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: It’s all in the title. Why did you name it Restless Creature?
Wendy Whelan:
There are two ways to look at it. Originally, I wanted the word creature because of the word create, and because I’ve always been perceived as a dancer in the creature form rather than the ballerina form. It’s always like, “She’s such a creature.” And I’m fine with that. It’s what I am. The restless came second, and that came from the real reason I started dancing. I was three. I was the middle child and I was kind of boxed in with one brother that was one year older; my sister is two and a half years younger and so I was just kind of like, “I need some attention and I need to get some energy out!” Apparently, I used to jump on my baby sister. My mom was like, “We’re going to focus that energy.” It was just restlessness. Having been a ballerina for 29 years, you get to where you’re either restless for more or you’re ready to stop. I was restless for something new. I needed something to keep that energy fed and focused and charged. I’m not ready to stop creativity.

Time Out New York: Why did you put air quotes around ballerina?
Wendy Whelan:
[Laughs] I have never really felt like a ballerina. I’ve been a ballerina since I’ve been four in my living room, but that’s an imaginary thing. It doesn’t live forever, and it’s not really real; it’s a gorgeous thing to feel, but reality is reality. I can’t be a ballerina for my whole life. But I am a dancer. I can be a dancer for my whole life. And I’ve always felt that kind of realness. I think maybe that’s why I’ve been cast in certain roles or people think that I’m not right for this or that. I have a modern sensibility as a dancer—I always have—and sometimes that parlays into the classical ballets and sometimes it doesn’t. And that’s just who I am. I think [Jerome] Robbins picked up on that early and helped me see that in myself and thought it was a valuable thing and a special thing. I’ve always held onto that as a really strong source of who I am. Him decreeing, “This is who you are.” When he gave me the role of the Novice in The Cage, it was kind of a big deal in saying, “You know what? You are this person. You can be this creature. You are this animal.” He never gave me corrections. All he did was go… [She presses imaginary bangs along my hairline.] He would fix my wig and make sure it looked right and then send me out there. He said, “You have it. Just do it. Don’t even guess. You have this.” So that’s my home base.

Time Out New York: When you talk about being a dancer forever, do you have Mikhail Baryshnikov in the back of your mind?
Wendy Whelan:
I’m looking at him and how he went to work with these other choreographers and continued to learn. He was doing film and theater before he quit dancing, but I might want to do things like that that aren’t necessarily actorly things—“ballerina,” “actor”—but that will take my expressiveness. I did Labyrinth Within, a film, and it was a big deal for me to be a theatrical dancer. I’ve really enjoyed this part of my career, this second path. Getting into the more theatrical parts or finding the theater in new roles in any way I can. It’s really fun to discover that kind of stuff and shine that up and expose that. Because I feel I can do that in a way I couldn’t do as a younger dancer.

Time Out New York: You do that at NYCB, right?
Wendy Whelan:
Yeah. I can do that in [Concerto] DSCH a little bit. I can do it in all the Ratmansky pieces. He taught me to do that. He wanted me to be melodramatic, and I was like, “I don’t do that.” And he said, “But you can.” So I like it when I can say, “I’ve never done that,” and somebody else can say, “I know, but you can.” Then I’m like, “Okay. Let’s do it.” All these guys have said, “Yeah but you can.” I like to find somebody who sees that in me. Pontus Lidberg said that with Labyrinth Within. I said, “I’ve never done that!” and he said, “I know, but you’re the perfect person for it, and I know you can do it so let’s do it.” And I did it, and it changed me.

Time Out New York: Christopher Wheeldon said once in an interview that you weren’t so much a muse as a collaborator. Do you think of yourself as a collaborator?
Wendy Whelan:
I like to be, because I feel like I’m a strong component in a room. I’m just a strong personality, I’m a strong style, I’m a strong flavor, so I think no matter what I’m going to have a strength in my offering. So it’s how they want to take it: whether it be in just the movement quality or the digging in to figuring it out, or if they want me to express an idea. Christopher has always been really welcoming to [my saying], “This would feel really good after this…” or “You gave this step, but this feels right.” He’ll be like, “Great. Do that.” Not everybody’s like that. And I think originally I thought with these four guys that it would be like that. [Laughs] But it’s not. Because they’re so unique in themselves, and this is my first time with them, so why would I know what’s best for them? I don’t. And I don’t even expect that I should, so I’ve stepped back a lot in that way of giving advice. They don’t need it.

Time Out New York: So they’re molding you and that’s okay?
Wendy Whelan:
I love it.

Time Out New York: What have you learned about yourself through all of this?
Wendy Whelan:
Not just being in the studio—because I’ve always known I’m a real plays-well-with-friends kind of person, but I’ve learned it outside the studio in business ways. I’m less inhibited to talk with strangers and get to know people. I’m much more open than I’ve ever been, and I don’t think I’ve asked for help as much in my life. It’s been amazing to see what happens when you ask for help. You actually get it. People want to help. It’s been a nice thing, but I’ve really enjoyed the personal-social blending aspect of all of it, inside the studio and out. I’ve also learned how to express what I want more and take a little more charge, and if somebody on the outside gives me an idea that starts to maybe go into what my project is and it doesn’t feel right, I stop it. This isn’t me. This isn’t what I want. It doesn’t feel right. So I know what feels right. And it has to feel right. I don’t want anything put on or fake or covering it up. It has to feel really original and organic.

Time Out New York: I read an interview where you once said that you liked to dance pieces that weren’t choreographed on you.
Wendy Whelan:
I did, I did? I might have changed my mind.

Time Out New York: You said that a choreographer saw you as an athletic dancer so he would make an athletic dance.
Wendy Whelan:
Very often when I was younger, they did. Now it’s probably the opposite. As soon as I started to be able to have a little say in how things were made for me, then I was very comfortable, but when I was being typecast, I was so unhappy to be the tomboy jumper girl again. I wanted to find this femininity that I knew was there, but unless it’s coaxed out, it’s just going to stay stunted.

Time Out New York: You wanted to find some stillness?
Wendy Whelan:
Yes. And I wanted to find poetry. That was the main thing. And as soon as things slowed down for me, I had time to let these things in my head visualize. Because when it’s so fast all the time, I can’t express myself. I just need to be able to carve an expression.

Time Out New York: Was that around when Chris Wheeldon came along?
Wendy Whelan:
Yeah. He gave me a lot of silence in the things I was doing. Especially Polyphonia—that second pas de deux, where you can just play with the quiet. That’s when I realized the power of stillness. That very last movement of coming up through the legs and then just facing front—it started to become profound. Like it gave me the tingles to do it. And people were responding to that moment and Chris said, “My God, I love the way you do that,” and I was like, “I love the way I do it too, because it feels amazing!” And I just love having that chance to find that thing. At first you don’t know where it lives in you and when it takes a seed and you just start feeding that thing.

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