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The Plain Dealer, Zachary Lewis  |  April 21, 2015

Ballet star Wendy Whelan coming to Cleveland with 'Restless Creature' tale of transformation

CLEVELAND, Ohio - Any other dancer would have retired, gone into teaching.

Not Wendy Whelan. Sidelined by age and injury, the former star of New York City Ballet chose rather to transform than throw in the towel, to submit herself to cutting-edge dance makers and emerge a new kind of performer.

The product of that experience, "Restless Creature," is coming to Playhouse Square. In one hour, with four choreographers, Whelan Saturday will relive her metamorphosis and prove to the world that she, like many older ballerinas, still has a great deal to give.

"It's one evolution after another," said Whelan, by phone from New York. "We're making something that's very intimate, and we're letting you watch it. It's an unraveling of the stage, the choreography, and the dancer herself."

Ageism, to put it plainly, is alive and well in dance. Especially in ballet. After serving two decades and gaining global renown as a principal at NYCB, Whelan said many began to view her as naturally on the way down or out.

Then, in 2012, as if to prove them right, came an another injury, a potentially career-ending fall on her hip. Even as she recovered and continued dancing, Whelan began to wonder whether ballet was still her proper sphere.

"The power of both things at the same time forced me to rethink what I wanted to do," Whelan said. "It was kind of a good thing, even as it was painful and confusing. It was liberating."

Just how liberating, DanceCleveland patrons are about to discover. After resolving to branch out and stepping down from NYCB, Whelan did the extraordinary: She gave herself over to four choreographers, allowing each to create a duet with her employing whatever dance language they wished.

While her body regained strength and mobility, her partners - Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks and Alejandro Cerrudo - challenged her to use it in new ways. Put together in a series, the pieces reflect not only the chemistry of four unique pairs but also her solo journey from a straitlaced world to a place with few boundaries.

"It was a very big bite to take off and chew," Whelan recalled. "They didn't want me to hold my body like a ballet dancer. They had to kind of break me into that and trust that I could get there. I found a new side of myself."

The challenges didn't stop there. Once "Restless Creature" was at last ready for the road in spring 2014, the nagging effects of injury obligated Whelan to postpone a U.S. tour several months.

These days, too, even as she's in full swing and developing a new project, she's still encountering and overcoming the original obstacle: the quiet belief that her career should be ending rather than entering new phases.

"There's a lot of surprise that I'm still doing this," Whelan said. "Some people say you shouldn't do this professionally after a certain age. But I don't think you can put those kinds of limits on people."


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