When Wendy Whelan took me on a mini-tour of her office at New York City Ballet, it was a bit like a tour of her career, too. There was a huge poster printed with Cyrillic letters from the time she danced “Rubies” from George Balanchine’s Jewels at the Kirov Ballet. On a shelf, there was a tiny painted box bearing images from her decades of dancing at Lincoln Center, a gift upon her retirement in 2014. And above her desk, she had hung a handwritten letter discovered among the files when she moved into this space. It was from legendary choreographer Jerome Robbins, addressed to the dancers. “He’s so proud of the company,” she said, with a slight twang that betrays her Louisville, Kentucky roots and exudes down-to-earth frankness.
Seventy years after Robbins became the first associate artistic director of City Ballet, Whelan, last spring, became the second. The company announced that, as part of an overhaul of its leadership team, she would work alongside new artistic director Jonathan Stafford, becoming one of the few women in such a top position at a ballet company in the United States. The significance of that couldn’t have been more timely. In January 2018, longtime artistic director Peter Martins had left City Ballet amid accusations of sexual harassment (he maintains his innocence).
To many fans and company members, Whelan’s appointment felt like a breath of fresh air. Principal dancer Adrian Danchig-Waring, who frequently partnered with Whelan during her City Ballet career, recalled the company meeting where her appointment was announced. “Wendy took the floor and said, ‘It’s time to heal,’” he remembered. “It was the first time a person in a position of power said it.”
Even before she accepted the leadership position, Whelan was a refreshing anomaly of sorts at City Ballet. She’d overcome scoliosis to become a magnetic onstage presence: an angular beauty with seemingly innate musical intelligence that made her a dream partner and especially well suited to Balanchine’s neoclassical “black and white” ballets. Her throw-anything-at-me gameness also made her an irresistible muse to many of contemporary ballet’s greatest choreographers. During her 30-year career with the company, she danced in 150 works, originating more than 50 roles by the likes of Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky. By doing so, she quite literally shaped contemporary ballet. For the young dancers she now supervises, she’s an invaluable primary source—a living archive of sorts—who will teach them and help to stage a repertoire often built around her.
The value of Whelan’s perspective also stems from the time she spent outside City Ballet. In her last years there, she began exploring contemporary dance, ultimately building a fruitful new career working with adventurous modern choreographers. She enlisted some of them to create work on her for a touring project called Restless Creature, which also became the subject of a poignant documentary. The film lays bare the tough last chapter of Whelan’s dancing career—marked by both a harrowing hip injury and Martins’s withering suggestion that she quit early—but it also shows her creative rebirth.
While Whelan isn’t quite done dancing (since we met, she has premiered The Day, a work by Lucinda Childs featuring herself and cellist Maya Beiser; it continues to tour through April 28 in cities including Paris and San Francisco), the perspective she gained from distance is already proving crucial to her new work. Whelan’s influence on programming won’t be fully felt until the fall 2020 season (though she worked with Stafford on Nutcracker casting and will do the same for City Ballet’s winter season, running January 21–March 1). She plans to integrate new and more diverse choreographic voices—including, in particular, more women—into the company’s repertoire.
“We want to meet a standard artistically,” she says. “In my time, I don’t think that was always met.” She and Stafford have brought in role originators like Suzanne Farrell and Mikhail Baryshnikov to coach dancers in the classics. And Whelan wants the new choreographers she commissions to be artists who “have poetics in their work—who will really be able to pull something out of the dancers, because that’s how they grow.”
In perhaps her most important new role—teaching and working closely with dancers in the studio—she’s realizing that she herself might also be able to provide that inspiration. “I really want to uplift people’s ideas of themselves,” she says. “I want them to leave class and know they can do an excellent pirouette when they have to. I want their bodies to be alive and happy. Because that’s what dance is.”