The dancers have an ethereal quality about them, Wendy Whelan in particular, her pale make up emphasizing her large eyes and her simple leotard costume showing off her pencil thin figure.
The 35-year-old is one of the principal dancers in the NYC Ballet Company. She is a delicate looking woman with long hair and an expressive face. Her fragility is deceptive, however, as she is a seasoned performer and spends hours practicing every day.
“I am a workaholic,” the Louisville, Ky., native said one day last week. “You have to be if you want to go as far as you can go.”
The soft-spoken dancer, who is three-quarters Irish and a quarter English (“which creates my own personal conflict,” she said, laughing) has a pretty dressing room with pointe shoes and pink ribbons everywhere. There are posters on the pink walls and lights around the mirrors. This is where she psyches herself up before a performance.
“I give myself an hour to get ready,” she said. “I have a dressing roommate, so we put on some music, talk and get ready.”
Whelan began dancing at the age of 2 1/2. She said she was a child with a lot of energy, so that when her younger sister was born, her mother saw the need to get Whelan out of the house for a while.
“She put me in dance,” she said. “By the time I was 4 years old, I loved it. We got to put music on and make up our own dances. It was fun.”
Whelan’s involvement strengthened when, at 7, she saw a performance of “The Nutcracker.” Whelan got the album as a Christmas present and proceeded to practice all the dances. It paid off. She auditioned for the Louisville Ballet Company and got a part in the same ballet.
“Every year after that, I danced for them,” she said.
This year, the regional company is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The teacher who selected Whelan for that first role as a mouse is retiring as director. As a special tribute, Whelan is bringing three of the principal NYC Ballet dancers to Kentucky to dance one of his favorite ballets. “I decided to do a Balanchine ballet,” she said. “It is a fun and challenging piece.”
By the age of 10, Whelan was taking ballet classes every day after school.
“I knew that ballet was what I wanted to do,” she said. “I wasn’t the best in the class, but I was very motivated.”
Her hard work and determination got results and at 15, she moved to New York to take up a scholarship at the American School of Ballet. She stayed with the Irish-American choreographer and creator of the ballet “Irish Fantasy,” Jacques d’Amboise (real name was Joseph Ahearn).
He rented out one of the floors of his brownstone to four dancers,” Whelan said. “I was very lucky to stay there.”
At 17, Whelan was spotted by a talent scout who offered her an apprenticeship with the NYC Ballet.
“I was an apprentice for quite a while but really wanted a place in the company, and so I waited,” Whelan said. “One day, a girl told me she was leaving and that I would probably get her spot. I was so happy.”
She joined the company in 1986 and has been there ever since. “This is the place for me to be,” she said. “I just love Balanchine choreography.”
The late Russian choreographer George Balanchine was one of the founding members of the company. Not surprisingly, then, the dancers perform much of his repertoire.
In 1991, Whelan became a principal dancer. The demands on her time and body are not insignificant. She explained: “We practice every day, start at 10:30 and go to 12, then sometimes rehearse from 12-6 with an hour break, and then perform that night.”
With such a grueling workload, dancers have little trouble maintaining their lithe figures.
“You expend so much energy dancing that it is easy to stay thin,” she said. “If I stop dancing, I’ll put on 5 pounds, but I won’t worry about it.”
Whelan is intimately familiar with the dance she performed last week. “I have done ‘Agon’ quite a bit, so it is second nature for me,” she said. “If I get nervous, I close my eyes and let the music take over me.”
Ballet aficionados Ruth and Andrew Bramley were visiting New York last week. The couple, from Dallas, said they hoped to see seven productions during their five-day visit. That day, they thoroughly enjoyed Whelan’s performance.
“The quality of the dancing is as good as it gets around here,” Ruth said. “The dancers were apart when they had to be and they fit the music perfectly.”
The dancers are, of course, keenly aware of their appearance, having been trained to carry themselves with poise. Whelan admits that there is “an element of snobbery” involved.
“Part of the training is to carry yourself with aristocracy,” she said. “A teacher might say, ‘You must dance as if you have rings on every finger and a crown on your head,’ “
Whelan acknowledges that a large part of getting mentally prepared for a performance is in transforming oneself with makeup, neat hair, and costume.
“It is to give you confidence and to bring you out of the real world,” she said. “We are supposed to bring the audience out of the real world, so we have to be able to do it, too, to believe that we are princesses with tiaras.”
Having reached the top of her profession, Whelan is unsure as to what the future holds. After 30 years in the ballet world, she said she thinks she might like to diversify.
“As a kid, I always knew I would make it to New York and would do what I wanted to do,” she said. “I just have never thought past that.”
But whatever Whelan does, there is bound to be a creative element to it.
“We have a program here called ‘Dance On,’ where patron patrons create a fund to pay for part of a dancers’ education, so I might take some classes.”
Whelan appreciates the warm atmosphere in the company. “We have a family feeling,” she said, “and guest dancers or new members always get welcomed. Some of the dancers are my best friends.” There is no uniform look in the company. Indeed, founder Balanchine compared his dancers to flowers in the garden. “He liked variety,” Whelan said. “That means different looking people in the company.”
Whelan recommends ballet dancing as a career for a variety of reasons — for men and women. In fact, Whelan’s boyfriend is a photographer but has always expressed a yen for ballet dancing.
“I think parents are becoming more supportive of their sons dancing,” she said. “If you are a man and have talent, you will get to dance because there are fewer male ballet dancers.
“[In ballet] you learn discipline, the mechanics of dancing, you learn how to work with people, how to learn and obey instructions and, most importantly, how to use your imagination. I feel so blessed and lucky to have been allowed to do this.”