When Wendy Whelan, thirty years a leading dancer of the New York City Ballet, commissioned four contemporary choreographers to make and perform duets with her, she must have known it would create problems. The temptations must have been legion: who could resist the task of inventing movement for someone who is by all accounts a star, much less the surely canonizing feat of sharing the stage with her in what is (as far as I know) the first time a dancer has dared to produce a show entirely built on her reputation as a muse? On the other hand, the question of the ego must have loomed perilously behind each creation—what vocabularies could be used, what statements could be made, and what relationships could be portrayed on such an occasion—to venerate, to cooperate, to dominate? These choices must have been difficult when they seemed like they might be personal.
The problem with stardom is that it must be personal. As many have noted, George Balanchine objected to the “star system” of European ballet; the New York City Ballet’s website quotes him as preferring that “dance be the star of the show.” Nevertheless, even if choreographers, directors, marketers, and the whole apparatus of the business do not put forth stars, stars will be found—loftier, more brilliant, visible across the years—our senses would have failed us if we could not spot stars, and how else would we know where we were and in what condition the art and the human lay without them to guide us? But then it becomes tricky to separate the artist from the art—though perhaps initially loved through the work, the star accumulates an aura beyond the scope of the art, trespassing into a desire for the person and what we imagine or claim as her essence—the concept is somewhat at odds with the work of performing, especially in an age when one is expected to be able to be and do everything, that one might be rather more loved for those parts of oneself that remain untransformed by or unabsorbed into the work itself.
General speculations aside, the 55-minute program offered four solutions to the problem of choreographer plus star, each a testament to minimalism on a blank stage. A curtain that never dropped. 0, 1, or 2 dancers onstage at any given moment. No intermissions. 3 dances that began with a solo by the choreographer. 2 dances that ended with its participants together. 2 dances that ended with the choreographer alone on the stage. The constant among these variables, Whelan never seemed to sweat or even breathe, entering, exiting, and slipping in and out of costumes with the utmost poise.
Alejandro Cerrudo’s Ego et Tu resembles a Calder mobile, with Cerrudo and Whelan as geometric expressions of a single principle of lankiness, a quality characterized by length that strains at the edge of beauty and awkwardness. They sketch the space with their limbs, morph the body into a series of melting textures, demonstrate how the joints of the skeleton hang together. They collide in a way that would be in another universe called a head-butt, but it never hurts, and they never break, since the surfaces they’re contained by seem well-oiled. He briefly suspends himself in a handstand on her back, but there is never any drama to it—only space, balance, impulses, and physics. It ends when it wants to.
Joshua Beamish’s Conditional Sentences is voguing to Bach. No, really, it is. He poses, and she poses, and in between they watch each other and walk, but there’s Bach and there’s demi-pointe, and that makes it sort of like ballet. The effect is simultaneously jarring and conservative, bringing the issue of vocabulary to the forefront. Beamish is a thoroughly grounded dancer who does attitude turns like he’s drilling into bedrock; Whelan executing phrases he made looks lightweight and unable to transcend the relentless hauteur of her own spine and the extreme straightness of her legs. The piece is conversational in form but without the spontaneity of true conversation, like practicing dialogues in a second language from a book—though the duet produced the one moment of the night when Whelan cracked a smile, presumably a mistake. They finish collapsed on the floor in a heap.
The stage lights dim for Kyle Abraham’s The Serpent and the Smoke, which makes the stage over as an arena or a lair, a zone for confrontation. Abraham is a shadowy liquid, hovering in lush suspense when he’s not lashing about in swift outbursts of motion. Whelan comes in like a warrior. Her hair comes loose. Her limbs come loose, though there remains the reference to the cardinals of line. She drifts off, retreating in a long diagonal upstage. He stays.
The lights come up again for Brian Brooks’s First Fall, and with it, the wings and then the scrim at the back of the stage. The music is by Philip Glass. These are all moves we have seen before, a piece announcing its independence from plot and ceremony, which has become a ritual of its own kind. Whelan stands alone, upstage right, in a light silk dress, hair still loose, majestic and imposing. She somehow is the same in every piece—but of course, we are here to see her. Brooks seems to understand this better than anyone else. Dressed in dark, nondescript clothes, he hunches over, supporting her as she walks, arcing each leg up in a stylized attitude. He’s not meant to be seen, and though the posture and the undertaking lack grace, he is steady and silent as a beast of burden, as a good man is in the adagio of a pas de deux. He doesn’t leave her side. She falls, and he catches her, over and over again. He lifts her up like a bird, like a cross, like a jet, like a symbol. It is celestial in its simplicity, and it answers all the questions about what to do—lift her up and let her fall and then be there to catch her.