The Brown Theatre was packed on Saturday night as Louisvillians came out to support and enjoy native daughter Wendy Whelan in her groundbreaking four-duet program. The performance Saturday night was impeccable.
Much has been made of Whelan’s “retirement” from the New York City Ballet; but with her Wendy Whelan New Works Initiative it is clear that one ending is creating opportunities to embrace new ways of working. The Restless Creature program features choreography by Alejandro Cerrudo, Joshua Beamish, Kyle Abraham and Brian Brooks, who also dance each duet they created with Whelan.
The evening begins with “Ego et Tu” by Cerrudo. Whelan has said that Cerrudo’s choreography is closest to “home” for her in its balletic references. Beginning with a solo for Cerrudo, he then retreated up stage and from seemingly nowhere lifted Whelan into the space. Together the interweaving of their arms and bodies created a symbiosis that allowed them to explore I and You as both discrete and interdependent. There is one particular tableau, in which Whelan supports Cerrudo, that brought the evening’s first audible response.
Beamish’s “Conditional Sentences” was created this year, and thus is new to the Restless Creature program, which premiered in 2013. (Whelan postponed a Louisville performance last spring as she recovered from surgery.) Set to Bach’s “Partita No. 2 in C Minor BMV 826” and played by the inimitable Glenn Gould, this piece feels like an homage to mid-2oth Century storyless modern classical ballet while at the same pushing the envelope of the style. His crisp and sharp figures are also delightfully playful as Beamish and Whelan interchange delicate hand and head movements, as each sets the conditions for a subsequent interchange.
“The Serpent and The Smoke” shifts the mood of the program exponentially, as choreographer Kyle Abraham silently and vividly erupted into the audience’s consciousness after the briefest pause following the previous piece. Abraham and Whelan are compelling in this piece; whether they are directly connected or echoing sequences in different areas of the stage their form is perfectly synchronized in shape, attitude, and phrasing.
The finale, Brian Brooks’ “First Fall”, generated audible breaths as he and Whelan explored falling and rising, dropping and lifting, in a complex interweaving of bodies giving and taking weight and balance. Set to a variety of musical accompaniment, including Philip Glass, and also judiciously using silence, “First Fall” pushes the boundaries of what might be considered dance in provcative ways. Brooks and Whelan demonstrate the inherent tension of making these sequences seem effortless and, at the same time, performing the effort such intricate articulation requires.
These four brief pieces collectively cover a huge expanse of contemporary choreography. Each of the choreographers is an excellent dancer, attested to by their enthusiastic reception from the audience, but the evening is Whelan’s as, in under an hour, she unconditionally slips into the world of each choreographer. Joe Levasseur’s lighting design serves each piece distinctively, helping to sculpt the bodies’ forms and shapes evocatively. The closing moments of “The Serpent and The Smoke” were particularly strong.
“Vantage Point”, Whelan’s intimate photo exhibit is on show at the LVAA’s Public gallery through March 31. From her unique position in the wings and in the dressing room, Whelan has created a charmingly idiosyncratic visual journal of her career. At a reception earlier this week Whelan reflected on her childhood years when her family introduced her to the arts here in Louisville–the ballet of course, but also theatre, painting and more. A cogent reminder that when we take a child to an arts event we could be laying the seeds for another great artist.
Whelan’s photography and her embracing of the physical demands of contemporary dance, at a time when many dancers truly retire, are a powerful testament to the dynamism of this enchantingly restless creature. Wendy Whelan’s newest dance project is scheduled to premiere in London later this year. Here’s hoping that Louisville will be on her calendar when U.S. performances are scheduled.