A Love Letter to Wendy Whelan

Ballerina retirements are always hard. There's a unique feeling of loss that comes with the knowledge that you'll never see a particular dancer onstage again—that that part of her life, and yours, is over.

But somehow, the luminous Wendy Whelan was able to make her final show with New York City Ballet a joyful event. Granted, there were still plenty of tears as she took her last bows on Saturday night. But while she's leaving NYCB, she's not leaving the stage. During this next year alone, she'll be touring her own repertory program, Restless Creature, and debuting a brand-new program in London. Wendy's* still got a lot of wonderful dancing left in her—which meant Saturday night's celebration marked a beginning as well as an ending.

And in that spirit, she chose to say goodbye to NYCB with a world premiere. Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky—choreographers who've molded some of their most memorable ballets on Wendy—teamed up to create By 2 With & From, a sweet tribute to their longtime muse. I especially loved Ratmansky's section, which was equal parts playful (Wendy, giggling, as frequent partners Tyler Angle and Craig Hall did little hip-bumps with her) and reverent (the final image of Wendy stretching toward the sky, like the Statue of Liberty). You can watch its perfect ending here.

(From left) Tyler Angle, Craig Hall and Wendy in By 2 With & From (photo Andrea Mohin/New York Times)

We saw Wendy dance some of her signature roles, too—parts she's stamped so indelibly that it's difficult to imagine others in them. She was whispery and ghost-like in George Balanchine's La Sonnambula, impish and exuberant in an excerpt from Jerome Robbins' Dances at a Gathering. The audience sobbed collectively as she floated through the now-iconic duet from Wheeldon's After the Rain. But my personal favorite was the pas de deux from Ratmansky's Concerto DSCH—a thoughtful, meditative piece, tinged with melancholy. I love that Ratmansky can make Wendy both a distinct individual and a kind of universal symbol, and her cool, serene presence elevates his choreography to a different plane.

At the end, there were flowers and confetti and a never-ending string of curtain calls. All kinds of ballet luminaries—from Jacques d'Amboise to Julie Kent to Jock Soto—came out to honor Wendy. This is a dancer who's as well-loved offstage as she is onstage, admired for her humility and generosity and kindness as much as her singular artistry. Wendy couldn't stop smiling. Neither, through my tears, could I.

(Photo Andrea Mohin/New York Times)

*The Dance Spirit style guide tells us to refer to respected professionals by their last names. But I'm going to break that rule this time around—because Wendy is the kind of dancer everyone feels like they're on a first-name basis with. She makes it personal. That's part of her greatness.

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