Wendy Whelan is a legend in the arts community. Retired since October 2014 from the New York City Ballet, this principal dancer was there for more than 30 years, which is an amazing feat in longevity. This Louisville, KY, native began her career at the tender age of 3 years old, performing in “The Nutcracker” and later attending the Louisville Ballet school. She left her Kentucky home at the fresh age of 15 to attend ballet school in New York. She then apprenticed and later joined the City Ballet, where she made her mark as a dancer, known for her vast range and interminable energy. Now at age 47, she has blossomed again in a second career in contemporary dance. Recently, she returned to Louisville to perform in her first independent production, a modern dance entitled “Restless Creature” at the Kentucky Center. While she was home, she also showcased another artistic endeavor—photography—with an exhibition of her photographs at the Louisville Visual Art gallery entitled “Vantage Point.” Suffice it to say, Wendy Whelan is not your typical retiree, and today, we’re thrilled to feature her as our FACES of the South.
You are a Kentucky native. Do you still have family in Louisville? How often do you get to see them?
My whole family still lives in Louisville. I try to come home at least twice a year.
When you return to Louisville, what are your favorite things to do?
I love to hang out and play with my niece and nephew. They are a lot of fun to be with. I also like to visit meaningful places from my past from when I was a kid, like the parks, schools and neighborhoods, where I used to spend my time as a youngster.
Where did you grow up? And we have to ask, where did you go to school?
I grew up on Crescent Hill, and I went to school at Holy Spirit School and one year of high school at The Brown School.
How did you start in ballet? Did you love it from the beginning?
I started in ballet as a 3-year-old, as an outlet for my restless energy, and I think I did love it from the start. I kinda just always danced, around the house, in my front yard and pretty much everywhere.
What was it like living in New York on your own at such a young age?
Luckily, I was extremely focused and really just concentrated on my dancing and my schoolwork. I was 15, and I had three roommates who I lived with, ages 15, 17 and 18, and they were like my sisters, keeping tabs on me. I developed some very close friends right away, and we stuck together for our first five or more years living in NYC, through the time when we all began our professional careers.
What is the secret to your longevity in your career?
I think staying happy is really the thing. The combination of feeling confident to explore, freedom to grow and safety within my surroundings. That, and most definitely having a great basic understanding of physicality and ballet technique, which kept me injury-free. I learned that from the teachers I had in Louisville when I was a kid.
Tell us about your current tour of “Restless Creature.”
Well, the tour actually just ended on May 31. We ended on a really high note, with a very successful weeklong run in New York City. We sold out every show; we even had to add a show because tickets were in such high demand. My choreographers and I have now each moved on to our other projects. I am preparing another show called “Whelan/Watson, Other Stories,” which has its premiere this summer in London. It’s an evening of five new works, by five different choreographers, that I will perform with the great dancer Edward Watson of the Royal Ballet. I am getting very excited for it. I am working with Ed each day on that project now. It’s very different from “Restless Creature,” as I am only performing with him in that show. We will dance three duets together and a solo each.
Since your retirement last fall, it doesn’t seem as though you have slowed down. You seem liberated actually. Is that a valid statement?
In one word … A definitive YES!
What are some things you are looking to do in your “retirement” (using that term loosely, of course)?
Ha ha!! So far, I am really doing so much of what I have wanted to do in my retirement, which is to basically learn and explore and become fearless. I am creating opportunities to be in charge of what I want to do. I am steering myself toward working with people who have ideas that I find exciting and interesting, for the place I am at in my life right now, which feels like a really strong place to be as a creative woman. I am finding so much more within myself and am feeling really excited and inspired by all my new collaborators.
If you could have any career besides your current one, what would it be?
I can’t imagine another career, honestly. I feel so lucky and happy to do what I do. I might love to have some kind of a career with caring for animals though. I find that I am becoming more and more a sucker for living things covered with fur.
Give us a peek at your agenda. What’s a typical day or week like for you?
Working on this new project, at this point, with its premiere coming up so quickly, I take class Monday through Saturday in the morning from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. I usually start rehearsing around noon or 1 p.m. This week, it’s been for three hours of rehearsal each day (for my solo with the choreographer Annie-B Parson). Then I will be rehearsing at least one or two of my new duets with Ed and the choreographer Daniele Desnoyers, plus my solo. We will probably work for up to five or six hours a day. Very often each day, I move to different studios in different parts of town, but luckily I am booked in the same venue each day all next week. On Tuesdays, if I am not rehearsing or touring, I teach the most advanced level girls class at Ballet Academy East on the Upper East Side. It’s a wonderful school with a huge pool of talent.
Sometimes before my 10 a.m. class, I squeeze in a press interview for one of my different projects or fit in a meeting with one of my project commissioners or producers to discuss the different components of the different projects. We often discuss scheduling, fundraising, design elements, production or live music issues. Twice a week, I try to schedule an appointment with my physical therapist to keep my body safe and sound. Sometimes at night after my rehearsal day, I head across the street from my apartment to a wonderful place called Chinese Bodyworks, where I can see my favorite masseuse for an hour-long massage. Lucky for me, they are open late until 10 p.m.
Who are your mentors, and what advice do you treasure?
I have a lot of mentors from my past in ballet and some more present-day mentors, like Risa Steinberg and my teacher, Zvi Gotheiner, who now give me guidance as I move forward in this different style of more contemporary and modern dance. Mostly what I hear from them is to breathe and keep my body soft and supple, more open and free. I try to stay calm, be myself and always keep my sense of humor. I treasure all this advice.
Fill in the blank. You’ll never see me without my:________.
What’s your bucket list travel destination?
Hawaii! I’ve never been. It’s my next vacation destination.
Night owl or early bird? What do you do during that quiet time?
Early bird I guess, though I love to go to bed early and wake up late.
I usually have quality time in the morning with my cat, Charleyrose. I feed her, I play with her. I make myself tea and eggs. I like to take a hot bath, and Charleyrose always hangs out with me, right by my side, all morning long. My husband is a real night owl, so he is always asleep when I have my morning bonding time with Charleyrose.
Tell us some of your favorite Louisville restaurants.
What’s on your personal reading list right now?
I was just reading a book called Brain Maker by David Perlmutter and Kristin Loberg. Now, I am mostly focusing on listening to the music for my “Other Stories” project. It’s like learning the lines to a play. I am trying to lay down the rhythms and groundwork into my brain and body, so I can be ready each day for rehearsals. I am listening a lot to the music for my solo. It’s all drums, and it’s really crazy and fast, and the choreography is really rich with detail and changes of direction, so I need to be super ready. I decided today that this solo is probably a bit like performing a Beckett play.
Lightning round! Give us your:
- Candy or junk food splurge: Doritos
- Guilty pleasure song: These days it’s old Rihanna … “We Found Love” or “Don’t Stop The Music”
- Tearjerker movie pick: Terms Of Endearment or Thelma & Louise
- Standby nail polish color: Hi Maintenance by Essie
- Favorite cocktail: Lychee martini or elderflower royale
- Cartoon alter-ego: That’s hard. There are a lot of them! I think if Peppermint Patty and Woodstock could have a “love child,” that would be me!
Thank you to Wendy Whelan for taking time out of a grueling schedule to answer our questions. Good luck to you in “retirement.”
Photos by: Alix Mattingly and Stephen J. Cohen