By Steve Sucato
Special to the Plain Dealer
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Following in the footsteps of other ballet stars like Mikhail Baryshnikov that made late-career transitions from ballet to contemporary dance styles, former New York City Ballet star Wendy Whelan, seeing the writing on the wall after 30-years with NYCB, launched her Wendy Whelan New Works Initiative.
What has been remarkable about Whelan’s transition more so than most, is rather than easing into the change, she cliff-dived into it. In short order, even before her official retirement from NYCB last October, she began crash courses with four different dancer/choreographers in four movement languages foreign to the way her body was used to moving to create “Restless Creature,” the first production in her New Works Initiative.
The hourlong program co-presented by DANCECleveland and Playhouse Square at the Ohio Theatre Saturday night more than lived up to its pre-show hype giving the assembled audience a sumptuous dance memory to cherish for some time.
The critically-acclaimed suite of four duets danced by Whelan and her four male dancer/choreographer partners began with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago resident choreographer/dancer Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Ego Et Tu” (2013).
Danced to music by Max Richter, Olafur Arnalds and others, Cerrudo entered the stage first pouring forth contemporary dance movement in a solo that had his outstretched limbs leading his body into swooping dips and rises, careening turns and liquidly smooth sways. Whelan then joined him dancing with similar fluidity.
While not quite as silky smooth as Cerrudo, the waif-like and powerful Whelan’s carriage seemed to have shed a fair amount of its ballet rigidity since “Restless Creature” premiered in 2013. Both dancers were magical. Their partnering was elegant and effortless in Cerrudo’s divine choreography that even gave a nod to Balanchine’s iconic “Serenade,” a ballet Whelan must have danced countless times.
Choreographer Joshua Beamish’s “Conditional Sentences” (2015) was perhaps the least stretch for Whelan in terms of movement language. The courtly duet was infused with ballet steps and poses along with some tricky off-count starts and stops. But while Beamish and Whelan performed the call and response choreography expertly, they seemed to lack onstage chemistry and the work seemed to drag out and repeat itself.
Kyle Abraham’s “The Serpent and The Smoke” (2013) proved the evening’s most dramatic and resplendent work. Set to music by Hauschka and Hildur Guanadottir, the piece began with Abraham, aflutter like a whirling dervish, launching himself into a sequence of rapid turns and arm movements.
As a dancer, Abraham has a most distinctive way of moving that blends modern, contemporary and hip hop styles into seemingly steroid fueled movement riffs counterbalanced by tender moments of graceful serenity. Whelan bought into Abraham’s movement language wholeheartedly in her performance, circling him at the outset as if stalking him as he looked on captivated by her wispy movement around him. The two, simpatico in their dancing brilliance, exuded strength, sensuality and rare beauty in the riveting duet.
The program concluded with the Brian Brooks gem “First Fall.” To a score by Philip Glass, Brooks and Whelan melted into each other’s arms moving up and down across the stage like on a rapidly moving stream. Brooks’ modern dance choreography a la choreographer Doug Varone, was exceedingly pleasant to watch as were the two dancers in it.
In its latter stages, the pair engaged in a repeated sequence where Whelan fell trusting backwards onto a crouched Brooks’ back and then he slowly rose up carrying Whelan with him. The effect, and the work, was spellbinding.
With the diverse and immensely gratifying “Restless Creature,” Whelan showed she hasn’t lost any of her star quality. She and her partners danced brilliantly. Most impressive and promising for her future after ballet though was her deft choices of partners and the works they created for her.
This article first appeared in The Plain Dealer online on April 27, 2015. Copyright Steve Sucato.