Tag Archives: Wendy Whelan

Leaving Neverland – Film Review of ‘Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan’

9_WFarewell2_Courtesy of Paul Kolnick

A scene from Got The Shot Films Production “Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan.” Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnick.

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

A single file line of female corps de ballet dancers in silhouette shuffles across the back of the stage at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater. Accompanied by the haunting string music of composer Philip Glass and looking like some cliché of automaton factory workers, the line of dancers is suddenly juxtaposed by New York City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan lifted by partner Tyler Angle soaring across the stage like some goddess exalted.  The scene out of Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces played out like a metaphor for the charmed career Whelan, and few others have attained, basking in the spotlight of stardom for decades while the all but anonymous line of corps dancers trudge along in the background, for most, their careers never to see such heights.

But Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger’s 90-minute documentary Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan (2016) isn’t about the fickle nature of stardom nor so much about Whelan’s ascent to it, but rather what she feels is her impending descent from it and the loss of her identity. It’s a very personal, somewhat inner circle, glimpse into her coming to grips with aging, injury and what happens next.

Filmed beginning in 2013 when she was 46, the documentary takes us through her battle with a painful hip injury, her inner battles over her career, and through her final performance with NYCB and the beginnings of a new chapter in her life.

Like any great athlete that has self-realized or been told that they have lost a step and subsequently see the finish line to their careers is in sight, early on in the film Whelan is knowingly rather fatalistic about her future.

“’If I don’t dance, I’d rather die’—I’ve actually said that,” recalls Whelan in the film. “I feel the ticking clock.”

Shattered and heartbroken at times in the film, Whelan’s penetrating and sometimes mournful expressions harken back to anguished images of runner Mary Decker after falling in the women’s 3,000m final at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, watching in tears as her dreams of Olympic gold ran away from her.

6_WendyWhelanReleve_Courtesy of Got The Shot Films

A scene from Got The Shot Films Production “Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan.”

7_WendyWhelanBalletSlipper_Courtesy of Got The Shot Films

A scene from Got The Shot Films Production “Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan.”

Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Whelan’s early training at the Louisville Ballet Academy led her to New York and the School of American Ballet. In 1984, she was named an apprentice with NYCB and in 1986 she joined its corps de ballet. One of the first post-Balanchine stars of the company, Whelan went on to spend a record-setting 30-years at NYCB, 23 of them as a principal dancer.

Says current NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins about his hiring of Whelan, “It’s not rocket science, when somebody pops up with that gift it’s very easy to identify, you just grab it.”

Unlike other dance documentaries about a single artist, Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan isn’t filled with film/video clips of her dance oeuvre which includes works by choreographers William Forsythe, Alexei Ratmansky, Twyla Tharp, Christopher Wheeldon and her performing most every major Balanchine role, instead the focus is on getting to know the affable waif during a most crucial intersection in her life ─ career reinvention or permanent retirement from the stage.

Cognizant of her gifts as a dancer and her stardom, Whelan says in the film, “I had the world in my hands. I was getting every part under the sun…it was like gold streaming into my world.”

Having worked closely with Jerome Robbins twelve years, originated more roles at NYCB than any other dancer in its history, guested with the Kirov Ballet and The Royal Ballet’s, received numerous awards including the Dance Magazine Award (2007), the Jerome Robbins Award (2011) and a 2011 Bessie Award, Whelan is considered by many as one of the modern era’s most important ballerinas.

It is perhaps that fear of falling from such great heights that seems to haunt Whelan most in the film ─ adulation and stardom are but holes in your parachute once they disappear.

Unusual in its approach to revealing Whelan as a person and an artist during a time of personal crisis, Saffire and Schlesinger’s documentary is a powerfully engaging, wonderfully choreographed and edited film that like any great dance work or film, speaks passionately to the human condition.

The documentary moves through scenes of Whelan reminiscing with the recurring male dance partners she has had in her career (Jock Soto, Craig Hall, Tyler Angle), shows her discussing and rehearsing a new ballet with Ratmansky and Wheeldon for her final performance at NYCB, and details a few somewhat uncomfortable encounters with boss Martins.

2_Agon_Whelan_Courtesy of Paul Kolnick

A scene from Got The Shot Films Production “Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan.” Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnick.

4_Liturgy_WhelanEvans_Courtesy of Paul Kolnick

A scene from Got The Shot Films Production “Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan.” Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnick.

Particularly engaging are scenes of Whelan discussing her hip surgery with Dr. Marc Philippon of Colorado’s Vail Valley Medical Center, who says to her “Ballerinas are probably God’s best athletes,” and operation room footage of  Whelan’s hip surgery, from prepping her to the first scalpel incision with Whelan awake during it.

The most thoughtful and riveting scenes of the film however are of Whelan’s final performance with NYCB on October 18, 2014. Saffire and Schlesinger masterfully intercut her backstage routine with Whelan dancing onstage for the final time. The soundtrack to these scenes bounces between audio from a backstage hallway monitor and from the performance hall. Cameras  from seemingly every angle capture Whelan’s movements. Especially poignant are the silent, reflective and distant stares of Whelan feeling what that ending is like; a different Wendy leaving Neverland knowing she has to grow up.

At films end, Whelan comes to realize that this is not the end for her and dance. That she can take her dancing, career, and stardom to new places and new heights, which we see she has already begun to do.

Abramorama presents a Got The Shot Films Production Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan, directed and produced by Adam Schlesinger and Linda Saffire, executive producer, Diana Dimenna, edited by Bob Eisenhardt, A.C.E., director of photography, Don Lenzer with original music composed by Philip Sheppard. Running time: 1h 30min, WW Dance, LLC © 2016. www.restlesscreaturefilm.com

Abramorama will release Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan in New York at the Elinor Bunin Theater and Film Forum today, May 24, 2017.

Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.


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Lauper, Liang, Balanchine and Bowie: BalletMet’s ‘Breaking Ballet’ an Entertaining Ride

BalletMet dancers in James Kudelka's

BalletMet dancers in James Kudelka’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

BalletMet – Breaking Ballet
Capitol Theatre
Columbus, Ohio
October 2, 2015

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

To open its 2015-2016 season, BalletMet artistic director Edwaard Liang put together a more populist program of ballet works to further dispel the stereotype that ballet is all raised pinkies and tutus appealing only to the stuffed shirt crowd. Anyone who frequents BalletMet’s programs probably already knows that ballet can come in a myriad of forms. Breaking Ballet, October 2-10 at the Riffe Center’s Capitol Theatre in Columbus, set about proving that point from the get go with the world-premiere of James Kudelka’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun set to the music of 1980’s pop icon Cyndi Lauper.

Kudelka, a former artistic director of The National Ballet of Canada, has over the past decade created several works for BalletMet. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun is the latest in a series that includes 2010’s The Man in Black and last season’s Real Life in which Kudelka taps into folk dance patterning to help create a distinct movement language that permeates each ballet.

Decked out in 80’s-flavored costumes (sans the leg warmers and headbands) courtesy of costume designer Erin E. Rollins, the ballet bopped through a suite of Lauper hits.

BalletMet dancers in James Kudelka's

BalletMet dancers in James Kudelka’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Capturing a music video vibe, Kudelka’s choreography had the dancers repeating exaggerated hip sways, sideways waddles and arms-on-shoulders Greek folk dance-like circle dances.

Dancing to Lauper’s “True Colors,” BalletMet’s Karen Wing and Austin Finley slowly swayed back and forth, shifting their feet with Wing locked on Finley with and intense gaze during the seductive duet. Then dancers Jessica Brown, Arielle Friedman, Samantha Lewis, Caitlin Valentine-Ellis and Carly Wheaton formed a horizontal line across the stage as a bank of low hanging stage lights swiveled toward and away from the audience simulating bright vehicle head and tail lights. The women shimmied, jogged and grooved to Lauper’s catchy tune “I Drove All Night.”

Following two splendidly danced pas de deuxs – Adrienne Benz and Gabriel Gaffney Smith to “The World is Stone” and Emily Gotschall and Andres Estevez to “All Through the Night” –   and an impassioned solo by Benz to “I’m Going to be Strong” that reflected each song’s lyrics, the ballet concluded with the cast reprising parts of the ballet to the song “Money Changes Everything.”

BalletMet's Olivia Clark (center) and dancers in James Kudelka's

BalletMet’s Olivia Clark (center) and dancers in James Kudelka’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

A special encore to “Who Let in the Rain” followed which honored retiring dancer Olivia Clark. Matched with the ballet’s five male dancers, Clark was smooth and elegant in the Vegas-style dance number.

BalletMet's Caitlin Valentine-Ellis and Gabriel Gaffney Smith in Edwaard Liang's

BalletMet’s Caitlin Valentine-Ellis and Gabriel Gaffney Smith in Edwaard Liang’s “Distant Cries.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

BalletMet's Caitlin Valentine-Ellis and Gabriel Gaffney Smith in Edwaard Liang's

BalletMet’s Caitlin Valentine-Ellis and Gabriel Gaffney Smith in Edwaard Liang’s “Distant Cries.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Originally set on former New York City Ballet stars Wendy Whelan and Peter Boal, Liang’s Distant Cries (2005) was a heartfelt pas de deux about longing.  Petite company star Valentine-Ellis dancing to the music of Tomaso Albinoni was thoughtful and vulnerable in appearing to conjure up the memory of perhaps an erstwhile lover portrayed by Smith. Smith appeared out of shadow to partner the supple Valentine-Ellis in a sequence of high bended lifts, sharp turns and desperate embraces. Doubt as to the pair’s true relationship came in the form of Valentine-Ellis more than once, holding her face in her hands as if to hide her emotions. The memorable pas de deux concluded with Smith fading back into the darkness and Valentine-Ellis directing a pained silent cry toward the audience.

BalletMet's Miguel Anaya (center ) and company in George Balanchine's

BalletMet’s Miguel Anaya (center ) and company in George Balanchine’s “Allegro Brilliante.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

BalletMet dancers in George Balanchine's

BalletMet dancers in George Balanchine’s “Allegro Brilliante.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Like the Beatles’ music, the ballets of George Balanchine seem to never get old in people’s hearts. That held true once again as the Oct. 2 audience ate-up BalletMet’s dancers’ performance of the Balanchine masterwork Allegro Brilliante (1956). Led by first year company member and former Ballet Nacional de Cuba soloist Miguel Anaya, the company gave a solid performance of the vibrant classical work. Anaya is a godsend to the company’s classical repertory. His eye-popping technical prowess instantly raises the bar on what audiences can expect from the company in classical works.

BalletMet dancers in Edwaard Liang's

BalletMet dancers in Edwaard Liang’s “Dancing in the Street.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

BalletMet dancers in Edwaard Liang's

BalletMet dancers in Edwaard Liang’s “Dancing in the Street.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Breaking Ballet concluded with a similar vibe to how it began with the world-premiere of Liang’s Dancing in the Street. Originally supposed to be an all David Bowie hit music driven ballet, issues with song rights cut that back to a few obscure early Bowie tracks plus the Mick Jagger/Bowie hit the ballet was titled after. That left the door open for Liang to augment the ballet’s score with original music (partially played live by cellist Marc Moskovitz and violinist Katherine McLin) by multi-talented company member Smith. Smith also danced the ballet’s lead role, a being in all white with superpowers. Specter? Angel? The only thing for sure was Smith’s character liked to party and was looking for love. Enter new company member Grace Ann-Powers in a flattering green dress as Smith’s character’s love interest. The former dancer with Montreal’s La La La Human Steps was wonderfully compelling and is one to watch in future productions.

Overall Dancing in the Street was a lark of a ballet, full of crowd-pleasing dancing and a fitting end to a production that placed a premium on fun.

Breaking Ballet continues 7:30 p.m., Thursday, October 8 and 8 p.m., Friday, October 9 and 10. Riffe Center’s Capitol Theatre, 77 S. High Street, Columbus. $29-69. (614) 460-7211 or balletmet.org. 

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Wendy Whelan’s ‘Restless Creature’ a sumptuous dance memory to cherish (review)

Wendy Whelan and Alejandro Cerrudo in Cerrudo's

Wendy Whelan and Alejandro Cerrudo in Cerrudo’s “Ego Et Tu.” Photo by Christopher Duggan.

By Steve Sucato
Special to the Plain Dealer

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Following in the footsteps of other ballet stars like Mikhail Baryshnikov that made late-career transitions from ballet to contemporary dance styles, former New York City Ballet star Wendy Whelan, seeing the writing on the wall after 30-years with NYCB, launched her Wendy Whelan New Works Initiative.

What has been remarkable about Whelan’s transition more so than most, is rather than easing into the change, she cliff-dived into it. In short order, even before her official retirement from NYCB last October, she began crash courses with four different dancer/choreographers in four movement languages foreign to the way her body was used to moving to create “Restless Creature,” the first production in her New Works Initiative.

The hourlong program co-presented by DANCECleveland and Playhouse Square at the Ohio Theatre Saturday night more than lived up to its pre-show hype giving the assembled audience a sumptuous dance memory to cherish for some time.

The critically-acclaimed suite of four duets danced by Whelan and her four male dancer/choreographer partners began with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago resident choreographer/dancer Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Ego Et Tu” (2013).

Danced to music by Max Richter, Olafur Arnalds and others, Cerrudo entered the stage first pouring forth contemporary dance movement in a solo that had his outstretched limbs leading his body into swooping dips and rises, careening turns and liquidly smooth sways. Whelan then joined him dancing with similar fluidity.

While not quite as silky smooth as Cerrudo, the waif-like and powerful Whelan’s carriage seemed to have shed a fair amount of its ballet rigidity since “Restless Creature” premiered in 2013. Both dancers were magical. Their partnering was elegant and effortless in Cerrudo’s divine choreography that even gave a nod to Balanchine’s iconic “Serenade,” a ballet Whelan must have danced countless times.

Wendy Whelan and Joshua Beamish in Beamish's

Wendy Whelan and Joshua Beamish in Beamish’s “Conditional Sentences.” Photo by Christopher Duggan.

Choreographer Joshua Beamish’s “Conditional Sentences” (2015) was perhaps the least stretch for Whelan in terms of movement language. The courtly duet was infused with ballet steps and poses along with some tricky off-count starts and stops. But while Beamish and Whelan performed the call and response choreography expertly, they seemed to lack onstage chemistry and the work seemed to drag out and repeat itself.

Kyle Abraham’s “The Serpent and The Smoke” (2013) proved the evening’s most dramatic and resplendent work. Set to music by Hauschka and Hildur Guanadottir, the piece began with Abraham, aflutter like a whirling dervish, launching himself into a sequence of rapid turns and arm movements.

Wendy Whelan and Kyle Abraham in Abraham's

Wendy Whelan and Kyle Abraham in Abraham’s “The Serpent and The Smoke.” Photo by Christopher Duggan.

As a dancer, Abraham has a most distinctive way of moving that blends modern, contemporary and hip hop styles into seemingly steroid fueled movement riffs counterbalanced by tender moments of graceful serenity. Whelan bought into Abraham’s movement language wholeheartedly in her performance, circling him at the outset as if stalking him as he looked on captivated by her wispy movement around him. The two, simpatico in their dancing brilliance, exuded strength, sensuality and rare beauty in the riveting duet.

The program concluded with the Brian Brooks gem “First Fall.” To a score by Philip Glass, Brooks and Whelan melted into each other’s arms moving up and down across the stage like on a rapidly moving stream. Brooks’ modern dance choreography a la choreographer Doug Varone, was exceedingly pleasant to watch as were the two dancers in it.

Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks in Brooks'

Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks in Brooks’ “First Fall.” Photo by Christopher Duggan.

In its latter stages, the pair engaged in a repeated sequence where Whelan fell trusting backwards onto a crouched Brooks’ back and then he slowly rose up carrying Whelan with him. The effect, and the work, was spellbinding.

With the diverse and immensely gratifying “Restless Creature,” Whelan showed she hasn’t lost any of her star quality. She and her partners danced brilliantly. Most impressive and promising for her future after ballet though was her deft choices of partners and the works they created for her.

This article first appeared in The Plain Dealer online on April 27, 2015. Copyright Steve Sucato.

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