Dancer Wendy Whelan had an astounding career with the New York City Ballet, starting as a teenager in the prestigious company founded by George Balanchine and ending last October at age 46. The former company principal has been called a “national treasure” and “America’s greatest contemporary ballerina” by The New York Times.
Now, after three decades onstage in a profession in which 35 can be seen as teetering on the abyss of ancient, Whelan has traded her pointe shoes for bare feet and is in the process of reinventing herself as a contemporary dancer.
On Saturday, she brings her first personal endeavor, called “Restless Creature,” to the Mondavi Center as part of a national tour. The performance comprises four duets choreographed by four different men who also serve as her partners in the pieces.
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Whelan, known for her driven energy, conceived the project a few years ago when she was contemplating life after ballet. With no desire to retire from dancing, the angular blonde mapped out a path to re-create herself by embracing an unfamiliar genre that’s more forgiving of age.
“It was really, literally, getting to the other side,” she says of leaving classical dance and finding a bridge to a new form. “I really wanted to transform myself and find levels of myself that I wasn’t as a ballet dancer.”
For “Restless,” she collaborated with Kyle Abraham (a MacArthur genius award winner), Joshua Beamish, Alejandro Cerrudo and Brian Brooks to create pieces that pushed her to learn the language of contemporary dance, in which much of the motion is informed by acknowledging gravity and weight, as opposed to ballet, which often pushes upward in leaps and bounds, seeking to defy physics.
In addition, the performances offer audiences a look at the intimacy that takes place between a dancer and choreographer offstage. Those confidential and intense moments, says Whelan, are “really beautiful, and it’s been my favorite aspect of being a dancer. … That’s why I wanted to highlight the dynamism between the creator and the muse.”
But for this muse, the relationship with her choreographers – all at least a decade her junior – involved as much teaching as learning.
“The day I turned 20 was the day he was born,” she says laughing, referring to Beamish, whose “Conditional Sentences” uses Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C minor in a blend of classical with modern. “It’s hard to have a conversation with a young guy. It generally involves subject matter I don’t want to talk about in an interview.”
She will say that while each of her partners has taught her new ways to dance, she’s taught them something about “discipline,” she said. “When I was 27 years old, I was not in this place of trusting myself and knowing what I wanted and getting it.”
The wisdom of confident risk-taking is a lesson she instills in the performances, which feature her tipping with infinitely controlled grace onto Brook’s back in his sensual “First Fall,” and sliding into intimate contact with Abraham in his “The Serpent and the Smoke,” about a snake falling under the spell of the motion of smoke.
The four works taken together grow over the evening, she says, into “a transformative personal evolution (of) how I’ve opened up as a dancer.”
She says she hopes the audience will follow her on the journey and take as much joy from this new phase of her career as she is taking.
“Coming from an 30-year career with the NYC Ballet, it was incredibly focused,” she says. “It was built on one idea of dance, of George Balanchine. You are taught, ‘This is how you do this step. You don’t do it another way.’ You stick to the rules and these are the rules. And now I have no rules. I feel like a little kid.”
What: Acclaimed ballerina Wendy Whelan performs contemporary dance works with four rising choreographers.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Mondavi Center, 1 Shields Ave., Davis
Information: (866) 754 - 2787; mondaviarts.org