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Brave New World: Wendy Whelan and Edward Watson on teaming up for a leap into the unknown

The former New York City Ballet dancer and current Royal Ballet Principal on stepping into unknown territory and finding common ground.

By Jenny Gilbert (Dance journalist)

10 February 2015 at 10.22am | 2 Comments

A Venn diagram is a useful thing. While it would take half a page of print to explain the – until now – tenuous connection between the dancers Wendy Whelan and Edward Watson (she American, he British), in diagrammatic form it’s the work of a moment. Draw a circle and mark it ‘New York City Ballet’. Draw another labelled ‘The Royal Ballet’. In the lozenge where they intersect, write ‘Christopher Wheeldon’.

The two star dancers have followed distinctly different paths, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, and only once, briefly, have their trajectories crossed in a joint performance, and that was a decade ago. But they have a common denominator in the choreographer they both know as Chris, for whom each of these dancers has been a major inspiration. Edward, as many readers will know, was Wheeldon’s first casting choice for jealous king Leontes in his adaptation of The Winter’s Tale. He was also the model for his White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, to mention only the most recent roles. For her part, Wendy retired from New York City Ballet last year after 30 years with the company, the latter half of which saw her feature in almost every piece of work Wheeldon set his hand to in New York. So when someone said ‘you two should do something together’, neither dancer had to think twice about it. For not only did they share a history as Wheeldon muses, but each also wanted something of what the other appeared to offer.

Edward says he has always admired Wendy, ‘not just for how she looks on stage, but for her quietly focused approach to everything. It might be to do with being American, but she has that quality more than most and that’s how I want to be’ Wendy, meanwhile, is ready for a new direction, post-City Ballet. ‘If I see an open window with something interesting on the other side, metaphorically, I’m going to grab it,’ she says. ‘Ed has done a load of dramatic roles and I haven’t, but I have a desire to do that. Somebody once told me “If you want something, find someone who has it and hang around them”. I like to think if I spend enough quality time with Ed, it’ll open that part of me up.’

The spur to their coming together was Edward’s trip to New York with The Metamorphosis, Arthur Pita’s dance-theatre adaptation of the Kafka story in which Edward plays the travelling salesman who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect. Wendy went along to see the show, loved it and afterwards Ed introduced her to the choreographer. ‘They got on really well so I said “Why don’t we ask Arthur to be the first person to make something for our show?”’

The three met again last August around the time of Wendy’s visit to the Linbury Studio Theatre with her touring programme Restless Creature. This time the meeting with Arthur Pita got down to business in a dance studio. Wendy hadn’t known what to expect, ‘but Ed said “Trust me on this” and I’m glad I did. Just this little play-around session we had, which lasted a few hours, was exactly what I was looking for – a new approach.

‘Arthur’s not a ballet choreographer, but I’m really happy about that. This felt more like being in an improv acting class and it was an answer to a prayer. I don’t know if I'd have been ready for this a few years ago, but now the soil is very fertile.'

Both Wendy and Edward are wary of giving too much away, but Edward is prepared to divulge that Arthur Pita's segment of the programme 'will be a story about two people. In the workshop, we basically just got to know each other again, discovering how each other moved... Arthur is working with the idea of the tango, a formal confrontation between two people, and we're playing around with some music and lyrics that suggest Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera. Whether or not that will be the final music, that's the kind of relationship these two people have.'

The evening will ultimately comprise three duets and two solos. A single designer – Jean-Marc Puissant – will give a unified look to the programme ‘and there will be a  soundscape that links everything’, according to Ed,  although he’s not naming names. Both of the dancers are clear about what they don’t want the evening to be. ‘We’ve seen a lot of those shows where you each do your thing  and then everyone claps, and then you have a little pause  or a video clip before the next number. There’s nothing wrong with that but we want this to be different. So we’re going for an hour straight through, with one costume to which we can add or subtract things as we go. A lot  of modern dance can end up looking a bit similar.  I want this to be specifically about us two and where we  are now in our dancing lives.’

Physically as well as culturally, Wendy and Ed make an intriguing match. Both are notably long limbed, whippet-lean and hyper-flexible, qualities that choreographers have been happy to exploit over the years. In addition, Wendy, by her own admission, has ‘a crooked back, I have scoliosis.  That limits a certain range of motion, but it enhances  other shapes I can make well. I have a lot of asymmetry  and it’s something not every choreographer understands how to work with. In fact, it hasn’t been a handicap at all, but my doctors are always amazed – they can’t believe that I do what I do. But I’ve dealt with it since I was 12 years old and luckily I had some very good treatment at a young age, so I learned how to support my spine and work with it. The older I get, the more I have to think about it, because it tends to solidify with age. So I have to keep it as malleable and free as possible and I’m on a quest to keep it as juicy as I can.’

As Edward sees it, Wendy is ‘kind of fascinating to look at, but you don’t ever think “her back looks a bit wonky.” You get drawn in. It is truly amazing the ability she has to draw you in and stop time, almost. She still has this magnificence; it’s nothing flashy, more a kind of stillness about her, a focused simplicity.’

All being well, that mature artistry will be magnified to the power of two in their coming collaboration, given Edward’s long experience as a partner as well as a soloist. ‘I think the trust level will be really deep and special because of that, Wendy concludes. ‘We’re both experienced, we’ve both been around the block – we know what we want, we know what’s meaningful to us. And the chemistry is what I really want to show – in lots of different choreographic forms.’

This article was originally published in the Royal Opera House Magazine, received quarterly by the Friends of Covent Garden.

This article has 2 comments

  1. Sarah responded on 10 February 2015 at 11:16pm Reply

    Please can you tell us when we will see this performance.

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