NYCB's fall season draws to a close, end of Whelan career


New York, NEW YORK -- The New York City Ballet wrapped up its fall season on Sunday, Oct. 19, marking the final performance of Wendy Whelan, one of legendary founder and choreographer, George Balanchine's prima ballerinas. Following Balanchine's death in 1983,  Whelan, now a senior ballerina at the New York City Ballet Company, joined the troupe in 1984. She stayed at the company through challenging times of transition, as an apprentice, a corps member and finally a principal dancer. Whelan's thirty-year residency has been an era of inheriting and honoring the ballet that Balanchine envisioned.

The inside and ceiling of the David H. Koch theater, located in Lincoln Square, where all of the NYCB's performances took place this season. Photo by Hannah Grubb.

The greatest challenge in the ballet’s history was moving past the death of its founder, but it was during this time that Whelan filled the roles he created with adroit care, giving grieving attendees and ticket holders hope for the company’s future. Throughout the years, her stunning performances have inspired onlooking choreographers to create roles just for her, which demonstrate her great versatility as a dancer.

According to Whelan’s playbill biography, eight roles were tailor-made for her by Christopher Wheeldon, among other notable contemporary ballet choreographers. Whelan’s thirty year residency at the New York City Ballet has been an era of inheriting and honoring the ballet that Balanchine envisioned—while supporting contemporary artists and creating a celebrated name for herself.

King’s senior, Elsa Wilson ('15) attended a New York City Ballet performance recently and enjoyed a three-ballet show, which included Donizetti Variations, La Sonnambula (featuring Wendy Whelan) and Firebird. Prior to the show she was taken on a backstage tour for a unique, fly-on-the-wall experience.

Wilson met dancer Andrew Scordato as well as the New York City Ballet's wardrobe master. "While you could feel the whole place surging with talent and anticipation, these guys were normal enough to be your next-door-neighbor from back home…they just loved what they were doing. They were energized by their work, but not stressed," she said.

King’s sophomore Jonah Sheffield ('17), who was also present for the performance, viewed it differently. “Ballet is so very rooted in tradition and precision, and it requires a seasoned audience, not a layman, to appreciate it," he said. "Over the summer there was a modern dance in Bryant Park which I really enjoyed. The music was a simple pattern of beats which the dancers moved to, and I felt like its meaning was more open to interpretation.” Sheffield likened his preference for modern dance to his preference for abstract over classical art.

For many who do not have the opportunity to look behind the scenes, the art of ballet seems shrouded with wonder and enigma, from its complex motions to its unspoken narratives. According to Wilson, her rare experience lifted the veil.

She aid that amidst the glamor, “a little bit of the mystery was gone, replaced by a sense of connectedness that really made all the artists involved more human and much more real.”

The NYCB is largely associated with the works of George Balanchine, founder and foremost choreographer of both the New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet. Balanchine was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, but debuted and developed the art of contemporary ballet in New York City. His choreographed works, including The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, make up the ballet’s repertory to this day.