With the New York City Ballet, ballerina Wendy Whelan danced the masterworks of Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine, William Forsythe and Christopher Weldon and many others. After 30 remarkable years, she left the company to start a freelance modern adventure.
In Wendy Whelan — Restless Creature, she partners with four contemporary choreographers: Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks and Alejandro Cerrudo. La Jolla Music Society will present the program of four duets at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 30, at the Balboa Theatre.
“Kyle was on my list for years,” Whelan said. “I never thought I’d get to dance and work with him, but I wanted to so badly. He embodies what I wanted to find for myself. I’m lucky he said yes.”
She saw Brooks perform in the same program as Abraham. “I really liked him and loved his work. He fit, and he said, yes. So I had two guys that I was really excited about.”
Whelan had been taking class with Beamish, but didn’t know about his choreographic skills. “A City Ballet dancer said we should get in the studio and play with him,” Whelan said. “We met, and his choreography was astounding. I went for him, and then I met Alejandro. “
Born in Madrid, Spain, Cerrudo is resident choreographer with Hubbard Street Dance. “He’s long and lanky, the tallest of them all,” Whelan said, “and he has the strongest ballet background. We use the same terminology. The other guys don’t use ballet terms much, maybe Josh a little bit. Brian and Kyle are so not from the ballet world.”
Their collaboration premiered at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in 2013. Since then, Whelan had to undergo hip surgery and shared her recovery through social media. “The hip is very good now,” she said. It’s at about 90 percent. I can forget about it most of the time. I’ve been lucky. “
In making Restless Creature, Whelan said the biggest challenge was building relationships with four very different men.
“I’d never danced with the choreographer making the work,” Whelan said. “That was a new process. I was excited about learning from them, but I was literally putting myself in their hands. I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, that’s what I’m going to be doing!’ And the guys’ response was, ‘oh no, I’m touching a ballerina!’ They weren’t used to that. There was a big intimidation factor for all of us. It was unexpected. I was really nervous. They were nervous. Some of the guys were more comfortable getting close and inter-twined, the others not so much … they might dance closer or with more distance, or more with the eyes. It’s different from ballet.”
Whelan said she didn’t have a vision or checklist of what she wanted from her four collaborators. They just met in a studio.
“I laid it out on the floor,” she said, “and one of the guys asked, ‘What if our piece sucks?’ Well, bring it on. Two questioned me. ‘What do you want? Why did you choose me?’”
The men wondered if she wanted them to make her more famous and beautiful. She explained that she was looking for honesty, not four coat racks.
“I told them, ‘I want to go into your world. I want you to challenge me. Don’t cater to me. I want to learn and bite off more than I can chew. I want to find more of myself by doing that. I want to swim in your ocean, because I think you are awesome, and I want to build a relationship with you.’ They really challenged me after that.”
If you go: “Wendy Whelan-Restless Creature” is on stage 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 30 at the Balboa Theatre, 868 Fourth Ave. downtown San Diego. Tickets are $20-$75 at ljms.org or (858) 459-3728.
Another version of “Ballerina Spins Out Duets with Four Male Choreographers,” by Kris Eitland, appears at www.lajollalight.com.