Prima Ballerina Wendy

In less than two weeks, Wendy Whelan will retire from the New York City Ballet. It's definitely the Dance Event of the year. Tickets were notoriously hard to get -- I snagged two fourth ring tickets for $94 -- a minute later the whole show was sold out. The farewell will be a busy, emotional event, and I'm sure not many people will really remember the dancing. For that reason I bought a ticket to see Wendy this afternoon in La Sonnambula. I wanted to see her just dance a regular performance.

I remember when Wendy used to dance the Sleepwalker, her bourrées were so fast it was as if she was skating on the ground. She was paper thin, and it added to her otherworldly persona. This afternoon when I saw her she no longer had the speed and effortless ability to skim the ground on pointe. She danced the steps slowly, gingerly, and if one were to be objective you could say some of her bourées looked bumpy. She once had a sky-high arabesque -- this afternoon she sometimes couldn't even get her leg to 90 degrees. She's 47, and time and injury have taken a toll on her remarkable physical instrument.

But even with all those limitations she was amazing. Her Sleepwalker was terrifying -- a bloodless, heartless ghost. Her visibly aged face worked to her favor -- it gave the Sleepwalker a kind of gothic, crazy-woman-tied-up-in-the-attic feel. She still knew how to make her maximum effect in this brief role -- when she stepped over the Poet, she never hesitated or looked downwards to make sure she wasn't, you know, actually stepping on the Poet's stomach. She was creepy and ghostly and the other wonderful dancers in the cast (Robert Fairchild as the Poet, Faye Arthurs as Coquette, Lauren King and Antonio Carmena in the commedia dell'arte-like pas de deux) couldn't overshadow Wendy (pun intended). And Wendy doesn't cheat the steps. She might not be able to execute them effortlessly, but she still carried the dead Poet offstage like a champ.

Tiler Peck started the program with a wonderfully sprite Donizetti Variations and Ashley Bouder ended the program with a dynamite Firebird. Both of these ballerinas are in their physical and technical prime -- there seemingly isn't any tricky allegro combination that Tiler can't toss off with effortlessness, and Bouder's Firebird is a modern classic portrayal. Her amazing jump, her expressive arms, that can alternate between jittery nervousness and sad Odette-like yearning, all make her Firebird the standard for this generation the way the Firebirds of Maria Tallchief or Gelsey Kirkland once set the standards for their generation. Balanchine's choreography, the Chagall scenery and Jerome Robbins' whimsical choreography for the Kastchei Wizards and company make the NYCB Firebird in my opinion the definitive interpretation of Stravinsky's masterpiece. The Fokine version has its moments, but it's less focused than Balanchine/Robbins.

But as I saw Peck and Bouder breeze through their ballets, I wondered how they'd be at 47. Would they still be able to take over the stage the way Wendy still can? Wendy is no longer in her physical or technical prime, but she's still a Prima Ballerina. October 18 will be an emotional experience for everyone who cares about dance, about the New York City Ballet. It will be the end of an era.


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