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Kerry Clawson, The Akron Beacon Journal   |  April 21, 2015

Stage notes: Whelan finds thrilling new forms of dance expression in 'Restless Creature'

Toward the end of her 30-year tenure with the New York City Ballet, Wendy Whelan confronted the obvious: At age 47, she saw younger stars in the company flourishing and felt like she was aging, losing her creativity and seeing her repertoire of having choreographers set new dances on her dwindling.

"Being a mid-40 ballerina in a ballet company known for its very speedy and athletic choreography such as Balanchine, it's very rare for them to keep giving you new work," she said.

Whelan, well known for her sinewy physique and strikingly modern style as a ballerina, knew that most ballerinas retired by age 40. She had started with the NYCB as an apprentice at age 17 in 1984 and quickly become a member of the corps, then a soloist and finally a principal dancer in 1991.

The ballerina, who retired from the NYCB in October, knew she still had a lot to say through dance but wanted to strike out in vastly different directions. In 2013, she premiered her program Restless Creature, a suite of duets that she commissioned from four of America's top contemporary male choreographers - Kyle Abraham, Josh Beamish, Brian Brooks and Alejandro Cerrudo.

The key was to collaborate with choreographers who were still dancing, so they could perform their own duets with her in Restless Creature. The show made its world premiere at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Mass., in August 2013, followed by a tour that began in March 2014. The most recent leg of the tour, which comes to the Ohio Theater at PlayhouseSquare through DanceCleveland April 25, began in January and has played to packed houses throughout the country.

Whelan has originated roles in ballets by everyone from William Forsythe to Twyla Tharp to Christopher Wheeldon. But for Restless Creature, she wanted to dance with choreographers who were as different from her as possible.

Her decision to leave NYCB was precipitated by hip surgery in 2013.

"It was quite a bit more serious than I imagined it would be,'' she said by phone in late March from New York. "I was about .3 millimeters away from needing a hip replacement. It was ridiculous. It was like hanging by a thread."

Whelan knew if she tried to push through and perform as she used to, her career would be over. She decided she wanted to be in charge of her dance career and work with people whom she liked as both choreographers and people.

She had run into Abraham and Brooks before, and saw Cerrudo perform with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago at a Dancers Respond to AIDS event in New York.

"I was just drawn to them by sharing the same bill with them on certain programs,'' she said.

She remembers seeing Abraham performing bare-chested in a long, romantic tutu to crazy music from a boom box, and being blown away by his solo at Fall for Dance at City Center in New York. His style was very urban, "hip-hoppy" and riveting.

"It's cool as s---. He's just fierce,'' Whelan said. "I was just really drawn and really curious about trying to find what he had, just a taste of it, in my own body."

Abraham, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, was labeled in 2011 by OUT Magazine as the "best and brightest creative talent to emerge in New York City in the age of Obama."

Whelan also was drawn to Brooks' architectural style, which features repetitive movement and studies of weight and gravity. He has been hailed as a "choreographic genius" by Dance Enthusiast and was the recipient of the New York City Center Fellowship in 2012-13.

"His work is somewhat masculine in a way, which I thought was very cool and very New York,'' Whelan said of Brooks, whom she described as the most free-form modern choreographer of the four. "I was always floating around and being ethereal and I needed to find the ground" in her dance.

She met Beamish, the youngest of the group, at a contemporary dance class: "I'd never seen someone so articulate and able to sort of break down their bodies and their joints'' the way he does, Whelan said.

Cerrudo, resident choreographer at Hubbard Street since 2009, is very tall and lanky. He had worked with ballerinas before but his choreography is not ballet-based. Whelan's producer recommended she work with him.

"He just seemed a different kind of animal than the others,'' Whelan said.

The dancer, who has been described as a chameleon in Restless Creature as she adapts her body to each choreographer's style, said she didn't want to carry herself like a ballerina. She did not want to be predictable or even recognizable.

"I absolutely love it; it's a thrill,'' she said of the program. "I'm finding a really new, authentic side of myself that I hadn't really tapped into before in that way."

For more information on Whelan or Restless Creature, see www.wendywhelan.org.

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com.
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