Kyle Abraham and Wendy Whelan in The Serpent and The Smoke.  Photo Christopher Duggan

Kyle Abraham and Wendy Whelan in The Serpent and The Smoke
Photo Christopher Duggan

Ego Et Tu, Conditional Sentences, The Serpent and the Smoke,
First Fall

The Joyce Theater, New York, NY; May 26, 2014

Jerry Hochman

When last we visited Wendy Whelan, it was her farewell with New York City Ballet following a distinguished 30-year career, and we looked forward to new and continuing beginnings, both for NYCB and for her. NYCB has moved on, as successful ballet companies always do after one of its dancers, albeit in this case a legendary one, retires. But it must be particularly difficult for a ballerina to move on when she’s devoted herself to ballet, and to one company, for most of her life.

But those of us who’ve watched her over the years know that Wendy Whelan isn’t your standard operating ballerina, and that she had already laid the groundwork for the next stage of her career before she retired from NYCB, presenting a program of dances at Jacobs Pillow in 2013.

Last week’s run at the Joyce Theater was of essentially the same Jacob’s Pillow program, which she has since performed in various world-wide venues – an evening devoted to Whelan’s artistic partnership with four contemporary choreographers (Alejandro Cerrudo, Joshua Beamish, Kyle Abraham, and Brian Brooks) in the form of four separate duets. The total program lasts an hour, without an intermission. Despite its brevity (or perhaps because if it), it was consistently interesting, and consistently revelatory. And Whelan, the one constant in this consistency, never ceases to amaze.

Whelan has previously stated that she wanted to explore and be challenged by new choreography that isn’t ballet, and to be able to choose what she dances – opportunities that established companies generally don’t provide. But even though the choreography for this program was contemporary and modern, whatever that means these days, what impressed most was that, no matter what style she danced (and the choreographers utilized distinct movement qualities, the equivalent of different languages), Whelan was still the ballerina, the star. She looks comfortable with any style, and blesses whatever she dances with a particular grace. Her instrument, her body, is so finely tuned (think human violin string that tightens or loosens as may be required, and that can be ‘played’ stoically or infused with passion) and she looks so ethereal on stage that even when she’s dancing into the ground she seems always prepared to fly.

Different though they were from each other, all four duets were enjoyable. And Whelan’s ability to change styles, much less change costumes – in seconds – is marvelous.

The more I see if Cerrudo’s work, the more impressed I am by the breadth of his choreographic ability. Although I had reservations about some of his works I’ve seen performed by Pacific Northwest Ballet (last fall), and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (just a few weeks ago), it is clear that he has a fine command, and knows where he wants his pieces to go.  – that is, in most if not all of those dances, he curates his accompanying music from a variety of sources, rather than choreographing to a single composition.

Wendy Whelan and Joshua Beamish in Conditional Sentences.  Photo Yi-Chun Wu

Wendy Whelan and Joshua Beamish in Conditional Sentences
Photo Yi-Chun Wu

Alejandro Cerrudo and Wendy Whelan in Ego Et Tu.  Photo Yi-Chun Wu

Alejandro Cerrudo and Wendy Whelan in Ego Et Tu
Photo Yi-Chun Wu

Ego Et Tu, though abstract, has a clear theme that’s more than simply bare emotional gloss. Beneath a solitary beam of light, one man, Cerrudo, appears to be searching for something. The movement is a combination of agitation and slow-motion stretching. He bends such that his head touches the floor, not quite in frustration, but in puzzlement; like something’s missing, but he doesn’t know what. Eventually, he pulls Whelan, costumed in pure white, out from the upstage rear curtain closure. While she doesn’t look quite like a swan, she moves her arms consistent with being an avian apparition.

Whelan gently touches Cerrudo’s head; he pulls away. Cerrudo touches her body; it seems to weep, and wraps around his. They move parallel to each other, before her head touches his, as if trying to access it, or recognizing that she’s sprung from it. Obviously, his ‘head,’ and the thoughts in it, are a significant visual reference.

As the dance continues, they spar somewhat, but he subsequently appears to accept her, or the thought of her – at times as if ‘measuring’ her contours – and then, seemingly complete, lets her go. Although the ‘awakening’ or ‘need to be complete’ or ‘getting to know you, and through you, me’ themes are relatively trite, the movement is primarily lyrical, even balletic, both agitated and gentle at the same time, with a quality of warmth that is palpable. And the image of Whelan in white is stunning.

Beamish’s piece, Conditional Sentences, not included in the original Jacobs Pillow program, is the most strange in terms if choreographic language, but also strangely interesting.

Beamish and Whelan appear at first from opposite wings. After a Whelan solo, a ‘conversation’ of sorts ensues. At first the movement appears balletic. But then unusual hand, arm, and head movements snap in one or another direction, as if controlled not by some exterior force, but by an internal direction – like some humanoid alien who speaks a different body language, crossed with the staccato movement that a ‘flip book’ might yield. The movement quality began to grow on me, because it wasn’t so much quirky, which it was, as internally consistent, and particularly crisp-looking. And although it’s an abstract dance, there is something going on here – incomplete sentences, perhaps, yielding incomplete conversations. It was intriguing trying to decipher them. But what was most extraordinary was Whelan’s mastery of Beamish’s upper limb choreographic angularity, done at a breakneck speed.

Kyle Abraham and Wendy Whelan in The Serpent and The Smoke.  Photo Yi-Chun Wu

Kyle Abraham and Wendy Whelan in The Serpent and The Smoke
Photo Yi-Chun Wu

Abraham’s The Serpent and the Smoke, is a compelling piece of both stagecraft and choreography. There were no program notes, but I sensed an encounter between two forces, in a jungle-like atmosphere. Abraham is first seen in shadow upstage (perhaps emerging from bushes), but then moves downstage and begins to whirl wildly, almost out of control. This feverish movement is periodically interrupted by slower, shimmying movement. Whelan, emerges from the darkness and either tempts or taunts him.

The Serpent and the Smoke has an intensity about it that’s mesmerizing, and a somewhat lyrical quality that vividly contrasts with the initial wildness. And even though Abraham, logically, was The Smoke and Whelan The Snake (the fire/smoke attracts and repels the viper, who eventually retreats and leaves The Smoke to its vapor), it could have been the other way around, or simply two forces meeting in the dark in an abstract dance – but with its title, I suspect the dance’s meaning, whatever it is, is more literal Abraham is a compelling stage presence, and his ferocity coupled with Whelan’s calculated cool resulted in a knock-out performance.

The concluding duet, Brian Brooks’ First Fall, is a deceptively complex piece that I disliked initially, but it eventually won me over. Describing it is particularly difficult, because the level of emotional interaction is minimal, and yet it’s intense.

Whelan and Brooks appear to attempt to connect, or to support each other. Although the movement is interesting, it didn’t register. But then, when the piece reached its closing segment, it became a thing of rare beauty, as Brooks appeared to try to save Whelan, who repeatedly fell to the floor (a more graceful fall probably does not exist), atop part of his body. He’d lift himself up, and in the process give her new life; but then she’d fall again, and the cycle repeats until the piece ends with her on top of him, both spent.

Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks in First Fall.  Photo Yi-Chun Wu

Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks in First Fall
Photo Yi-Chun Wu

In the process of watching these images, a light went off. The Philip Glass composition from which Brooks culled the excerpts he used, String Quartet No. 3, is also called ‘Mishima’, and was used as the score for the 1985 film Mishima, A Life in Four Chapters, which referenced the life and notorious 1970 suicide of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. While First Fall is hardly ‘about’ Mishima, and probably not about suicide (and indeed may not be ‘about’ anything), connecting it to a fall from grace, or from self-respect, or from any will to live – to ‘giving up’ (or even, to ‘giving in’, as in giving in to a relationship), makes some amount of visual sense – and also makes the piece much more cosmic in force than a visualized series of stage falls.

But even if the piece has no ‘meaning’ at all, the repeated images of Whelan losing bodily strength and emotional will, and of Brooks repeatedly attempting to push her back up, are an extraordinary visual montage that lingers in the memory long after the piece concluded – just as Whelan’s extraordinary dramatic range and physical control lingers in the memory long after the program ends.