The dancer discusses future collaborations, lifts and Fire Island with the contemporary ballet master.
Called “America’s greatest contemporary ballerina,” by The New York Times, Wendy Whelan, whose 30-year career with New York City Ballet will come to an end this fall when she officially retires from the company, will continue new projects and her ongoing tour of Restless Creature. Whelan catches up with choreographer Christopher Wheeldon at the Royal Opera House in London. Together, the two have shared one of the most celebrated and fruitful artistic partnerships in history.
Nick Vogelson—How is Restless Creature’s tour to London going?
Wendy Whelan—We just had our first night last night [at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre]—we have four more to go.
Nick—Oh my god, so it was the premiere. How exciting. I was just talking to [Guggenheim Works & Process manager] Duke Dang, and he mentioned that Restless Creature started as a collaboration four years ago out at the Fire Island Dance Festival?
Wendy—The idea was starting to build. I was there doing a work of Chris’s, actually, and I saw Kyle Abraham perform out on Fire Island, same show, and I saw Brian Brooks’s company in the same show, so I got really inspired. We all saw each other working. You know, one of the things that really got me intrigued with working with choreographers was my experience with Chris, working closely in the studio with him, and following and mimicking his movements. I performed with him when we were both in the company [New York City Ballet], but never with him in his own choreography, and I had a secret desire to put it onstage, our studio time. So that’s what I did with these guys [for Restless Creature]. Chris was totally an inspiration for the whole idea, to work and dance with a choreographer.
Christopher Wheeldon—I love that.
Wendy—Did you know that?
Christopher—No, I didn’t. I’m really glad you didn’t ask me to be part of it though, because these tennis shoes were hung up a long time ago. Nobody wants to see that onstage anymore. [laughs.]
Wendy—Yeah, they would!
Christopher—I would have to have a very thick costume. Possibly a burqa.
Wendy—Shut up! No, so it was weirdly full-circle, and it all happened at the Fire Island Dance Festival.
Nick—I love that. Chris, I heard you met your husband at the Fire Island Dance Festival?
Christopher—I did—it was that weekend, actually.
Wendy—It was a big love fest.
Christopher—Wendy was getting inspired onstage, I was planning my future. It was a good weekend all in all. [laughs.]
Wendy—Yeah, it really steered us to our futures, that Fire Island weekend.
“I think you made that duet in one day, and it changed my life. It was a new way of expressing myself through dance and I thank you for allowing that part of myself out of myself.”
Christopher—Having Wendy dancing in the performance actually gave me some collateral too, because it turns out Ross [Rayburn, Wheeldon’s husband] was a big dance fan and he loved the piece, so when we were sort of wooing one another it was—
Wendy—I helped sell Chris.
Christopher—Gave me some street cred. [laughs.]
Nick—I would love to chat about when you guys first met, your favorite performance—
Christopher—When I first got in the company I danced with Wendy in Dances at a Gathering. It was probably my first year, so I must have been 20.
Wendy—And I was probably 26 or 27.
Christopher—Wendy was already a star and I was just this ballet boy—
Wendy—Bursting with talent.
Christopher—And we got put together—
Wendy—By Jerome Robbins. The dance is called the giggle dance—
Christopher—It’s high energy—very swing.
Wendy—It’s brother-sisterly, it’s very cute.
Christopher—So I got to do the dance with Wendy, which was a big deal for me. And there was one step in the middle—just a tiny bit of partnering, an overhead press lift.
Wendy—Chris was a baby! [laughs.] Wasn’t that one of your first featured roles with us?
Christopher—Yeah, it was my first—
Wendy—So that’s stressful! [laughs.]
Christopher—And it was with Wendy Whelan, who, you know, was notoriously very mean in rehearsal. [laughs.]
Wendy—Yeah, and overweight—everything. [laughs.]
Christopher—So here I am [rehearsing] with Wendy and we get to this moment and I can’t do the lift. I can’t get her over my head because I was weak and I hadn’t really had any intense partnering. It was ridiculous because you weigh nothing.
Wendy—It’s a coordination thing!
Christopher—It was very embarrassing.
Wendy—Well, we practiced a bunch of times and we did do it!
Christopher—But I spent sleepless nights worrying about that, sweaty, like, oh my god.
Wendy—I didn’t worry about it. I was like, Chris Wheeldon, you can’t get me over your head, just plop me on your chest! We’ll be fine! Not a big deal!
Christopher—You were so sweet with me. I thought, oh my god, this is it, I’m never going to be in a Robbins ballet again, Wendy’s never going to want to dance with me again.
Wendy—I remember during a full run-through of Dances at a Gathering, we were backstage, and Chris has this little notebook and he’s sketching, listening to music, and I’m like, ‘Hey, kid! What are you doing?’ He’s like, ‘Oh, you know, working on some choreography. I really love to choreograph—I started doing it a little bit, I’d like to do more.’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, well, good luck with that.’ [laughs.] And then, needless to say, I actually started dancing in some of his ballets—
Christopher—I’m trying to think about Polyphonia.
Wendy—I think you made that duet in one day, and it changed my life. It was a new way of expressing myself through dance and I thank you for allowing that part of myself out of myself. I think that’s where this confidence and desire to work with all these choreographers and find these new parts of myself started, really, because you were the first artist to allow me to really bring my voice. And you helped celebrate that and I can’t thank you enough.
Christopher—Oh, that’s really nice. I think the huge thing that we both discovered—I mean, I certainly discovered it through that process with you and Jock [Soto, Wendy’s partner in Polyphonia]—was that it was actually okay to open the studio in a creative way that involved collaboration. Because I think up until then, I’d made ballets where I couldn’t do that. You approach things as a ballerina of now, this generation. Although we’re kind of on the verge of there being a generation under us, or two. [laughs.]
Wendy—But we’re still on top of them! Whatever that means! [laughs.]
Christopher—[Polyphonia] felt like a modern-day dialogue between choreographer and dancer.
Wendy—Very refreshing from both sides, I think.
Christopher—Yeah, and then we went on to do quite a lot more after that.
Wendy—We did 13 pieces together, not all at New York City Ballet, but just, you know, studio time and getting something onstage—13 pieces is a lot. With one guy, god. [laughs.]
Christopher—It is a lot.
Wendy—We’re hoping to do another piece or two in the next year.
Christopher—It’s going to be 15 by the end of ’15.
Wendy—Yeah! I like that.
Nick—So you’re already working on new pieces together?
Wendy—We’re discussing a couple new things. One will be for my farewell at New York City Ballet—I asked Chris to create a little something new just for that night. I’m really excited for that because my whole future’s about making new things, and I’d like to leave my past with the idea of new. So, he’s going to help me do that. And then hopefully for my second project after Restless Creature, Chris will be one of my choreographers with the great dancer Ed Watson, who is a principal with The Royal Ballet. We’re going to collaborate on a piece for London next year, and then in New York the year after.
Nick—What have been some of your other favorite collaborations together as choreographer and dancer?
Wendy—Well, for me—After the Rain, when he took me off pointe and had me do movement that I’d never done before. I actually was almost discouraged by it and afraid of it, like, I don’t get this! And then all of a sudden I got it and I loved it. It took a while, but I like that.
Christopher—Could you really not understand it? I mean, it was—
Wendy—I took it a little bit like a, well, I guess you can’t dance in [pointe] shoes anymore, like, oh, Chris is thinking I’m old! But in fact, that was the opposite. And it was a real thrill once I figured out what he was doing. It was the same thing with The Nightingale and the Rose.
Christopher—I loved that. That’s really my favorite in a way. After the Rain was amazing but it was, for me, the easiest piece I’ve ever made. Like that happened even faster than Polyphonia, remember? It was one of those experiences where you have no idea where it comes from, you pull it together and suddenly…That [pas de deux] makes people cry and I understand it because—
Wendy—You didn’t plan on that.
Christopher—I didn’t plan on that. It’s danced by a lot of people, and it’s always different, it always kind of works, although there’s no one like Wendy Whelan. And I’m not just saying that because she’s sitting right here. Even, like, you dancing with [different partners], you seem different each time you do it, yet it’s always still you. It kind of brings up a strange little life of its own, that piece. But actually The Nightingale and the Rose, I kind of wish it had come back—
Wendy—It was a narrative ballet that Chris made—I’d never been in a narrative ballet of yours before. It was such a beautiful story, the Oscar Wilde Nightingale and the Rose, and how in the hell is he going to put this story into a ballet—it’s hard!
Christopher—Yeah, it’s really hard.
Wendy—But you did it! And I remember we got quite the ovation. It was really interesting choreographically and I remember you were given the music, which was hard because you didn’t get to choose your music.
Christopher—By [Bright] Sheng, yeah.
“It’s kind of like putting on a new outfit when you’re getting choreographed. Sometimes you’re in something a little too baggy or a little too tight and it just doesn’t work. Sometimes the clothes are tailored perfectly, and that’s when you know you’re with a good choreographer.”
Wendy—But you made the best of it! You made it work somehow and I thought you really did some brilliant things. I think when we get in the studio together, it’s so special because some seed gets planted, and no matter what the seed is, it feels like watching a flower blossom. And it’s a bigger flower or a smaller flower or more of a bouquet or more of, like, a four leaf clover, whatever, but we actually get to watch something go through this growth and transition and become something. That’s the thing I love most about what I do.
Christopher—Yeah, it is amazing.
Wendy—And you don’t always feel that way with people. It’s kind of like putting on a new outfit when you’re getting choreographed. Sometimes you’re in something a little too baggy or a little too tight and it just doesn’t work. Sometimes the clothes are tailored, perfectly and that’s when you know you’re with a good choreographer.
Christopher—What must have been super nice for you as well was when Alexei [Ratmansky] came along and made [Concerto] DSCH for you, and Namouna and Russian Seasons. Because the way he choreographs for you is totally on the other end of the spectrum from me, and that experience must have been very satisfying, I would imagine.
Wendy—Well, I compared him to you at first.
Christopher—Only slightly jealous.
Wendy—I love his work and I love what he does for a ballet that he’s making, but it couldn’t be more different than Chris. Chris allows me more freedom so I feel more comfortable—
Christopher—But being pushed—
Wendy—Yeah, getting pushed is also good. It’s like playing with lava, getting in the room with both of you guys.
Nick—What’s something about the other know?
Wendy—This is a damn funny guy. He enjoys himself in the studio. I always say this but when Chris is creating, he’s always playful. There’s not a lot of stress or determination to make a masterpiece. He’s just seeing what happens and I love that. It’s like throwing the dice and, you know, taking the next move, and usually he throws a good game. [laughs.]
Christopher—I’m a good gambler, I think. [laughs.]
Wendy—Yeah! He plays his cards right.
Christopher—I don’t know, I think people wouldn’t know how sensitive you are, because you’re such a presence onstage that, probably, audiences don’t know that you think through things a lot, and, sometimes, you have to talk yourself into being okay with something. You’re incredibly open minded and willing to try stuff, but you question a lot, and question what you can and can’t do, which I think is what makes you incredibly textured onstage. But, you know, we all see Wendy as this rare beauty and I think people think, oh, it must come really easy and she’s just that beautiful creature, that beautiful restless creature. And they don’t see the restless part, which is part of what makes you really interesting as an artist.
This conversation first appeared in Document’s Fall/Winter 2014 issue.