Whelan is, was, what it meant to be a NYCB ballerina. Over the years, the company has had many stars who, in one respect or another, have been flashier, or had a more devoted and vocal following. But no one, during her years with the company, embodied what post-Balanchine NYCB is more than Wendy Whelan.

To me, the ballerina who is most comparable (in terms of impact and company significance, if not style), is Stuttgart Ballet’s Marcia Haydée, whom I have previously described as the soul of that company. During the time she danced with them, and beyond, one could not think of the Stuttgart without also thinking of her. For this NYCB ballet generation, one cannot think of NYCB without thinking of Wendy Whelan.

Wendy Whelan with Craig Hall in the pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon's 'After the Rain'. Photo © Paul Kolnik.

Wendy Whelan with Craig Hall in the pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s ‘After the Rain’.
Photo © Paul Kolnik.

It’s no secret that until this farewell Fall, Ms. Whelan had performed little in recent seasons. Until last month, I have no recollection of seeing her dance with NYCB since the premiere of Mr. Wheeldon’s “This Bitter Earth” pas de deux at the ‘Valentino Gala’ on September 20, 2012. But the extent to which there were fewer performances of hers to see, for whatever reason, is no longer relevant, if it ever was. What is relevant is that she can still do what she has always been able to do – deliver dramatic dance expression simply, and exquisitely, by the force of her movement quality and stage persona alone. In the last ‘major’ piece that I saw her dance, Jerome Robbins’s “In Memory of…” at the ‘Robbins Award’ performance on September 30, 2011, I observed that Ms. Whelan delivered the poignancy, the dramatic range, and the tragedy inherent in the music and the choreography to perfection, and that her performance embodied her singular ability to stretch steps into dramatic expression, thereby adding immeasurably to the piece’s impact, without necessarily ‘acting’. In two of the three pieces that comprised the mid-section of last night’s celebration, the excerpt from “Concerto DSCH” and the pas de deux from “After the Rain” these qualities are exactly what she demonstrated yet again.

But it’s her range that’s most remarkable to remember, and was most remarkable to have seen demonstrated again, vividly, last night. In “La Sonnambula”, she was a sleepwalking vessel possessed by a mysterious and volcanic emotional force within: her haunting expression exceeded in impact only by her still thrilling bourrées, which would have been the envy of ballerinas half her age. And yes, she could still uncannily cradle and carry Robert Fairchild in her arms without flinching, while the audience held its collective breath.

But her youthful vigor as the girl ‘in Apricot’ in the excerpt from “Dances at a Gathering” was particularly breathtaking. This excerpt, logically, should have been the toughest portrayal of the evening for her to pull off. In recent years, Ms. Whelan has grown older – a fact, not a criticism – and her experience has often appeared as a pensive, almost angry-looking, hard edge. One wouldn’t know it from this performance. She totally erased the relentlessly serious dramatic expressiveness for which she has been known recently, and replaced it with the attitude and demeanor of a…young girl. To see her prance and take chances and look youthful and cheerful and happy as a twenty-something ballerina was alone worth the price of admission.

My one criticism of the evening was that Ms. Whelan’s valedictory was marked by the absence of most of NYCB’s emerging generation of young ballerinas – soloist Lauren King dancing a pas de deux in “La Sonnambula”, and principals Sara Mearns (the Coquette in the same piece) and Rebecca Krohn (in ‘Dances’) were the only exceptions. This seemed a calculated effort to avoid presenting anyone who might detract from Ms. Whelan’s being the focus of attention. If this was the explanation for their absence, however, in view of Ms. Whelan’s performance, it was unnecessary. She would have more than held her own.

Wendy Whelan and Tyler Angle in 'By 2 With & From'. Photo © Paul Kolnik

Wendy Whelan and Tyler Angle in ‘By 2 With & From’.
Photo © Paul Kolnik

The concluding Wheeldon/ Ratmansky piece d’occasion, “By 2 With & From”, is a well-crafted tribute to Ms. Whelan. The title itself is, or should be, self-explanatory – but it also fits as a description of the relationship in the piece between her and her two partners, Tyler Angle and Craig Hall, and perhaps of their offstage friendship and mutual respect as well. It was fun to watch and very sweet. And its final image, of Ms. Whelan lifted aloft, focused on the future, her future as a still active dancer, was pitch-perfect.

From my vantage point in the sold out house, I couldn’t see everyone who assembled onstage to honor Ms. Whelan when the performance portion of the evening ended. But it was a full stage of the dancers who had shared the evening’s program with her, abetted by current company dancers and alumni smiling and applauding, each of whom presented Ms. Whelan with a rose to add to the bouquets she had received at the performance’s end and had deposited center stage. There was Ms. Whelan saluting not only her colleagues but also members of the orchestra in the pit – who stood and saluted her back. There were bouquets thrown from the standing and cheering capacity audience, and confetti. And there was a lot of love. And then, after some half dozen or more extended curtain calls, the curtain came down for the final time.

During the mid-section of the performance, while she was changing costume in the ‘pauses’ between the three pieces, filmed recordings of Ms. Whelan in various New York venues and in private interactions with other dancers were projected on a stage screen, coupled with cute-is-an-understatement filmed images of her as a young dancer – a very young dancer. Accompanying the video snippets was a continuous monologue of wonderful and insightful comments and observations patched together seamlessly, which provided a glimpse into the ‘real’ Wendy Whelan. Among other things, it should be made required viewing for any young would-be ballerina who doesn’t think she can make it because she doesn’t consider herself ‘pretty’ enough. I found most enlightening Ms. Whelan’s comments about the passing of knowledge from one generation of NYCB dancers to another – for example, I recall her saying that she learned how to partner and be partnered by Heather (Watts); and she taught Mr. Angle and Mr. Hall; and they in turn teach their partners. Of course the process, the tradition, continues. It’s one of the things that makes seeing ballet over a long period of time so compelling – the knowledge that not just steps, but performance technique and insights are passed from performing generation to generation, and seen from audience generation to audience generation. At one point, Ms. Whelan also said that each generation has its own New York City Ballet. To a large extent, that torch has now been passed. Again. Marking not so much an end, as a new, and continuing, beginning.