Wendy Whelan talks about Restless Creature

Wendy Whelan talks about branching away from ballet for her new evening of duets, Restless Creature

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Time Out New York: Its seems like it’s meant to be impossible—I like stuff like that.
Wendy Whelan:
Yeah. It is. But now we’re a lot better. We know each other more. We have the sequence down a little bit better. I think part of it was because we both have nervous energy, and we both like to rush. And with that, we both had to remind ourselves to sit back: Don’t be on top of the music, but let the music drive us and really fill out the movement—we had to really try to color in each moment and not just describe it verbatim as it is. We’re still trying to be able to carve out the fullness of it.

Time Out New York: Tell me about Joshua Beamish.
Wendy Whelan:
I met him in class with Willy [Burmann]. He didn’t seem like a ballet person, but again I didn’t really know him at all. He was just this cute little guy that was taking class for a long time. He was very rigorous and regular, and it became my birthday and it was his birthday too…

Time Out New York: And you found this out because there was singing in class?
Wendy Whelan:
Yes. I’m exactly 20 years older than him, and I remind him regularly: “I could be your mother.” But Robbie Fairchild had known Josh from the [New York] Choreographic Institute; Josh had choreographed a piece, as did Alejandro Cerrudo, and Robbie knew Josh was an interesting choreographer and said, “Wendy, Josh wants to make a piece on us. Would you like to do that?” So I looked on YouTube and I was like, “Yeah, definitely—he looks really interesting.” So we started to work on a piece together, and he was just a crazy mover. Amazing to watch him move. When I fall in love with somebody’s movement, I just can’t take my eyes off of them. I want to figure out the puzzle of it all. What is it that makes that movement different than the others? I’d mentioned his name to one of my producers, who lives in Canada. Josh is Canadian; this guy had seen Josh’s work and actually judged him in a competition. He was like, “He’s amazing, Wendy. He didn’t win the competition, but he should have won. I think he’s really something special, so let’s invite him.” So we did. And fourth was Alejandro, and I actually didn’t know him at all. My producer had known Alejandro, and he said, “You should really see this guy’s work. He’s the resident choreographer of Hubbard Street,” and all he had to say was Hubbard Street to me, and I was like, “I’m in.” I’m a fan. Then I saw his work and said, “Absolutely, let’s do it.” But I still didn’t know him at all. The day I met Alejandro was last September. They flew me out to Chicago to work the first little bit with him on Labor Day weekend. He picked me up at the airport, and we dropped my bags off at the apartment I was staying at and drove straight to the studio. We were there for at least five hours. Wham bam.

Time Out New York: Was that good?
Wendy Whelan:
Amazing. The next day we spent at least seven hours together and then the third day another seven hours. I think we spent a total of 21 hours together, and we made a two-minute piece that is not going to be in our program, but it was really cute and really fun, and we just got to know each other. I tried to let him know that he could do anything with me. He wanted to know, “Why did you choose me? Do you really know who I am? And what is this for?”

Time Out New York: That makes me respect him.
Wendy Whelan:
Yeah. He asked me some strong questions right away just so he would know the kind of person I am. He said, “What if our piece sucks? How is that going to make you feel?” I was like, “Bring it on. I don’t really care. I just want to spend time with you in the studio and learn from you and have a process and a chemistry with you and see what happens. If we make a fun piece, we make a fun piece. If we make a depressing piece, we make a depressing piece.” So I tried to let him know that it was really process oriented and not about getting a great review. I just thought, If we have a good process that’s going to come out on the stage. I hope. That’s kind of what I would like to show.

Time Out New York: I read that you found a red ball gown in a vintage shop and that you want to use that in Josh’s piece. Is that true? Are you going to be dancing in it?
Wendy Whelan:
I don’t know yet. Probably not that exact dress. I saw it last year. My husband was doing a project downtown, and I went past a consignment store and saw an Isaac Mizrahi red satin ball gown, and I was like, Nobody’s going to buy that dress. It’s red satin and it’s full. I just keep fantasizing about what it would feel like to either dance in somebody’s shoes or dance in some clothes—I just want to feel these different things. So I looked at that dress, and it looked like it would be so much fun to dance in. I looked at the price tag, and I was like, I can afford to dance in that dress. [Laughs] So I bought it. And it was right before I worked with Brian. I was like, “Brian?” And he said, “It’s really nice, but no, we’re not going to use it.” I didn’t know enough either about Brian at the time. So I was like, “Josh…what about this red dress?” Josh was like, “Could be. Could be.” So we started playing with it and sort of his idea for our piece was—this is really strange, but he came to me with the idea from the movie Birth with Nicole Kidman and a little boy.

Time Out New York: I don’t think I’ve heard of that one.
Wendy Whelan:
We both have to rent it. I haven’t seen it either. But basically it’s about this woman who meets a little boy who is, like, 11, and she realizes they were married in a past life. It’s kind of freaky and weird. Creepy. Josh is so young, and we have this birthday connection; how do we connect except in this kind of strange way? So it’s sort of a past-life kind of a thing–relationship, finding each other. The piece is kind of creepy, which I love.

Time Out New York: The red dress sounds good!
Wendy Whelan:
Yeah. Because it’s kind of going back in time. That’s how it came in. We’ll see what it actually becomes.

Time Out New York: What is the texture or the idea behind Alejandro’s piece?
Wendy Whelan:
We had a hard time with his at first, because the other guys had their music picked, and we were trying to make a whole program. We were like, “We have this, this and this, can you do this?” [Laughs] I didn’t want to put him in a box, but at the same time I was trying to fill in that last spot; I wanted something bright. Ultimately, I didn’t force him into anything. We had tried a variety of music from the beginning on, and he settled on some Gavin Bryars and [Max] Richter and some Glass, and we wanted each person’s music to be able to be translatable into a chamber piece, so that if we do it with live music we could do that. That was a limit that we put on people, not that they listened to it, but that’s okay. I think all of them can be transferred into live playing. But I sort of feel his piece is about a master and a muse or a student and a teacher. A lot of the positions are like this. [She holds out her arms, which are slightly bent at the elbows.] And then one person either goes on top or the other person fills in underneath so it’s like two become one. And it starts out with a solo for him, and then a solo for me, and then a duet for us and then a more advanced duet for us. His solo is an extreme Alejandro version of his movement, and mine’s a more subtle version of similar movements—from what I’ve seen. And I feel like it’s like a painter who’s trying out a new paintbrush for the first time. The first thing he does when we come together is he brushes [under] my arm and it’s like, What do I have to make something with? What’s this new material I have? So it feels like that to me anyway. We haven’t talked about it or anything. It’s just my idea.

Time Out New York: Why are there no female choreographers?
Wendy Whelan:
A very good question. Initially those four were the first that popped out. I didn’t intentionally seek a woman, and then I realized I hadn’t, and I thought maybe I made a mistake by not going there. At the same time, it felt right to me to just use men. I needed a certain comfort level, and I found that working with men for right now. It’s not my goal to constantly work with men, and I’m eager for the woman-to-woman connection that will happen, but I’m physically and emotionally not ready for that. I didn’t know who it would be necessarily. It’s easy to find male choreographers. They’re more obvious. I haven’t had a woman mentor really ever; they’ve always been men, and I just find comfort in that. And I wanted these duets to have some kind of thing that I could really respond to in that man-woman way. 

Time Out New York: Why do you think your mentors have always been men?
Wendy Whelan:
I don’t know. No idea. In my whole life, I’ve come across weird connections with female teachers; I mean I have a million ballet girlfriends, but there are weird energies that clash, and I just didn’t want that. I didn’t need that extra amount of the unknown. And I just knew I was safe with at least those three that lined up.

Time Out New York: It’s strange, because women really respond to you onstage, right?
Wendy Whelan:
And I’m a real woman’s woman. Also, strangely—I’m 46. There’s a weird sexuality that’s really strong and potent that I feel and I want to put it out there. I feel that with a man, gay, straight, whatever—that thing comes alive, and I knew it was going to be something I wanted to feel. So there’s also that element that was really where I am in my life: gravitating to what I think will feel good. The red dress. Men. [Laughs]

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