Why Wendy Whelan Thinks Young Dancers Should Incorporate Contemporary Ballet Into Their Training
Last month The School at Jacob’s Pillow announced a major change to its historic summer ballet program, which boasts alumni at companies including American Ballet Theatre, Pennsylvania Ballet and Dutch National Ballet. This summer, rather than focusing on coaching dancers in the traditional, story-driven classical repertoire, the intensive makes the shift to contemporary ballet. Directed by former Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet director Alexandra Damiani and BalletX co-founder Matthew Neenan, the Contemporary Ballet Program will work to engage students in the development of new work and the ever-adapting repertoire (including pointe work) it requires.
Former New York City Ballet prima and longtime Jacob’s Pillow participant Wendy Whelan played a large role in the decision making process. We touched base with Whelan to hear about what went into this decision, and whether she thinks that this focus on contemporary training represents a growing trend in the ballet world.
What was the review process like?
The Pillow did an external review with a bunch of top level artists who shared their observations with the advancement committee, including myself and Kyle Abraham. Kyle and I really sat down and talked it all over. We came up with the thought that to make Jacob’s Pillow very special and unique and to strengthen what it has to offer, it would be an interesting idea to really focus on uniting ballet and contemporary.
Students of the School at Jacob’s Pillow performing on the Inside/Out stage. Photo by Brooke Trisolini, Courtesy Jacob’s Pillow.
The ballet program has been a staple of the School at Jacob’s Pillow for a long time. Do you think that this shift represents trends in ballet training today?
I feel like ballet in general is shifting in a contemporary direction. Most companies have a repertoire of contemporary work, and are bringing in contemporary voices to make work. I think that the doors and the windows of the ballet world are opening in that way, and they’re inviting much more well rounded ideas of dance into the repertoire.
Your training was very classical, though all of your projects since leaving NYCB have fallen into more of a contemporary realm. What do you think that you could have gained from contemporary training earlier on in your career?
As a younger performer I felt like I was improvising myself into contemporary understanding, and really seeking to understand how to move my body in that way. Only after I was doing my own project, Restless Creature, did I actually learn how to do a body roll, and I was in my late 40s. I was constantly wanting to learn how to move my spine in different ways. I think ballet dancers are hungry for that kind of ability to transform and jump from extreme to extreme.
Do you have any advice for young dancers who are hoping to get into companies that have a really diverse repertoire?
I think that the eye of directors and people in charge is opening up, and that there’s more of a quality of movement that they’re looking for rather than someone who can just balance or turn or jump. There’s more of an interest in honoring a dancer being able to link up the steps and move with a liquid quality. Directors are seeking real movers.