The day before taking a road trip up to Jacob’s Pillow to see Restless Creature, I took down my costume design website. Over the last two years my artistic focus has shifted from designing and sewing to visual art and writing. I officially ended all of my design work in May, but somehow this more recent move to delete my online portfolio felt seismic in proportion.
The next morning I picked up my traveling companion feeling light and unburdened from the act of shedding an identity. We were both eager to vacate the city and see our mutual friend Kyle Abraham challenge the ballerina Wendy Whelan with his street inflected moves. We drove with the sunroof open, inhaling the fresh country air despite the pollenated atmosphere irritating the allergies of my passenger. Our timely arrival at The Ted Shawn Theater, a veritable dance church, could have been announced with bells. And in fact, a quaint cowbell was rung to urge the audience into the house. There was a buzz of excitement among the crowd as we filed into that hallowed barn, believers anticipating a transcendental experience. The dance gods, feeling kind and generous, did not disappoint.
In the first of four duets that comprise Restless Creature, Alejandro Cerrudo’s Ego Et Tu was a smart introduction as it utilized Whelan to the fullest. The rather asymmetrical and sinewy Whelan, nothing if not unique in the symmetrical world of ballet, excelled in the liquid style of her partner, Cerrudo. Beginning with two solos—first Cerrudo introducing the vocabulary, followed by Whelan’s spirited response—followed by a duet, the dance had a cinematic quality to it. The dancers were bathed in a romantic sphere of light. Black drapes stretched across the background allowing the two to appear and disappear. There was a motif of two heads butting together, and fleeting movement phrases of slips and catches. Capitalizing on the featherweight possibilities inherent in Whelan’s lean frame, Cerrudo played with illusion in his partnering of her. When the two reached for each other, Whelan effortlessly lifted her legs, creating a lift without any preparation or upward movement of her partner’s arms. Suspended between two worlds, floating between earth and air, caught in the present moment, the image is a lasting one and served as beautiful subtext for a production that appears to be charting the next move for a mature and much beloved ballerina.
In contrast, Joshua Beamish’s Waltz Epoca had less to hold onto. With constant musical and lighting shifts, jarring sound effects, and a dramatic costume change, the dance was more of a frantic time machine alternating between past, present, and future. The two more often mirrored each other’s quirky movements than partnered, and in that, Whelan, ever the diligent pupil, often took Beamish’s lead. About halfway through, a large square light fixture descended from the rafters that Beamish sent into full swing over Whelan, now crouched into a child’s pose. Waves of shadow and light washed over her bony spine. The gradations of light continued to rock as she explored her surroundings on the floor in their wake, terra incognita for a ballerina. In what felt like a constant churn of convoluted ideas and concepts, this was a quietly striking and poetic moment of contemplation.
After an intermission spent taking in communion with the other entertainments of Jacob’s Pillow—strolling a winding path on the lush grounds, listening to show tunes on the Inside/Outside stage, and checking out an installation of large prints from Jordan Matter’s Dancers Among Us exhibited in the lobby—the show continued with Kyle Abraham’s mysterious and evocative dance, The Serpent and the Smoke. Opening with Abraham rippling, flailing, and chopping at the air stage right, Whelan bravely took stage left to join him in what seemed to be a pursuit of personal demons. Two searchlights in the upstage corners shined an unsettling and opaque orange hue downstage, silhouetting the bodies convulsing in front of them. Eventually Whelan and Abraham wound themselves into near-perfect unison, circling each other warily. It seemed like purposeful pushing of Whelan’s boundaries as she struggled valiantly to keep up with Abraham’s frenetic side. And though he evaded her momentarily with swift rolls across the floor, he eventually got caught in her adagio web; alternating as supports for each other as she lifted a high developpe leg and he descended into a low back bend. Ending too quickly and as strangely as it began, Whelan was left alone onstage, hair down, her body like a rag doll being pulled by an invisible force on a diagonal towards the light. In a manic act of transference, where roles of pursuer and pursued seemed to be constantly in flux, The Serpent and the Smoke plumbed the dark depths of influence, inspiration, and identity.
The program finished with Brian Brooks’s First Fall, a show-stopping duet to Philip Glass. Beginning with Whelan, all elbows and shoulders, Brook’s connect-the-dots way of moving appeared simultaneously new and natural to her, like a child riding a bike for the second time. Upon entering, Brooks promptly swept her up in a series of near misses and awkward grabs; as they traversed the stage their pas de deux was full of a kind of functional busywork. And if “less is more” can often be wished on the contemporary dance world, in this case, more was definitely more, as their arms moved in and out of each other’s negative space faster and faster. Though the hypnotic momentum was built only to be spectacularly broken, first with Whelan’s slow motion runs across the stage, arms spread freely behind her. This feat, like the many falls that followed, was made possible through Brooks’s uncanny ability to act as sympathetic scaffolding for his partner. In a mesmerizing sequence, Whelan, stiff as a board, fell repeatedly down on top of Brooks. He used his body to prop her up to standing, while she simply put one foot in front of the other. The resulting supported walk, explored the range from horizontal to diagonal to vertical while encapsulating the themes of the duet: leverage, force, and trust. In creating such a highly agile architecture for Whelan, Brooks allowed the ballerina to break through to whatever might be on the other side.
While no timeline has been set for her retirement from NYCB, Restless Creature asserted that Whelan’s future, as one of our generation’s most important dancers, remains positively open. As for the four choreographers, these duets succeeded in representing diverse approaches and aesthetics while coming together surprisingly well in a cohesive and challenging program of dance. And as for my own recent resurrection from designer to writer, this show provided a welcome sermon on personal and professional transformation and a glowing example of how to flourish in the unknown.