Cupcakes & Conversation with Wendy Whelan, Principal, New York City Ballet

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Cupcakes & Conversation with Wendy Whelan, Principal, New York City Ballet

NYCB principal dancer Wendy WhelanCREDIT

Wendy Whelan Photograph : David Michalek

What motivates you at 8am on a Monday morning ?

What motivates me and gets me out of bed in the morning on the first work day of the week is knowing that I will have the privilege of working with a choreographer or teacher who inspires and excites me. More than anything else, I think this has been a prime motivator of my life ever since I was a young kid.

Why ballet ?

I chose ballet, because my body and mind were made for it. I love the challenge of it and the feeling of transformation that it creates within me.

What are you looking forward to dancing in the new season?

I am looking forward to dancing Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH again this season. It’s a great piece, and I have an exquisite pas de deux that he made for me in it that I love very much.

Who would you most like to dance with & what would you dance?

I have always wanted the chance to dance with my choreographers in their own work. (not something that’s ever been reasonably possible at NYCB or in ballet, generally speaking)

ballet dancer in apollo

If you could dance anywhere in the world (not only in a theatre), where would you dance?

I relish the idea of dancing in uncharacteristic places.  I often think of performing for inmates at a prison or old people at assisted living situations, etc, for all the people who don’t ordinarily have the opportunity to see a dance performance, I would love to bring it to them.

How do you prepare your pointe shoes?

I sew on my ribbons and elastics inside the shoe and drop a bit of jet glue hardener in the tip. Once I get to class, I cut the satin off the tips of my shoes, then I flatten the box by stepping on them usually with my heel, and I also crack the toe of each shoe, also with my heel. Then once they are on my feet I bend the shoes more so I can get up and over my toes on pointe, and don’t feel stuck back. I usually do this by pressing my heel into the arch of the opposite foot as I press over my toes on pointe. Seems like it takes a lot of help from my heels in order to get up on my toes !

What is your daily routine at the moment?

At the moment I have a pretty light schedule with NYCB. After my class in the morning, I will rehearse for my Nutcracker gigs whenever my partner and I can connect in a free studio. We generally text each other daily to arrange times to rehearse. I am also working whenever I can on new collaborations with four different choreographers. We try to schedule rehearsal time each day for about 1 to 3 hours according to which of them might be in town or available. I am also about to begin work on learning two dances by Martha Graham that I will be performing with the Graham Company next spring.

swan lake 

You can ask six famous people to dinner – who would you invite?

Balanchine, Cunningham, Graham, Ailey, Fosse and Pina Bausch.

What would surprise people about you?

I think most people would be surprised to know how down to earth and open I am, and how silly I can be.

Who inspired you to dance?

When I was 6 years old, I saw my first ballet, and it was The Nutcracker. I will never forget the girl who was dancing the Arabian dance. Her name was Lisa Patrick and she was a teenage dancer with the Louisville Ballet Company. I thought she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, wearing a turquoise harem costume, with jet black hair.  I wanted so badly to grow up and be like her. She’s a lawyer now and we are friends.

What is your best piece of advice?

Keep a good sense of humor and be good to your friends – both will come in very handy in life!

How do you prepare in the hours before a show?

I really love to sneak in a nap before a show, to sort of balance out the energy and give myself a calm base to begin my preparation. I like to be at the theater about 2 hours before I have to dance. I spend between a half hour to an hour doing my make-up and hair, then I like to have an hour to warm up. I like to warm up straight until it’s time for me to go on stage. I find my hair and make-up time to be very meditative and transformative for my mind and mood, and I use my physical warm up to focus my energy and muscles.

two ballet dancers on stage

Which role has tested you the most & how?

Any full length story ballet has been a huge test for me. I never expected to do those kinds of ballets when I joined NYCB because when I started with the Company they were not in the repertory (until Peter Martins choreographed The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and Romeo + Juliet). Dancing full lengths was a huge challenge for me because I wasn’t surrounded by people who had already done them, so I always felt like a real fish out of water. Eventually I found a way for myself to feel good in them, but it was always about learning and figuring out answers to all the questions I had along the way. I definitely learned a lot and found new strength both mentally and physically from dancing Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty and Odette/Odile in Swan Lake.

If you were asked to design your own ballet costume, what would you create?

I am actually working on a costume idea at the moment for a new work I am doing with the choreographer Joshua Beamish. I found a gorgeous red ball gown at a vintage store and knew I wanted to dance in it one day. Josh and I are hoping to use it in our new piece. I think I am going to keep the skirt full, maybe even make it fuller, and give it a new top that is easier to move in. Maybe add a red ombré leotard going from red at the waist to nude at the top, and have a deep cut back as low as possible so my back is completely naked- something very sexy like that.

What do you look for in a dance partner?

I really enjoy a partner who is relaxed and confident; I can feel that right away in a person.  I respond well to a partner who can meet me half way creatively, someone I can get into the zone with, where we can almost riff together or mind read each other’s needs during a dance.  Going on stage together is like going into an unknown world together and there is nothing better than knowing you can trust your partner and that you’re there for each other no matter what happens during the performance.

ballet dancer on pointe

What is your favourite quote?

“Energy Produces Energy.”

Do you have a ‘signature step’ – one that comes naturally to you?

I don’t think I have a signature ballet step that I am known for, but I do think that I can claim ownership (for now) of some unique moves here and there in certain ballets- especially in ballets that were made on me.

A phrase I use far too often is … ?

I am running late ….

What’s been your best on-stage moment so far?

I have had a lot of great exciting onstage moments and a lot of bad funny ones… but one I will never forget happened a few years ago when I was dancing Concerto Barocco with Abi Stafford. We were holding hands and doing a balone step toward each other in the third movement when all of a sudden she slipped and fell to the ground. My initial instinct was to stop dancing and help her up off the ground. It felt like it was the right thing to do and kept me connected with my partner. I could have just kept dancing on top of her while she pulled herself off the ground, but I knew we needed to stick together as a pair, it’s what the ballet is about, working together to create harmony. She wasn’t hurt and we finished the piece just fine. I actually enjoy these split second decisions that we are forced to make on stage occasionally, and I appreciate finding out what we can learn about ourselves and the ballets we are dancing from these experiences.

Do you have a secret skill which no-one knows about?

I love to take photos, but most people already know that. My photographer friends even tell me I have some talent.

In terms of your ballet career, where would you like to be in a year from now?

I will be focusing in 2013 on outside projects more and more in order to develop and build new choreographic collaborations for myself with new artists. I have a project that I am developing right now called Restless Creature, with four amazing young choreographers. I will dance a new piece by each of the four and perform with each of them in their own works- a real dream come true for me. Each of these choreographers makes contemporary work so none of the work will be ballet based or on pointe.  This evening of dance, my Restless Creature, will debut in August 2013. Definitely many new and exciting challenges for me in the coming year.

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