Whelan Wendy Whelan gave away all her leotards in De- cember. It was a Christmas surprise for her Ballet Academy East students—and an experiment. By getting rid of her uniform of more than 30 years, she hoped her muscle memory would let go of old movement patterns. “The minute I got myself out of leotards, my body opened up: I didn’t feel
so strict and tight and bound,” she says. “I never
expected you could change so much from the
Leaving the ballet world—and life inside such a
massive institution as New York City Ballet—has
been a revelatory experience for the former reign-
ing ballerina. Since retiring from the company in
2014, she’s taken on everything from dance theater
collaborations with Royal Ballet star Edward Watson to a multidisciplinary opera choreographed by
David Neumann to grounded modern dance duets
with Brian Brooks.
She doesn’t have a defined vision of where she’s
going so much as a mission to explore what’s possible. With no structured company schedule telling
her what to do, she can seek out whatever work
she wants, with whomever she connects with. “I
feel like I can be myself,” says Whelan, who’s turning 50 this month. “I’m thinking and doing things
I never would have imagined as a ballet dancer.”
In a rehearsal with Brooks, Whelan is rarely still.
Even when she’s not dancing, her hands float
around her torso, her ribs slink side to side. When
getting notes, she seems to ingest them physically:
You can see her thinking through her approach as
she unconsciously sucks in her cheeks, or sticks
her tongue out the side of her mouth, or throws
her head straight back.
“You want more air around your face,” says
coach Risa Steinberg after a run-through. “A sense
of waft.” Whelan widens her eyes, smiles, then
gives Brooks a high five: “We texted about ‘waft’!”
It’s clear that the studio is her happy place,
and moving is her most natural mode of being.
In a T-shirt and Adidas pants, her hair in a loose
braid down her back, she works on using more
plié, bringing her pelvis with her, moving through
her back space. Yet even in this new vocabulary
with its new challenges, she retains the same
think about it.