BECKET, Mass. — Wendy Whelan is one of the greatest ballerinas of her time. Her technical abilities are flawless. But what makes her an exceptional artist is her ability to transfer the emotion of the movement into a transformative experience for all who witness her dancing.
Devotees of New York City Ballet have had the pleasure of watching her perform for nearly three decades. After all these years, the 46-year-old is still thirsting for a challenge. She gets this in her latest venture, “Restless Creature,” which is premiered this week at Jacob’s Pillow. The program of four duets pairs Whelan with four very different contemporary dancer/choreographers who collaborated with the ballerina to create this distinctive program.
It pulls Whelan away from her Balanchine roots, placing her pointe shoe-free feet on new ground. And while she seemed a little shaky in this new role, which is surprising as Whelan always looks self-assured and in the moment, she deserves commendation for bravery.
Wendy Whelan in ’Restless Creature’
WHERE: Jacob’s Pillow, 358 George Carter Road, Becket, Mass.
WHEN: 8 p.m. today, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $69
MORE INFO: 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.org
The program features the creations of artists Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks and Alejandro Cerrudo. Of the four, only one, “First Fall” by Brooks, shows Whelan at her best. Cerrudo’s “Ego Et Tu,” the opener, is also well done — revealing a deep connection between artists. But both Beamish’s “Waltz Epoca” and Abraham’s “The Serpent and the Smoke” present Whelan as vulnerable — not the solid earth-mother of dance that all have come to admire. Their rapport, as it transferred to the audience, appears strained.
In “Ego Et Tu,” Cerrudo and Whelan barely move more than an arm’s-length away. To a compilation of lovely minimalist music by Max Richter, Philip Glass, Olafur Arnalds and Gavin Bryars, Whelan and Cerrudo are drawn together again and again. With their arms twisting over their heads and around each other and bending low in reverence, their magnetic union is complete and polished.
Brooks and Whelan are electric together. Again, led by compositions by Glass, Brooks is the ultimate cavalier — supporting Whelan, on his hands and knees, again and again as she falls backwards to the floor. Their trust, as the two move toward the light, is organic and beautiful. It is also touching as it takes a stand for relationship integrity – something that all humans strive for.
Abraham’s “The Serpent and the Smoke” does not fare as well. For one thing, it appears that the costume doesn’t hold snug to her hips, making it look uncomfortable. Also, the dancers lack chemistry. The best moments are when they are dancing apart — Abraham as the smoke and Whelan, the curious serpent who spars with Abraham and then moves in close.
Sadly, the Beamish creation, with music by Borut Krizisnik, comes off as fragmented and disorienting. Whelan wears an unflattering red dress in a work that sways from formal to odd. In the end, it feels like random movement strung together.
Still, Beamish is a smart-looking dancer who is a pleasure to watch. Perhaps they should dance together, but under someone else’s direction.
Part of the problem here is Whelan looked insecure on Wednesday. (Even her usual smooth hair bun was mussed in the first half.) As the week and then international tour progresses, I’m certain Whelan will find her footing and make it a success. Whelan is special — a rare and restless creature indeed.