BEAVER CREEK — Wendy Whelan, a 20-year veteran of the Vail International Dance Festival, loves dancing outdoors at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater in the summer, but finds some of her most inspired moments of creativity in Vail happen in a local school’s gymnasium.
“I’ve been very creatively charged in Vail,” said Whelan during a recent phone interview. “So many times I’m performing in a premiere at Lincoln Center in New York City and I think about how it was created in the gym at Vail Mountain School. It’s really extraordinary to be present for the birth of something like that — a little handmade gem — and to watch it grow and receive great critical acclaim.”
She’ll perform one of those gems, “Restless Creature,” in its local premiere tonight at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek. The performance is an hour-long suite of four duets, each with its own distinct style and artistry, created by and danced with Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks and Alejandro Cerrudo. The premiere will be followed by a special reception honoring Whelan.
The fourth of the “Restless Creature” duets, “First Fall,” choreographed by Brian Brooks and performed by Brooks and Whelan, was commissioned by the Vail International Dance Festival and premiered during the festival in 2012. Fittingly, the two rehearsed the duet in the gym at Vail Mountain School. “First Fall” was the first of the four duets to come together.
The project as a whole marks the beginning of a new era for the dancer, who retired last year from her role as principal ballerina for the New York City Ballet after nearly 30 years with the company. Whelan, now 47 and recovering from a recent hip repair (performed by the Steadman Clinic’s Dr. Marc Philippon), is forging ahead with her career, working on projects such as “Restless Creature” and learning new things about herself along the way.
“I find that learning new things energizes me, keeps me young and keeps me excited about what I do,” Whelan said. “I wouldn’t be fulfilled if I didn’t keep learning new things.”
Whelan’s fans can also expect to learn something new about the beloved ballerina through “Restless Creature.”
“I really want audiences to recognize each partnership as being really unique and something that wouldn’t happen naturally,” she said. “I hope that they can see the way I’ve tried to work myself into each artist’s voice, and that I can show them a different side of myself, a different Wendy, with each partner.”
‘A NEW KIND OF DANCING’
It all started at another dance festival, the Fire Island Dance Festival, a couple years ago. Whelan met Brooks and Kyle Abraham, who were there performing works they had choreographed.
“I kept thinking how amazing it would be to pursue these other forms of dancing,” Whelan said. “The audience was going crazy for them. I wanted to experience what it feels like to dance their choreography, and to dance with the choreographer in his own work.”
Whelan, whose remarkable focus and determination are evident with every thought, and who takes her work very seriously but doesn’t take herself so seriously that she can’t throw her head back and laugh wholeheartedly, is fully embracing the humbling process of growth through being a beginner again.
“It’s exhilarating and recharging to explore a new kind of dancing,” she said. “It’s like, ah, now I’m the young one again, I’m the one learning something brand new.
“I’ve learned that I’m a really good collaborator and that I really want to be in a room full of good energy,” she added. “That’s what I’m really seeking in the next half of my dance life. … I want to do it with love and joy, not pressure or stress or working with someone I don’t really connect with.”
She’ll pursue those things as she continues to forge ahead with new projects. While she admits that, realistically, she doesn’t know what the future holds in regard to her hip, which is still healing in the wake of her surgery, she plans to keep dancing and collaborating for as long as her body allows.
Currently, Whelan has two new projects that will go into production this year and are set for New York and London premieres in 2015. One is an evening of dance with Ed Watson, whom she met in Vail at a past Vail International Dance Festival, and the second is a project based on a Japanese Noh play, which she is working on with director and puppetry artist Basil Twist and her husband, David Michalek.