Poetry In Motion: Prima Ballerina Retires After 3-Decade Career

Oct 17, 2014
Originally published on October 17, 2014 7:27 am

Not every dancer can be a ballerina, and not every ballerina gets to dance with the New York City Ballet. So when one makes it, and then stays with the company for three decades, it's a big deal.

Wendy Whelan is that ballerina. And on Saturday night, at 47 years old, she'll give her final New York City Ballet performance before she retires.

"I'm sure I'll get very emotional after," Whelan says. "I don't expect to get emotional during. It's not my style, I just don't do that. But I'll probably enter a depression, and I just know that I will do that because I always do that after a big ballet experience. ... But this is the end of a ballet career, so that's a bit bigger than just a season of ballet."

NPR sent Erin Baiano to photograph the prima ballerina as Whelan prepared for one of her last performances of "After the Rain," choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and performed with her longtime partner Craig Hall. The pair received five curtain calls after the performance.

Audience members cried as they watched Whelan dance: Her body can still communicate a sort of universal poetry. To hear her story, click on the link above.

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Tomorrow night an era in American ballet will end with a farewell performance of The New York City Ballet's principal dancer, Wendy Whelan. She has danced for 30 years with the company founded by the late choreographer George Balanchine. NPR's Nina Gregory spent time with Whelan as she prepared to take her final bow.

NINA GREGORY, BYLINE: Wendy Whelan is not nervous about her last performance.

WENDY WHELAN: I'm sure I'll get very emotional after.

GREGORY: Perched at her dressing table, Whelan gazes into a mirror rimmed with lights as she removes stage makeup from her role in the evening's performance. Despite a small speaker playing music from the rest of the show, her dressing room had a quiet stillness.

WHELAN: I don't expect to get emotional during. It's not my style; I just don't do that. But I'll probably - I'll probably enter a depression. And I just know that I will do that 'cause I always do that after a big ballet experience. I'm always really sad when it's over. The end of the season, I always used to get sad. But this is the end of, like, a ballet career, so that's a bit bigger than just a season of ballet.

GREGORY: A lot bigger.


GREGORY: Audience members cried as they watched her perform. She got standing ovations every night. When tickets went on sale to the public for her farewell, they sold out in 15 minutes. Fans are traveling from around the country to catch a final glimpse of this ballerina, the rare 47-year-old dancer whose body can still communicate a sort of universal poetry.

JENNA TROLSON: Wendy, I think, excels in the ones where it's just a leotard and a belt and tights ballet, where you can see her whole body because that's just - it's a piece of art.

GREGORY: Jenna Trolson is a longtime fan who grew up watching Whelan perform.

TROLSON: I'm just so glad I was able to score nosebleed tickets to her final performance. My really good friend and I are going. We've been ballet-obsessed together our whole lives. She's flying from California, so we're going to see it together.

GREGORY: Tomorrow night will be an evening to reflect on Wendy Whelan's long history with The New York City Ballet. The performance will start with "La Sonnambula." It's a haunting, sinister ballet choreographed by Balanchine in 1946, decades before Whelan came along. Still, she is the last dancer with the company he founded to have even a tiny connection to the man who essentially created modern American ballet.

WHELAN: Balanchine died during my first year living in New York when I was 15 on the first day I ever danced a Balanchine ballet for the School of American Ballet workshop. He had died a few hours before that show. So he dies, and then I get to step out on stage doing his choreography without him.

GREGORY: Over her career, Whelan did become a muse to other choreographers.

CHRISTOPHER WHEELDON: I suppose I did use that word, didn't I? We always joke. We always say moose - my moose.

GREGORY: Christpher Wheeldon is seen by many as the next great choreographer. He's created about a dozen ballets with Whelan.

WHEELDON: To have a muse means to have somebody who not only understands how to translate your ideas into movement, but somebody also who I believe pushes you to explore further. And that's really something that Wendy has done for me. She's an absolutely fabulous interpreter of my ideas, but she's also been there to challenge me. And I think that's how we were able to discover our way of working together.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Sorry, you know. Actually I don't even think it's - I almost think that - if we could stay...

WHELAN: Keep it open?


WHELAN: Probably.


GREGORY: At a rehearsal last week, Whelan and her two longtime partners, Craig Hall and Tyler Angle, were working out the steps to a brand-new ballet Wheeldon created with fellow choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, specifically for tomorrow night's performance. It will be danced just once.

WHEELDON: Wendy is very - has a very powerful presence on stage, very sculptural, muscular, yet feminine. She has the best legs in the business, the most beautifully arched feet. And there's a simplicity about Wendy in the way that she looks at her partner. There's always poetry there. There's always something sort of hovering around her. And that's what - ultimately, that's what makes a great ballerina. That's what makes a star.

GREGORY: This star, over her three-decade career, has premiered 40 principal roles that were created for her. And she's chosen to go out on one last premier.

WHELAN: Definitely, that was my plan - to do that. I thought that was important to not negate the future.

GREGORY: In her dressing room, all of her makeup off, Whelan reflects on the moment.

So how was the performance?

WHELAN: How was the performance? It - it was awesome. I mean, it felt awesome, so (laughter) - yeah. I think it's now, you know, setting in, you know? It's like, I've got to really savor all these moments 'cause it goes so fast. So that's what I'm trying to do.

GREGORY: And so now you go home?

WHELAN: Now I...

SUKI SCHORER: It was so beautiful.

WHELAN: ...Oh, Suki, thanks.

GREGORY: The knock on her dressing room door was from Suki Schorer. She danced with The New York City Ballet from 1959 to '72 and taught Whalen at the School of American Ballet. The school Balanchine started.

SCHORER: Mr. Balanchine, would have been so proud. It was so beautiful.

WHELAN: Thank you....

SCHORER: So already there...

WHELAN: Thank you for believing in me so early. I mean - thank you, Suki.

GREGORY: The parade of friends and fans continued with knocks and kisses and parting gifts.

WHELAN: I have a huge support system of friends, that those people will always be there for me. And I know this because I've seen it in the past. I've seen the traditions of dancers, the generations of dancers before me. I see Jacques D'Amboise and Allegra Kent together at the ballet sometimes, you know? And those people danced in the '40s and '50s and '60s and together. And they're still together, and I think dancing in a ballet company really, honestly, seriously bonds people for life. It's like being in the Army together.

GREGORY: And in a way, with all of the training and the pain and the bruised muscles, she was. Nina Gregory, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.