Wendy Whelan talks about Restless Creature

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

Wendy Whelan performs in Restless Creature

Wendy Whelan performs in Restless Creature Photograph: Christopher Duggan

Wendy Whelan, the extraordinary principal of New York City Ballet, is looking to transform herself in Restless Creature, a new evening of duets choreographed by and performed with Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks and Alejandro Cerrudo. The ballerina unveils the show at the 2013 Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, and next year Restless Creature will be part of a multicity tour. Mark your calenders: It arrives at the Joyce Theater in April.

Wendy Whelan may not feel like a ballerina. Maybe that’s why she is the exemplar of one. The New York City Ballet principal is synonymous with some of the most scintillating developments in ballet in recent years—namely, her collaborations with choreographers Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky. As angular and strong as she is, Whelan also has a spooky, spiritual side; both choreographers, drawn into her world, have made some of their best work. Now that their careers have pulled them away from NYCB, Whelan is looking for inspiration elsewhere. In Restless Creature, which is at Jacob’s Pillow this week and will be at the Joyce as part of a multicity tour in April, Whelan hooks up with four choreographers—Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks and Alejandro Cerrudo—for a show of her own design. 

Time Out New York: How did you get the idea for Restless Creature?
Wendy Whelan:
It’s hard to pinpoint it being one specific time, because little things spiraled into this. Working with Peter Boal was big, and that was almost ten years ago. Having him to offer me the chance to choose a choreographer to work with: “Out of anybody in the whole world,” he said, “who would you want to work with?” I was never given that option before or even that open door, so that was a big question. Who do I want to work with? Ultimately, I worked with Shen Wei. Actually, before that, as soon as I got into NYCB, Peter Martins was bringing in contemporary choreographers. Laura Dean chose me when I was 19 to be her No. 1 corps girl. I led all of her sequences across the floor, and I felt kind of special that I was chosen by her to do something.

Time Out New York: Did you know her work?
Wendy Whelan:
I didn’t. I was 19 and fresh out of ballet school. I didn’t know any of these people, but I didn’t expect to get into NYCB and do all these kind of contemporary things. It unfolded that way for me. Peter was bringing in a lot of those people, so I worked with [William] Forsythe, Ulysses Dove, Twyla Tharp—you name it. They were all so different. It was like learning a new language every time I did a piece. So that was the beginning-beginning. That just opened me up and laid the fertilizer for this. 

Time Out New York: What influenced you more recently?
Wendy Whelan:
My husband [David Michalek] did Slow Dancing in 2007. Seeing the lineup that he chose: the varied cultures of dance, the ages, the ethnicities, the styles, the backgrounds of everybody and then seeing them line up literally on screens—you’d see Trisha Brown with Lil’ C, the krumper, next to Bill T. Jones. I wanted to make that chemistry onstage with varied choreographers. They all have different perfume, and they all have a different flavor and a different profoundness or uniqueness. And I really have always enjoyed so much the process of working in the room with a choreographer, specifically over and over again with Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky. I have really strong connections with them, and I love and savor my time in the studio with them. Since that was becoming fewer and far between with them both being away from NYCB, I needed to find that and make it for myself. That said, they’re young—Alexei and Chris—and I feel when we are working together that we are sort of dancing together, but I would really love to dance with a choreographer, so that was a really strong component of what I wanted to do. I had to find choreographers that danced still, and I did.

Time Out New York: How did you come across Kyle Abraham?
Wendy Whelan:
I’d seen Kyle for years. I was flabbergasted by him as a performer. I think of watching a flickering flame—you just never know what it’s going to do, and it’s so beautiful and so hot and passionate and intense, and I thought, God, I would give anything to feel what that feels like. So for years I was like, “One day I would love to do something of yours,” and he was like, “Yeaaah, right. Sure. All right.” [Laughs] But I got him now.

Time Out New York: Did you have an agenda with Kyle before you started? How do you want to look in these pieces?
Wendy Whelan:
He actually asked me, “What do you want from me?” My main thing with him was that I wanted a transformation. I’ve wanted that through this whole process. I looked at this whole year as a transformative year. I was ready for it physically. My body was ready to do something different. My mind is definitely ready to do something different, so that led to what I wanted with him and with each of these guys. But that was the main thing: I don’t want you to come to me and make me comfortable. I want to learn from you, and I want the challenge. The first day of rehearsal, he gave me so much material. I was really intimidated, and I thought, Wendy, you actually bit off more than you can chew. Then we sat down after a couple of hours and he said, “Are you getting the challenge you want?” I said, “You can ease up on the challenge part, Kyle.”  

Time Out New York: Was it the speed or the type of movement?
Wendy Whelan:
Everything. And his style of working is so different than anything I’ve ever worked with.

Time Out New York: Would you copy him?
Wendy Whelan:
He had assistants with him—Chalvar Monteiro and Rena Butler—so they could help me digest it, because Kyle is, again, so fast—flickering with ideas. His mind is not slow and calm. It’s activated. So these guys digested the material before, and they showed it to me and could help me understand it. They’re incredible teachers, both of them. I’m really lucky.

Time Out New York: What about the others?
Wendy Whelan:
I had met Brian Brooks at Fire Island Dance Festival, and I really loved his piece. I loved that his dancers were in real-people clothes and not costumes. I liked the weight and the repetition of his movement. I just thought he was really interesting, and I actually didn’t know who the choreographer was until after the piece. Someone said, “Oh, this is Brian Brooks,” and I was like, No. He just doesn’t look like a dancer or choreographer—he’s just such a normal, happy guy. He doesn’t look like one of those crazy dancer people, and he doesn’t seem like that. His smile sold me. I was like, “I think I really like you.” I knew he was a smart person just from seeing his work, but getting to know him—he’s so crazy smart that I just knew this is somebody that I need to be with. I need to be with that kind of a brain, that kind of a thinker.

Time Out New York: Did you start by talking?
Wendy Whelan:
Damian [Woetzel] had put us together to make a piece for Vail [International Dance Festival] and once that happened I said, “Let’s take this piece and make it part of Restless Creature.” We didn’t talk a whole lot. [For the Vail performance] Damian had given him some limits. He said, “I really want to use live music, I have Brooklyn Rider, the string quartet, here, so you can go with something they do—it would be great.” So Brian went with a couple of music options that they were known for. That’s why we chose the [Philip] Glass. They played it live at that premiere. It was just us in the room, nobody else, and we started doing sequences together and seeing how that would unfold into partnering and movement with each other. It just became this ornate physical thing that was unfolding and blossoming, and it was really a mind game, a twister for me. It was very hard for me to learn, especially the first movement.

Time Out New York: Why? Because there aren’t so many steps, and it’s more about a sensation?
Wendy Whelan:
It’s because the movement needs four legs and four arms. [Laughs] And I can’t explain the movement to myself without those other two arms. Do you know what I mean? And two brains. It needs four legs, four arms and two brains. I don’t have it by myself. I’ve never done anything like that before—to that degree.

Time Out New York: So far, these are two very different pieces?
Wendy Whelan:
Very different pieces. 

Time Out New York: It must be hard for the choreographers to make up a dance while they’re dancing. Did they film you?
Wendy Whelan:
Brian set up the mode of operation—it's how my whole project is working—with the iPad. We didn’t have anyone to watch us. We had to watch ourselves and figure it out, and he has done that before, so he was comfortable with that. I invested in an iPad late last summer; I have everything on my iPad for each guy;it’s  not very organized, but it’s there. If I lose that, it’s over. [Laughs] I really hate watching myself.

Time Out New York: Even after all these years? Why?
Wendy Whelan:
I don’t know. It’s not something I go, Oh great, I can’t wait to watch myself! It’s more like, I have to watch myself to see what I did. It’s not enjoyment. So Brian would Dropbox me the footage at night, and then I could have it and recall it, so before the premiere in Vail, I was watching it incessantly to try to just make sure I had the sequences down, and again it was really hard for me to sit alone and be able to detail the sequences in my head because I didn’t have those arms and those legs and that other brain. [Laughs]

Time Out New York: Yes. It’s such a duet, like a braid.
Wendy Whelan:
It’s exactly a braid. Before the premiere, I thought, This is the one of the most nerve-racking moments of my life. I have no idea what’s going to happen. It was really dependent on the both of us; I wasn’t in control. I couldn’t control him, and he couldn’t control me, so it was scary.

Time Out New York: Was it good in a scary way?
Wendy Whelan:
We fucked up a lot. [Laughs] But it was okay. It’s better now. I think certain people saw maybe a moment of, Uh-oh—oh, it’s back. But for us, it was more like, “Ohhh, nooo, we’re falling apart…” It was the slowest, longest unraveling. We were just looking at each other with big saucer eyes—what the fuck is going on right now?

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