Feature Story: Spirit Beauty

At age 15, Wendy Whelan left Louisville for New York, where she now dances with the City Ballet. This weekend, she returns to Louisville to perform with her hometown company

Wendy Whelan: poses under a portrait of the master George Balanchine, who founded the New York City Ballet in 1948. Whelan comes home this week to dance with the Louisville Ballet.

Wendy Whelan: poses under a portrait of the master George Balanchine, who founded the New York City Ballet in 1948. Whelan comes home this week to dance with the Louisville Ballet.

NEW YORK — In a huge rehearsal room on an upper floor of a lofty building just north of New York City’s Lincoln Center, Wendy Whelan is dancing in a turn with fellow New York City Ballet dancer Albert Evans. Suddenly she stops, and the pianist, who has been playing Bach’s “Concerto in D minor for Two Violins,” stops the music.
“Oh, that was jerky,” Whelan says to Evans.
“I don’t think I should turn you that much,” he says. “It doesn’t feel right.”

The pair tries the move again. Whelan turns on the tip of her point shoe and, with the turn completed, begins kicking in legs from the knee in a very controlled motion that accentuates the angles in her moves.
It’s afternoon and the sun is streaming through the room’s large windows. In this light, their sweat is quite noticeable, but only when they pause occasionally to discuss or repeat a move as they prepare for a performance of the ballet “Concerto Barocco.” Otherwise, any sweating or belabored breathing is difficult to discern. The choreography by George Balanchine, who founded the New York City Ballet in 1948, is the most prominent feature in this room.

On this Thursday in early October, Whelan, Evans and a colleague, dancer Rachael Rutherford, are preparing to perform the piece in Chicago the following week. The choreography is often quick, and at other times measured and precise, all mirroring the spirit of Bach’s music from the Baroque period.
Whelan knows this piece well, having first seen it performed when she was 12 years old. Later, after she became a student of the City Ballet’s American Ballet School in 1984, she analyzed the choreography, which Balanchine created in 1941, for her senior thesis.

“This ballet is so in my system,” she says. She calls it “Balanchine’s Cathedral,” describing her visions during the music’s second movement — long corridors lined with stained glass. She compares the simple lines of the dance’s pas de deux to a Zen garden.

After Whelan wraps up the Chicago performance, she returns to New York to resume her regular schedule of daily dance classes and rehearsals, including some to prepare for her performances with the Louisville Ballet.

This weekend Whelan is coming to Louisville with Evans to dance with the company in “Agon,” Balanchine’s piece with music by Stravinsky (with whom the choreographer often worked closely and whose music has been used in more than 30 ballets originating with the New York company). The pair also will dance in “Liturgy,” a pas de deux with music by Arvo Part and created specifically for Whelan by the City Ballet’s resident choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon. The Louisville Ballet rounds out the evening’s program with performances of “Nine Sinatra Songs,” choreographed by Twyla Tharp, and Raymonda Act III, with choreography by the Louisville Ballet’s artistic director Bruce Simpson and Harald Uwe Kern, the company’s ballet master.

This will be Whelan’s second appearance — as an adult — with the Louisville Ballet; in 2003, she danced with the Louisville company during the celebration of its 50th anniversary. That time, she raised contributions to pay for her and two other dancers to come here. This time, Whelan says, she is paying for her and Evans’ appearance herself as a way to thank her hometown and the anonymous Louisvillians who paid her tuition to attend a summer course with the American Ballet School back in 1981, when she was 14. But her first appearance with the Louisville Ballet, which she recognizes as the start of her career, was dancing the part of a mouse in “The Nutcracker” at age 7. By then, Whelan had already been dancing for four years.

It was 1970 when Whelan’s mother enrolled her in ballet classes, soon after her sister was born — not because her mother had ambitions for her daughter to be a dancer but to get her out of the house. Whelan was the middle child in a middle-class family, with an older brother. Her father worked as an accountant and her mother was an elementary school phys-ed teacher and the women’s basketball coach at Bellarmine. (Today, her mother works as the facility director at The Clifton Center, her sister is a detective with the Louisville Metro Police Department and her brother works in sales.)

As a toddler, Whelan had an abundance of energy that her mother hoped to channel into something other than pestering the new baby. At first she took her to dance with instructor Virginia Wooton, who later encouraged Whelan’s mother to enroll her daughter in The Academy of the Louisville Ballet (now the Louisville Ballet School, which is affiliated with the Louisville Ballet). There, Whelan began to take lessons from the Louisville Ballet’s former artistic director, Alun Jones, his wife Helen Starr and instructor Robert Dicello.

On an early October afternoon in a New York loft: Whelan and Albert Evans prepare for a Chicago performance of Balanchine’s  “Concerto Barocco.” The pair perform with the Louisville Ballet this week, doing Balanchine’s “Agon” and “Liturgy,” an original work created for Whelan.

On an early October afternoon in a New York loft: Whelan and Albert Evans prepare for a Chicago performance of Balanchine’s “Concerto Barocco.” The pair perform with the Louisville Ballet this week, doing Balanchine’s “Agon” and “Liturgy,” an original work created for Whelan.

It was during that time that Whelan auditioned and got the part in “The Nutcracker.” After that experience, she began to dance every day with a select group of about a dozen girls at the academy, which was on Oak Street in Old Louisville. This was the city to her. “It was all very serious,” she says with a laugh. “I thought I was hitting the big leagues now because I was going downtown every day to work on my craft.” Here she learned her first steps by Balanchine from Dicello, who had danced with the Louisville Ballet and companies in New York and Canada.

By fifth grade at Holy Spirit School in St. Matthews, Whelan was a lanky tomboy, but she also was serious about dancing. As she began to feel a distance from her classmates, she felt more camaraderie with the girls in her ballet class (most of whom she has kept in touch with into adulthood). At age 12, she studied ballet at a summer program for children at the Pennsylvania Ballet in Philadelphia.

The next year, as she continued to dance every day, Whelan experienced another kind of physical endurance test. At age 13, doctors treated her for scoliosis, or curvature of the spine. She underwent traction to her spine, and was placed in a body cast, from her shoulders to her waist, that weighed 15 pounds. Over weeks of wearing the cast, she continued her lessons, working at the barre daily. Although she couldn’t raise her legs very high, she worked by moving them low to the ground. She concentrated on details, such as turning her leg joints at precise angles. And she got stronger. “Every time I did a relevé, my calf got bigger,” she says.

Whelan and Albert Evans prepare for a Chicago performance

Whelan and Albert Evans prepare for a Chicago performance

When the doctors finally took the cast off, she says she felt freedom. “I was flying down the halls of the hospital doing grands jetés. Just jumping,” she says. “And then I would do ballet. I would lift my leg and it would go like this.” Whelan raises her arm straight up to the ceiling.

The ordeal had boosted her skill and her confidence, preparing her for an audition for a summer program with the American Ballet School. On Feb. 26, 1981, Whelan’s mother drove her to Cincinnati to the audition led by renowned City Dancer and one of Balanchine’s muses, Suzanne Farrell.

For the audition, Farrell asked her to execute a grand plié on point shoes without the support of a barre. “I had this real trust in myself,” Whelan recalls. “She taught a really hard class, but I felt that I could execute what she was asking.” Before Whelan left, Farrell asked her about Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, who was then a City Ballet principal dancer and had been choreographing a piece for the Louisville Ballet. At that point, Whelan realized she had made an impression on Farrell.

For the next two months, she awaited the outcome. One day at school, she came back from recess to find the acceptance letter her mother had taped to her desk. “I about peed in my pants,” she says now. “It was one of the best days ever. It was great. I was just flying.”

That summer she tested her strength and ability during five weeks in New York City among other students divided into six classes of different skill levels. Whelan was put into the level-three class, and then reassigned the next day to the level-four class. Two weeks later the teachers moved her to level-five. By the end of the program, the teachers asked her to stay to study full time at the school.

Whelan enjoys a light moment during rehearsal.

Whelan enjoys a light moment during rehearsal.

Instead, she returned to Louisville after she and her mother agreed this was not the right time for her to move to New York City. The two worked out what Whelan now calls her “year of rehearsal.” She enrolled at the Brown School for her freshman year, which gave her the opportunity to take the bus by herself to school and to dance classes. At home, her mother taught her how to cook for herself. For fun, she and friends often went to the old Vogue Theater to see movies like “Gone with the Wind,” “Harold and Maude” and — of course — “The Turning Point.”

Meanwhile, her mother also looked for guidance. Whelan had danced with Maureen Meagher, the sister of Mary T. Meagher, who would go on to win three gold medals for swimming at the 1984 Olympics. Whelan’s mother called the swimmer’s mom. Her advice: Let her try, because if her daughter doesn’t get to take this chance, she could become bitter for being denied such a major opportunity.

So, at 15 years old Whelan moved to New York City to become a full-time student at the dance school and take academic courses at a professional children’s school. She had regular Sunday telephone calls with her family and came to visit them at Christmas and every August. But Whelan never got to study with Balanchine himself. The master died on April 30, 1983, at the age of 79.

Today, Whelan still feels herself growing as a dancer and working to understand Balanchine’s style and intent.
“I never met the man, so I’m constantly guessing,” she says. “I’m intrigued to read about him and the things he’s said. But I think about him every day and am constantly wondering, ‘Is this what he would really want?’”
Meanwhile, she credits Wheeldon’s choreography, which is designed to complement the ways Whelan moves her body, with giving her new inspiration and a new understanding of herself.

“He helped me see who I was,” she says. “He brought out a beauty in me that I didn’t really know I had, which isn’t a typical thing. It’s not like a classic beauty or a pretty beauty. It’s kind of a scary or spirit beauty, which I thought was there. But I didn’t feel it until he gave me the steps.”

While Whelan is now 39, she still lives and breathes ballet and exudes an infectious enthusiasm about the art form. She lives in the present, but she does think about the future of ballet. Her main worries about the future of dance concern inadequate financial support for it and other arts in the United States, and the public’s growing and compulsive dependence on television and other forms of digital entertainment.

As for her own future, she doesn’t see herself in a second career as a choreographer, a path that dancers, including Farrell, have taken. She wants to work in education, and cites what David Thurmond has accomplished in Louisville as an example. “Something I’ve always thought about is dance in the schools,” she says. “I don’t know why.”

Mostly, she has not really decided. “I look ahead, and I really don’t know what I’m going to be doing. I’m just going back to that confidence that I had when I was 13 and go with that and hope it’s still there. But it’s going to be a real scary time.”

For now, though, Whelan’s career is anything but on the wane. Wilhelm Burmann, who has had Whelan in his class for the past 15 years at Steps on Broadway and who danced with New York City Ballet, the Frankfurt Ballet and the Stuttgart Ballet, says he has seen a singular determination and beauty in her and her dancing. “Now it’s finally coming out,” he says. “She’s beyond dancing when she’s onstage.”

This weekend, Louisville audiences will have the opportunity to see that for themselves.

Contact the writer at
[email protected]