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Principal ballerina Wendy Whelan retires on Oct. 18 from the New York City Ballet, ending a 30 year career. And beginning a new chapter of life away from the stage and lights.
Wendy Whelan will be performing her last professional dance on Saturday night, Oct. 18, ending a 30 year ballet career. Whelan will retire from the New York City Ballet at the age of 47, defying social expectations for women nearing 50.
Speaking to NPR on Friday, Oct. 17, Whelan admitted to the very real expectation of depression afterward she leaves the company permanently. After all, 30 years on stage and years before that building her craft will leave a large hole in her life. Not to say it will be a bad life, just a much different one.
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“I’m sure I’ll get very emotional after,” she said while perched at her dressing table after an evening performance. “I don’t expect to get emotional during. It’s not my style. I just don’t do that.”
And that’s okay because fans and colleagues alike will be sad to see the ballerina leave the stage Saturday night.
Dancing partner Craig Hall explained to The New Yorker how she manages to portray fragility while being the stronger of the two in dance moves. “She gives off this illusion that her partner is doing a lot when it’s actually her.” He added, “And as soft and tender as she can be, that strength is like a diamond: it could cut you.”
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She moves with an effortless, ethereal grace when sliding along with Hall—almost a weightless beauty—as she glides to his back, balancing while stretching toes and body parts in “Liturgy.”
The woman knows the rhythm of the music, choreographed perfectly in time. Balancing on her toes, leaning back and innately knowing where her partner will be to catch her outstretched and bending body, while making it seem as he’s helping her up from the position.
Around the age of 45 or so, the dancer had the right hip reconstructed and it was one of the few times she showed any frailty. Part of that comes from what the New Yorker calls a “rock-solid technique and an almost inhuman work ethic.” Born in Louisville, Kentucky, she worked hard to obtain the skills, the technique, to make her the principal dancer in the NYCB.
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At the age of 12, she was diagnosed with scoliosis. Wheldon believes the heavy plaster cast and ballet helped to define the muscular strength. And when she joined the City Ballet in the 1984 transitional period of the death of founding choreographer George Balanchine, the chaotic company rebalance forced an even deeper work ethic.
As the last dancer to be on stage that worked with Balanchine, a new chapter will arise for the New York City Ballet as she bows gracefully out.
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According to Whelan, Wheeldon, and Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky later, really offered the chance to find her dancer voice. Whelan and Wheeldon had danced together before, offering a unique synergy for the pair in choreographing steps that showcased why she was meant to be the principal dancer. Ratmansky told the New York Times, “She is a major ballerina, exceptional and different.”
With the retiring of a major ballerina, a woman who offers an unique voice in a world of movement, comes the sadness of an era. But on that final farewell, Wheeldon and Ratmanksy will showcase her raw, deep talent with partners Craig Hall and Tyler Angle. Wendy Whelan will soar to the rafters, through dance and the pure delight of the audience watching with bated breath.