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From Injury To Recovery, A Ballet Dancer Fought To Retire On Her Own Terms

Oct 5, 2018
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Most dancers and athletes face a similar predicament. Their careers are virtually over in their late 30s or 40s, and then what? In 2013, at the age of 47, my guest Wendy Whelan, who was described in The New York Times as America's greatest contemporary ballerina, faced the end of her career as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet after a hip injury required surgery and months of rehabilitation and physical therapy. Against the odds, she was able to return to the company in the spring of 2014 and then gave her final performance that fall at the age of 47.

Retirement was inevitable even without the injury. Forty-seven is considered old for a ballet dancer. Retiring was a personal and professional crisis. Her life, her work, her identity revolved around the New York City Ballet with which she had danced with for 30 years. She's lucky. She can still dance in spite of the injury she sustained. Now she does contemporary dance.

Terry Gross interviewed Wendy Whelan in July of 2017. A little more than a year later, as the New York City Ballet begins its new fall season, the dance company is confronting issues which the #MeToo movement has brought into the light. This past January, artistic director Peter Martins resigned from the company after denying accusations of sexual harassment and physical and verbal abuse. He had led the company for over three decades. Also, a scandal involving the sharing of sexually explicit photographs of women shown non-consensually has forced the exits of three male dancers from the company.

The occasion for Terry's conversation with Wendy Whelan in 2017 was the release of a documentary about her final season with the ballet. The film, called "Restless Creature," is now available on Netflix.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Wendy Whelan, welcome to FRESH AIR. I know leaving the New York City Ballet was very difficult for you. It had been your life, your identity. Did it make it any easier to have a camera crew documenting that period of your life and being public about it, making it something interesting and worthy of sharing, something other people - dancers and other people would identify with?

WENDY WHELAN: That's a great question. It was a very difficult time. I did not want to make the film originally when it came my way. I didn't want to share this very unknown part of my life - unknown to me, complicated and confusing and very vulnerable. But I was sort of talked into it. I was talked into trying it. And I liked the footage that I saw, and I liked the directors and filmmakers that I was working with and the - especially the cameraman. He had done dance films before, so it was very comfortable. He knew exactly how to move in the studio or wherever I was with me.

And because it was such a difficult time, it turned into a supportive thing in a way. It was at times irritating to have a camera crew around me. But at the same time, it pushed me to bare myself, open my story up and to do it with confidence and to do it in a creative way.

GROSS: Was it a - kind of a preventive against wallowing (laughter)?

WHELAN: I think it kind of turned into that, yeah. It was a support. It turned into that in a weird way.

GROSS: My impression is you felt you might have been violating an unspoken ballet rule, which is that ballet dancers don't reveal their difficulties.

WHELAN: Exactly, exactly.

GROSS: Where does it come from? Like, what is that about?

WHELAN: I don't know. It's this ideal of perfection, of otherworldliness, of power and strength and confidence. That's what we try to emit on the stage in performance. In the studio, we have to, you know, be devoted with discipline and focus. You know, the humor comes in. Creativity comes in. And there's quite a bit of mess, but we don't want to show that to an audience. So that's part of the game. That's part of the thrill of it - to be a ballet dancer.

GROSS: What were your biggest worries about what your life would be like if you couldn't dance again?

WHELAN: Well, I didn't want to lose the voice I had physically, the mode of expression that I had and the - especially letting go the level of the expression that I had and changing the level. I knew it so well. You know, it's just like having a voice or having a talent at writing and then losing a part of that, losing a vocal cord or losing access to your, you know, hand to write it down. It just - it was terrifying to lose that mode of expression that I was so in touch with, that I so loved, that I so cultivated for my whole entire life.

GROSS: And it was your entire life.

WHELAN: It was.

GROSS: I mean, that was - dancing was and still is your life.

WHELAN: Yeah. I started when I was 3, and I retired ballet at 47. But I'm 50 now. And I just took class, and I did yoga this morning. And I moved my body, and I felt good. So I was happy about that.

GROSS: That's nice to hear. So once you realized after your hip surgery and after the rehabilitation and physical therapy - once you realized you could dance again but it was time to leave the extreme dance of the New York City Ballet, did it change your identity to leave the New York City Ballet? You'd been with that ballet for 30 years. That - I mean that was your - you were a principal. That was really, like, your identity. And it's one of the most famous ballet companies in the world.

WHELAN: Yeah. I moved to New York from Louisville, Ky., when I was 15. My ultimate focus was the New York City Ballet - getting in, hopefully - and thriving in that company. And I did. I was there as an apprentice when I was 17, joined when I was 19 and grew up there. You know, everything I experienced as an adult happened as a member of New York City Ballet. So it all connects to that place. So to leave it as an adult, going into it as basically a child, was scary, really scary.

GROSS: Yeah, I mean, like, who are you if you're not the principal of the New York City Ballet?

WHELAN: Yeah. And, you know, they give us our schedule a day or two days before, so I know every day what I'm supposed to do. And leaving York City Ballet, the world doesn't do that for me, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

WHELAN: I have to do that myself. So that was huge, you know, to sort of let myself know - oh, well, if you want to sleep in, you can sleep in. You know, that was like, what? You know, just letting go and releasing and relaxing a little bit was huge.

GROSS: Was letting go hard? I mean, was that something you didn't really know how to do?

WHELAN: I've been strapped in, you know - physically strapped into pointe shoes, strapped into a leotard and tights. My hair's been strapped up for my whole entire life. And to untie the shoes - I don't wear a leotard anymore. I wear a T-shirt. And I wear pants. I don't wear tights. I generally wear my hair looser or even in a braid now. I wear socks on my feet. I don't like to be constricted now. But that was safe then. I was terrified to be un-constricted. And now I don't know another way I'd rather be. So yeah, it was from one extreme, finding the safety in the other.

GROSS: When you were describing how you dress, are you talking about onstage or off?

WHELAN: Both - onstage and off. I wake up. I go to class at 10, 10:30 in the morning. I have a leotard on and tights on and shoes. And my hair is up. And I spend that day - well - like that until, you know, I rehearse all day. Then I go and do a performance, and everything becomes a little bit tighter (laughter), you know, including the nervous system. So everything's on a high ladder of, like, you know, I've got to succeed. I can't falter. I have to, you know, make that step happen. I have to feel in the zone in front of 3,000 people tonight.

And then coming off of that from a performance takes a while. Your adrenaline is pumped. And you calm down. And maybe you go to sleep at midnight or 1, or, if you can't sleep because you're nervous, later than that. And then you get up and you do it all again the next day. I did that for decades. And I don't consider myself a ballerina now. I'm a former ballerina now. So there's some of it still in there, but I don't try to attain what I was in the same way anymore. I've given it up. I've let it go. And it's life. And we all have to do that at some point.

GROSS: It's hard, sometimes, to do it in our culture because I think people are ashamed of getting older.

WHELAN: They're ashamed. Definitely.

GROSS: People don't hide their age the way they used to because it's pointless. All anybody needs to do is go on Google, so...

(LAUGHTER)

WHELAN: Exactly.

GROSS: ...Why bother to hide it? But still, I think people are very often very self-conscious about their age, especially in professions where you're judged by your age. And that covers a lot of professions. But when you're judged visually by your age, I mean, I'm sure that's one of the reasons why so many people get cosmetic surgery, you know?

WHELAN: Yeah. I've always been - I mean, I've always been proud of - I've always been, well, I'm this old. I've never lied about my age, you know? So...

GROSS: Yeah. But at the ballet, it must have been, like, wow, I don't know. She's, like - she's 45 now. When she's - when is she going to retire? How much more does she have left? Did you feel that from people?

WHELAN: I - you know, I heard, later in my career, my boss say, you're going to outlast some of your colleagues. Just physically, I can tell. And so I was revved up about that. I felt confident. Yeah, I am. You know, I sure am. And I did. But then at the same time, he's the one that said, OK, now maybe you should rethink doing this particular role or this particular thing and - you know? And so, you know, he's kind of the master of time - Mr. Time (laughter).

GROSS: What was your mix between anger and gratitude (laughter) when he told you maybe it's no longer time for you to be doing this role? And I think the role he was talking about was in "The Nutcracker," which you'd done every year.

WHELAN: Yeah. I was surprised. I went into the meeting thinking it was about something else. I had no idea that this was going to come up.

GROSS: And this was a meeting with the ballet master, Peter Martins.

WHELAN: Yeah. And because I hadn't had any real pain in my body - I mean, I knew I wasn't 28 anymore. But at the same time, I wasn't feeling pain and/or boredom. I still felt inspired. And so when it happened, I was like, what? Are you serious? It shocked me. And then it hurt really, really bad. And I cried a lot for a while. And I think the shock was what hurt the most because I didn't expect it.

GROSS: How long after that meeting did you get injured?

WHELAN: That happened in, I think, October of 2011. And by January 2012, I had pain. So two months. And the pain never stopped, in different areas of my body, for four years.

GROSS: Wow. That's a long time to be in pain.

WHELAN: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Wendy Whelan, who was a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet for 30 years. She retired from the company in 2014 after making a comeback following a hip injury. The new documentary "Restless Creature" is about that period of her life. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WEE TRIO'S "LOLA")

BIANCULLI: We'll get back to our interview in a minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Wendy Whelan, who was a principal ballerina with the New York City Ballet for 30 years. In 2013, a hip injury led to reconstructive surgery and months of rehabilitation and physical therapy. She returned to the New York City Ballet for the spring 2014 season and retired from the company that October after a triumphant performance. She now does contemporary dance. The new film "Restless Creature" documents the period of her life from her surgery to her comeback, a period during which she worried about whether she would dance again and how leaving the New York City Ballet would alter her identity.

How did you get the hip injury that led to your pain and to your surgery?

WHELAN: Came out of nowhere - literally came out of nowhere. I slipped on, ironically, September 11, (laughter) 2012. And I knew something had happened. It was the smallest slip, and - but I felt it deep in my - the back of my hip, hamstring area. And I thought, oh, I tore my hamstring, or I pulled my - I didn't imagine it would be a tear. And I couldn't do certain dances that season. I did some. I didn't do the ones I was really well-known for and wanted to do. And I waited a few months, didn't stretch it, still danced but just at a certain level. And then within three months, I couldn't close fifth position. And fifth position, if you don't know ballet, is the base of ballet. It's the most basic position that everything moves from. And I literally couldn't do that.

So that was a big shock. And I tried everything. I tried acupuncture. I tried - I was going to therapy. I tried massage. I tried everything you can imagine. I had injections, MRIs. And then the MRI came back and said there was inflammation in my hip. So I had my hip drained. And the doctor also did an ultrasound. And he said, oh, I see a complex labral tear. I was like, a tear? What do you mean, a tear? How could I get a tear, (laughter) you know? And I'm sure the tear was there forever. I just didn't know it, and - until it was discovered and - or it had gotten to a place that it was needing to be fixed. So I contemplated surgery, contemplated everything I could do to avoid surgery. And, ultimately, about eight months later, I was on the operating table getting reconstructive surgery.

The doctor didn't know to what degree the hip injury was when I went into the surgery. And a one-and-a-half-hour, two-hour surgery ended up being a four-hour surgery. And after the surgery, I was - I couldn't weight-bear for two months. I was on crutches for two months. And I was very often in a machine that kept my - the circulation going in my leg so that we could try to build new cartilage, grow new cartilage. So I did the best I could do to rehabilitate myself and got back slowly and still had troubles and tried to figure it out. Nine months later, I got back on stage and then performed a few more months. And then I retired from the New York City Ballet.

GROSS: How did it change your relationship to your body to be in pain and to not know if your body was going to work properly again? Your body is your source - the source of your pride, the source of your work, the source of your identity as a dancer. And it's also just, like, your home. I mean, we all live in our bodies. But your body was, like, a very special body.

WHELAN: Definitely. It was my home. It was my best friend. (Laughter) You know, and we could talk. We could fight. And we always found way to make peace throughout my career. You know, it started to tell me what to do, and I stopped demanding from it. So I had to soften up and empathize with my body and have a little more compassion for it and be grateful for what it did give me, which was a phenomenal 30-year career with arguably the best company in the world.

GROSS: You know, a lot of people think of ballet as being the ultimate in, like, femininity - you know (laughter), like a pink kind of femininity, like, frilly...

WHELAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...The tutu. Your approach at New York City Ballet was - it was almost like more of an extreme sport. I mean, you got your body into shapes and angles and doing jumps and getting lifted in ways that truly seemed to defy the laws of gravity and defy the laws of what the body is physically capable of. Would you describe a little for people who have not seen you dance some of the things that you did that were so typical for you but not typical for others?

WHELAN: Right. Well, I can take it back to when I was a kid. I was a very athletic child, very energetic child. And that's why I started dancing - was because I had a little too much energy (laughter). My mom said, let's get the middle one - the middle child out of the house in the afternoons, stick her somewhere where she can release that energy. So she put me into ballet. And my mom was a basketball coach, a college women's basketball coach - so very serious basketball family. I wanted to be an athlete first. I wanted to also be an artist. I was really good at drawing, and I wanted to either grow up and be an athlete or an artist. Unbeknownst to me, ballet was both.

And again, when I very first saw "The Nutcracker," the dance that appealed to me was not the "Sugarplum Fairy." It was not the "Waltz Of The Flowers." It was the "Arabian Dance." It was the muscular, the sinuous, more - almost modern dance of "The Nutcracker." That's the part I wanted to be. I didn't care for the pinkness of ballet. I never did. I was drawn immediately as a student at the School for American Ballet to sing my first performances of the New York City Ballet.

My first ballets that I loved where the Stravinsky ballets. And a lot of those Stravinsky ballets have a plucky quality or a pulled-out quality or a very angular quality, something that's not soft, something that's not voluptuous in a feminine kind of way. It's voluptuous in a geometrical kind of way. So geometry, athleticism, stark angles - that's me.

BIANCULLI: Wendy Whelan, a former principal ballerina with the New York City Ballet, speaking to Terry Gross in 2017. A documentary about her final season with the ballet called "Restless Creature" is now available on Netflix. After a break, we'll hear more of their conversation. And we'll also hear from jazz critic Kevin Whitehead, who commemorates the hundredth anniversary of the birth of bass player Jimmy Blanton, and film critic David Edelstein, who reveals the newest movie adaptation of "A Star Is Born." This one stars Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL BISIO QUARTET AND ROD SODERSTROM'S "A.M.")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 2017 interview with Wendy Whelan, who retired as a principal ballerina with the New York City Ballet in 2014 at the age of 47. It was her age, as well as her hip injury, that led her to leave the company after 30 years. The injury required surgery and months of rehab and physical therapy. She managed to return to the ballet briefly for an amazing comeback. She's since given up ballet, but she's still dancing - contemporary dance. Wendy Whelan is the subject of the documentary "Restless Creature," which is now available on Netflix.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: One of the - and I actually I forget which dance this is, so forgive me. But you do a thing with your partner. So like, your partner's kind of lifting you as you do a kind of cartwheel - a slow cartwheel in the air, making a full circle with your legs almost in a complete split as you're doing it.

WHELAN: Right.

GROSS: And that looks like an incredibly physically challenging thing to do, yet you make it seem so effortless. And it looks like you're just kind of floating, but you're not. I mean, gravity still exists when you're on stage. It doesn't stop for you (laughter). So can you talk about what you're physically doing in that particular move?

WHELAN: Yeah. That ballet you're talking of is called "Polyphonia." And that's the very last moment of the piece. And I always felt like I was a switchblade in that moment. My partner, Jock Soto - he was like a magician. And luckily for me, I got to partner with him for about 15 years. And he's holding me in a certain way. And he lifts me up like a jackknife from under my hips, under my bottom, sort of taking my hips high up into the air. And my legs are in a jackknife position. And he drops me back down, and he kneels at the same time. And I'm just sort of doing a back dive, holding onto my front foot, backbending with his support, rotating, cartwheeling backwards, catching myself on the floor with my hands, letting my legs follow me and sliding under his leg and to a kneel. And he kneels behind me, and we both look at the audience. And the lights fade. And it's just really, like, cool (laughter).

GROSS: And how does it physically feel? Does it feel like, wow, this is hard, I'm really exerting myself?

WHELAN: No.

GROSS: Or does it feel...

WHELAN: No.

GROSS: ...As fluid as it looks?

WHELAN: It feels heavenly. It feels like magic. It feels like it - like there's no other place I'd rather be than making that movement right there then, yeah.

GROSS: What's the importance of ballet shoes when you're a ballerina - like, having, like, the exact right shoe?

WHELAN: You mean, like, the pointe shoe...

GROSS: Yeah.

WHELAN: ...The one where you go up on your toe?

GROSS: The one where you go up on your toes, yeah.

WHELAN: It needs to fit like a glove. So it really needs to - you - we practice pointing our feet, working, exercising our feet so that we can articulate the joints in the feet and the - and create shapes, sculpting the feet because that's a huge part of our expression - the footwork. So when you get on a pointe shoe, you want to be able to follow through with that articulation and not have it break the line or break the movement or break your ability to express to the utmost with that foot.

I think most dancers now start pointe work at 12 or so. And all the way through your childhood and your young years, you're trying to get that right shoe to fit you just right and to make your foot shape just right so it's honest, true, strong, powerful, gorgeous.

GROSS: So you started dancing at the age of 3.

WHELAN: Yes.

GROSS: And by 12, you were diagnosed with scoliosis. How severe was it?

WHELAN: Severe enough that the doctors wanted to treat me for it with traction, body casting and ultimately a Milwaukee brace. So they wanted to halt the curve because if they didn't halt the curve when they found it, the curve probably would have accelerated to a place where I would have needed surgery, which ultimately would not have allowed me to have a ballet career. So we caught it really right at the crux of it either getting worse without treatment or halting and responding to treatment.

And being a dancer was a great thing, the doctor told me back then. He said the best things for scoliosis - this was in 1979 or 1980 - are swimming and ballet. I was like, great. And therefore my body was flexible enough that it really responded to the treatment quickly. I grew an inch and a half after a week of traction in the hospital, and the doctors were thrilled. And that really kind of pulled me away from the surgery side of things, whereas one of my hospital roommate didn't get so lucky, and she ended up having to get a rod in her spine.

GROSS: So when you had to wear a body cast, how did you keep up with dancing?

WHELAN: (Laughter) Well, I was in a 15-pound body cast. So imagine one of those down vests that you can get at North Face or one of the - basically that made out of plaster was what I lived in for - it ended up being a month at a time over five months one summer. And in between each casting, I would go back into the hospital and spend a week in traction with a head halter on and leather straps holding my hips down towards the base of the bed and 12 pounds pulling on my head on this head halter.

So as uncomfortable as that was, it really helped me straighten out my back. And then I would go into this body cast for a month at a time. And my teacher said to me at the time - living in Louisville, Ky. - she said, you know, you've done so well, and I don't want you to lose your focus during this treatment right now. So I want you to come into the studio in your body cast, and I want you to try to do whatever you can do. We don't expect you to do this. We don't expect you to do that. But just feel it out. Move your body. Keep your brain focused on what we're talking about in the class so that you just stay connected. And that was paramount. That shaped my whole life.

GROSS: The documentary about you, the new documentary "Restless Creature," ends with an excerpt of your final New York City Ballet performance. And then when you take your bow, like, everybody's coming up with a bouquet of roses. You have so many bouquets of roses. At some point...

WHELAN: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...You put them down, and they just look like too - they're bigger than you are (laughter).

WHELAN: Yeah.

GROSS: They look like too heavy to even carry at some point.

WHELAN: Yeah.

GROSS: What was it like waking up the next day? Do you remember that?

WHELAN: Yeah. It was funny. Yeah, my niece was there. She was, I think, 3 or 4 at the time, and we were pretending with a cat toy that we were fishing. You know, I was like, oh, yeah, I'm in retirement now.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WHELAN: I'm fishing, you know? (Laugher) I was like, yeah. And even on stage, I just felt like, you know - I think I bowed for nearly a half an hour. I don't remember quite how long, but people were like, you were bowed a long time at the end...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WHELAN: ...Of your show. And I just - I felt slowly like I was taking a skin off, like this kind of snakeskin. Like, I am now me. And you're seeing me, the goofy Wendy, just - I'm not trying to be who you all thought I was for so long. You know, I'm just - you know, just this girl. And I jumped like a little kid, you know, a little bit. And I had, like, bad posture. And I was, like, walking like a normal person in my bows.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WHELAN: And I was like, yeah, I'm just a human being, you know. And I've been this the whole time, but I haven't been able to show it.

GROSS: There's a moment in the film where you talk about how you can't watch the New York City Ballet because it's just too painful since you can't dance. At that point, you're still recovering.

WHELAN: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: So...

WHELAN: Well, that was - yeah...

GROSS: Yeah - sorry. But do you still have to deal at all with, you know, envy or - no?

WHELAN: No.

GROSS: Like, when you see, like, young dancers or when you look...

WHELAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...At the dancers in the New York City Ballet, do you...

WHELAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Wish, like, you could be back there, that you could be that again?

WHELAN: No. I did it. I did it, and I'm so proud of how I did it. And I'm proud of how I let it go. And I'm excited for these people that are in it now, loving it, living it, being it, finding themselves. I'm finding myself in a new, different place now, which is exciting. I would never want to go back, no.

GROSS: Well, I can't tell you how much I...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...Admire you. Thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been great to talk with you.

WHELAN: Thank you. It's been a thrill.

BIANCULLI: Wendy Whelan speaking with Terry Gross in 2017. The former principal ballerina for the New York City Ballet is the subject of the documentary "Restless Creature," which is now available on Netflix. Wendy Whelan is now working on a new solo performance project which is scheduled to premiere next summer and guest teaching across the country. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead remembers influential bass player Jimmy Blanton, who was born a hundred years ago today. And film critic David Edelstein reviews the new adaptation of "A Star Is Born," starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAKE MASON TRIO'S "THE STRANGER IN THE MIRROR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.