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Restless Creature: Dance review by Helen Shaw
A quartet of short duets, performed without interruption, operates as a kind of tasting menu: Wendy Whelan, the legendary ballerina, presented four ways. Whelan's retirement from her incredible three-decade-long New York City Ballet career has allowed her to pursue other modes; since she has her pick of collaborators, she has invited four top-notch modern choreographers to partner with her in their own original works. The first creation of the Wendy Whelan New Works Initiative, Restless Creature is thus a flight of Whelans, rather like a flight of wines—and if one piece is too dry, another a shade too sweet, you still wind up drunk and reeling.
In the lovely Ego Et Tu, Alejandro Cerrudo (of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago) adjusts his casual, street-aware largo to Whelan's muscular grace; he seems utterly at home as her foil, first seeming to run in place, then suspending her through elegant, low, skating turns that emphasize their easy counterbalance. With barely time for her to change costume, we're suddenly in Conditional Sentences, in which neo-danseur Joshua Beamish hip-checks her, nudges her into syncopated rhythms, then twinkles at her from across the stage. They are clearly having a good time, but Beamish's classical-meets-club sauciness makes their 15 minutes mathematical and light, and Sentence's pleasures are cool rather than ravishing.
For Kyle Abraham's The Serpent and the Smoke, the evening's lighting designer Joe Levasseur lets the flickering, blindingly quick Abraham materialize just at the edge of seeing—once during the duet lights shine in our eyes so that the pair disappears entirely. The more emphatic stagecraft may exist for a reason: Here, for the first time, movement seems almost out of place on Whelan's body, undulations and arm-swinging runs appearing articulated rather than effortless. She soon reappears in Brian Brooks's First Fall, though, and we feel we're seeing her with new eyes.
A deceptively simple array of crosses, trust falls and quicksilver movement, First Fall looks like a sophisticated form of contact improv stimulated by the intoxicating Philip Glass score. Of the four microworks, Fall makes the best use of our curiosity about the diva's astonishing body and the ways that it can move. In a particularly wonderful moment, Whelan, in a sunny yellow dress, does a slow-motion run, her body tilted forward at an impossible angle. Brooks, curled over into a half crouch, supports her; she leans on his back as the two make their way slowly across the lip of the stage. Whelan seems to be suspended, a living Eadweard Muybridge series of stop-motion photographs—and given time to think, really think about what this body can do, we find Fall has become suddenly, abruptly, inexplicably emotional.
During a post-show talk-back, Whelan described the hard work of adjusting her ballet-trained physique to other forms of dance, pounding her hands along her thighs like she wanted to open them up. Learning to do body rolls for Abraham's work was an opportunity “to break my spine down,” she said, and dancing barefoot (as she does in First Fall) devastated her feet. It sounds violent, and occasionally Restless Creature does look painful—her corded body like steel that has only just met its melting point. The experience is unmissable, though. It's like watching a gleaming sword beat itself into a plowshare, one delighted hammer blow at a time.—Helen Shaw
Joyce Theater (see Dance). Choreographed by Alejandro Cerrudo, Joshua Beamish, Kyle Abraham and Brian Brooks. With Wendy Whelan. Running time: 1hr. No intermission.