Wendy Whelan is the First Lady of the New York City Ballet. She has been a principal dancer with the company for 23 years. With a repertoire of more than 50 ballets under her belt, (including pieces by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Peter Martins, Twyla Tharp, William Forsythe, Christopher Wheeldon) there is little she has not done, or for that matter that she could not do. The thing that I appreciate about most Wendy is her artistry and the physical intelligence that is clear in her dancing.
Where she is amazingly technically consistent in her performance it is her musicality and her artistic choices that keep me mezmorized. I marvel at the way the depth of her subtext translates with such ease and subtlety through her body infusing the steps with weight and meaning no matter what ballet she is doing. Now in her 28th year at NYCB and at 45 years old she keeps getting better and better.
The other thing that fascinates me about Wendy is the fact that of all the ballet stars, it seems that her body (it’s size in particular) is spoken about almost as much as her dancing. She is thin, thin and muscular, and everyone from critics, to audience members have a feeling about it. Her’s is often the the body used as an example at both polarities of the body discussion in the world of ballet – some say she is ideal, others that she is way too thin. Well I was wondering how SHE felt about her body, and the fact that at times it is the source of such controversy. I also wanted to find out what her body maintenance regimen was and if it has changed as she matures. Mainly I wanted to get inside her head and find out exactly how she creates those incredible performances.
Previously I had only met her once, we shared a table at an Armitage Gone! Dance Gala. We spoke a bit, but you know how those things are. That night I found her very approachable (for a legend in her own time) there was no pretense, no air about her at all, she was there to enjoy the performance and party just like everyone else. When I reached out to her about the interview I was surprised that she responded so quickly and was willing to do it. We shot in her lovely apartment where I met Charlie Rose, her not so camera shy cat, and with a husband as a photographer she was totally into rearranging her living room to get the shot.
One of the reasons I love doing the extended video interviews is because I think you can really get a feel of the person, their personality, their sense of humor-of… them, in their own words. You will see (as I did as we chatted) that Wendy loves…she is dance, art, movement, she is physically expressive with her hands and arms, she is has an internal train of thought that seems to seek exit either verbally, or with subtle epaulment, as she talks she tends to turn of her head or shoulders, she illustrates with touch and gestures. As she speaks to you she is so present in the moment, so intent on seeking, investigating and sensating that she at times happens upon things- a thought a feeling a memory…
And because she is so authentic, because she is so organically curious and courageous she goes for it, she pushes towards and through it–that thought, that feeling, that memory, which is just what happened during our interview when we were discussing her ordeal of being treated for Scoliosis when she was 12. She happened upon a suppressed memory of a time when she had issues with an eating disorder. Though she rarely talks about this painful (physically and emotionally) time in her development she willingly took herself back there to tell her body story. I was taken aback at how she, like Alice, slipped down that rabbit hole into that emotional place and investigated it, with me there, she did not back away from the re-discovery. I was honored and awed, and in those very tender, personal moments I learned how and why is, what she is. she may be a tiny little thing, but she is not fragile, the mettle of her person is astounding. When I went to the interview I was fan of her dancing, and now I am a fan of her as a woman. She is really an authentically, a wonderful woman, please watch these clips she has so much valuable information that she shares!!! Enjoy!
4 thoughts on “A Chat With NYCB’s Wendy Whelan”
Hi Ms H! I just wanted to let you know that I watched your interview with Wendy Whelan and found your conversation very interesting, especially when she spoke about her past eating disorder. It struck a familiar place when I heard her discuss how her struggles with weight and food surfaced. I can relate to her because I am also naturally slim and petite, but I am not immune to body image issues or the obsessive and dangerous desire for control. People have always told me “you are already skinny! you don’t need to lose any weight”, but it has never been about losing weight for the sake of appearance. It’s about controlling something. I guess it all just goes to show that eating disorders operate on a profound level in the mind.
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