By Heather Corcoran
Think you’re busy this holiday season? Between performances as the Sugar Plum Fairy in George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker,” prima ballerina Wendy Whelan has her hands full preparing for her next star turn—Aurora in “Sleeping Beauty.” This season marked her 15th as a principal with New York City Ballet, which she joined in 1981. We caught up with Whelan between class and rehearsal to talk about the special place the arts occupy in New York.
Dancing as a principal with New York City Ballet is a dream for many; do you have advice for young dancers?
WW: You really, really have to love it. You really have to be able to dedicate yourself to it, with that extra amount of commitment. When you have that extra amount of commitment, it really shows and when you don’t, it also really shows.
Do you ever get to catch other shows or performances?
WW: It depends if I’m working a lot, then I really need to get away from [dance] and not be around it more than necessary. I did go see Pina Bausch over the weekend, and that was incredible. When you get to see something that you’ve heard about or you’re eager to see [it] just gives you more energy as a performer.
Your first role was in the “Nutcracker,” something you’ve revisited throughout your career. What is it like to return to that ballet?
WW: I started out when I was seven, as a mouse. I hear certain parts of that music and I remember having to run across the stage in my little mouse costume at that moment. I’ve done so many of the roles that if I really focus and listen to each piece of music, I can really remember what was going on in my life at that time; it’s kind of sentimental.
It’s sentimental for people who come to see it as well—a tradition—but for you it’s work. Do you have your own holiday traditions?
WW: One of my friends puts together the Christmas tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, so she generally invites a group of us to go and see that. Getting my tree with my husband is my own little special tradition, but other than that it’s a lot of work right now.
Is there a typical day for you?
WW: I take class every day, no matter if I have a performance or not. Lately I’ve been doing a run-through of “Sleeping Beauty” every day, or if I have a new partner in “The Nutcracker” I do another rehearsal for “The Nutcracker.” Then I try to get a little rest in before the show. I really try to eat well, because it’s so taxing right now to be rehearsing so much.
Do you still get nervous when you go on stage?
WW: It’s funny because sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t, and I can’t really predict when or why I do. Generally, it’s just before I go on, and once I’m on, it’s fine. I think it’s good though to be a little nervous. It gives you that inner aliveness.
Do you remember your first performance with NYCB?
WW: It was “The Nutcracker.” I had to do the maid in the party scene and “Snow” and “Spanish.” It was great; I got to do three roles in one night. Being an apprentice, we preformed in every show, so just getting that experience … was really good.
How has being based in New York influenced you?
WW: You get to see so many other dance companies and so much art and great films and theater. It’s just packed with things to inspire you. I was thinking, “Gosh, so many places don’t get to see things like Pina Bausch.” And thankfully, being in New York, I get to see almost anything I want to see—they all come through here.
What is the biggest misconception about the ballet?
WW: I think people think they need to understand it and they don’t. It’s just an experience and whatever you get from it is the gift you’re supposed to get.
Dance can be intimidating. Why should people come see the ballet?
WW: For some reason I think dance accesses a part of your being that not many other things get to. It’s hard to explain it, but when you feel it, it’s really powerful. And if you see the right thing for you, the thing that touches you, you get a great gift out of it.