As they rehearsed for an upcoming performance in the apocalyptic “Rite of Spring,” two dancers in the Kansas City Ballet recently got advice from the legendary ballerina who’d helped create the role.
Wendy Whelan served as the muse for many choreographers during a career that spanned three decades as principal dancer for New York City Ballet. But what brought her to Kansas City in late April was her work with choreographer Adam Hougland in 2009, creating the part of The Chosen One in the ballet set to Igor Stravinsky’s score.
As Whelan and Hougland watched dancers Angelina Sansone and Kaleena Burks from the sidelines at the Todd Bolender Center for Dance & Creativity, Whelan said it was fun to see new artists find their way.
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen anybody do my steps,” she said with a light laugh. “I call them 'my steps' because I’ve only known doing the role, and that was six or seven years ago. It’s fun to see other people taking on the steps and trying on the clothes and finding their own way to tailor them.”
With their long hair thrashing in the air, Sansone and Burks moved stiffly and violently to Stravinsky’s wild rhythms. Hougland and Whelan watched, and then gave feedback.
“Maybe think that she’s breathing in this new air for the first time,” Whelan said, with a swift intake of air. “So you keep your chest up a little and you also have that curiosity for your new territory.”
“The more you color your story and the more you etch it out in your brain,” said Hougland, “it’s gonna be more fun for you and more fun for everybody.”
Hougland has described The Chosen One as a figure that is pure, natural and innocent entering a brutal modern world that has lost touch with nature.
Sansone said having a contemporary legend of dance there to guide her was invaluable.
“We are putting ourselves in her hands and we trust her,” Sansone said. “Dancers are a special breed. We’re gentle and we’re kind and we’re supportive. Having somebody up at the front of the room who was a dancer that did this part — she knows how hard this is. She knows what goes into it, so you trust her to give you the best advice.”
Whelan said being coached by other great dancers helped early in her career. Distinctly different teaching styles she encountered along the way informs the way she helps dancers today.
“At one point, I had Maria Tall Chief coach me," said Whelan. “She coached down to my fingers, down to my eyelashes. Every detail was mapped out and clear cut and developed. And I was like, wow, ok, that was a lot of incredible information and I was so grateful. But at the same time it was intimidating to think I have to remember every detail.”
The day after her experience with Tall Chief, Whelan received different advice from ballerina Tanaquil LeClercq.
“I showed the same piece to her and I was like, 'What do you have to say to me?' And all she said to me was, 'Be yourself.' So the idea of having all the details, and then allowing myself to be myself with those details — I was in heaven. I loved having that experience and I try to be able to do that now.”
An excerpt of Whelan dancing in the world premiere at Louisville Ballet can be found here.
Kansas City Ballet’s Spring program also includes Helen Pickett’s Petal, Yuri Possokhov’s Diving into the Lilacs, and a world premiere by Viktor Plotnikov. The show runs May 6-15, at the Muriel Kauffman Theatre at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway, Kansas City, Mo.
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her @juliedenesha.
The Artists In Their Own Words series is supported by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.