Tonight marks the end of an era at New York City Ballet. Wendy Whelan is retiring from the Company after thirty years–yes, that’s right, thirty years with one of the top ballet companies in the world. If you do not know her, get on YouTube, do a Google search, find her Instagram account, because she is important. Everywhere I look today, I am seeing pictures of and articles about and memories of watching this remarkable ballerina. What can I say that has not been said? What can one say, staring at the evidence of such an immense legacy?
Wendy is one of those dancers that, as a ballet student, you grow up knowing and admiring, no matter where you are. And we didn’t love her for her body (though there is so much to love about it, like any body that moves). Let me say that: we do not love her because of her body.
We love her because of what she says with it. We love her for communicating intelligence and humility and presence and wisdom without ever speaking a word, and then stepping off of the stage and confidently giving voice to all of those qualities when she speaks about what it is that she does. We love that she is herself–as have other dancers and choreographers and audiences the world over.
We love her because she is herself in the work, and because she acknowledges that there is an element of work in this thing called dancing. And yet she never appears to force anything; dance is her calling, and so she goes to work to answer it. She is the epitome of the hard-working, humble ballerina who seems to always treat herself as someone who has much still to learn and explore. I can remember seeing her dance as a guest artist with Complexions Contemporary Ballet when they came on tour to New Orleans several years ago. Tackling a duet created for herself and Desmond Richardson by Dwight Rhoden, I was (and still am) utterly in awe of the mixture of curiosity and guts that must have been required for her to undertake such an alien venture.
She is also one of those dancers that you expect always to be there, because no matter how much maturity she displays onstage, she has never once seemed to show signs of aging like other mortals, has never seemed physically fragile (even in the midst of hip surgery) or anything less than 300% committed. Wendy Whelan dances. Wendy Whelan has always danced. Wendy Whelan will always dance. After seeing her perform a week ago, my feelings on that matter have not changed.
There is no conclusion here, just like what she will dance tonight at Lincoln Center is not a conclusion. It’s another night of dancing, a necessary stillness, and then another move.
I simply cannot wait to see what happens next.