Wendy Whelan: Focused from the Start, Uncommonly Energetic, Ever-Changing
  • Completed on: Jul 13, 2015
  • Department: Center for Outcomes-Based Orthopaedic Research

Wendy Whelan: Focused from the Start, Uncommonly Energetic, Ever-Changing

One of the world’s great ballerinas reflects on her career, takes on new challenges

She started dancing at the age of three and performed with the Louisville Ballet before she was 10. At 14, she won a summer scholarship at the prestigious School of American Ballet in New York. A year later, the teenager moved to New York to live, study, and dance. She never left.

In 1986, she became a member of the New York City Ballet, and in 1991 was named Principal Dancer.

Twenty-three award-winning years later, on Saturday, October 18, 2014, the world-renowned Wendy Whelan gave a farewell performance at the sold-out Lincoln Center in New York City. In the audience was an orthopaedic surgeon from Vail, Colorado. His presence at her performance, as you will soon learn, was not a coincidence.

Energy Produces Energy

Among the many expressions that have been used to describe Whelan’s personality are “the most modest dancer who ever lived,” “disarmingly down-to-earth,” “generous,” “confident,” “brilliant,” and of course, “exceptional” and “gifted.”

“She is New York’s treasure,” announces choreographer, dancer, and artistic director Stephen Petronio. “The longevity of her career has been astounding.”

“Wendy Whelan is just an extraordinary artist,” says British choreographer and director, Wayne MacGregor. “She’s like a racehorse—she has this thoroughbred kind of body.”

But a recurring theme surfaces when Wendy’s personality is discussed. The theme is “energy,” and it didn’t start with her.

Her father, an accountant, was a runner in college. Wendy’s mother, Kay Whelan, is a Louisville legend—Hall of Fame, mother of three, cancer survivor, ex-physical education teacher, and former high school and college basketball coach. A Louisville paper referred to her as “the incomparably energetic Whelan.” Apparently, she passed that energy on to Wendy.

The New York Times reported that, as a child, Wendy had “inexhaustible reserves of energy.” When she took to landing jumps on her little sister, Leigh, Kay Whelan “hauled her off” to Ginny Wooton, a Louisville ballet teacher.

“After that,” said Ginny, “Wendy was absolutely obsessed.”

Sister Leigh survived those early jumps nicely and is now a homicide detective in Louisville.

“I loved playing sports as a kid,” says Wendy. “I was a fast runner, did a little diving, and went to basketball camps. I dabbled in other sports, but I was always involved with ballet. I wanted to grow up to be an artist or an athlete. It was only later that I realized dance is both of those things combined.”

When asked if she was ever tired after taking ballet classes and rehearsing for three to six hours before an 8:00 pm performance, she laughed at the the notion.

“No, no, my motto is ‘energy produces energy.’ The more energy I exerted, the more energy I would get. It was always three hours of dancing a day, every day except Monday, no matter what. I felt like the Energizer Bunny.”

Making Obstacles Advantages

In spite of her athleticism, artistry, and energy, success was not easy. Ballet dancers do well with slightly “turned out” hip joints. Wendy’s hips weren’t turned out.

At 12, she was diagnosed with idiopathic (adolescent) scoliosis. She wore a brace for four years, spent time in traction, and for six months was in a hip-to-shoulder body cast for her curved spine.

“I got past it,” she says, “but there was always a side that was weak and not fully symmetrical. I learned how to make that not a handicap, but an advantage. As I became an older dancer, it started to bother me again and caused some instability issues. But overall, I’ve had good musculature. I think I got some of the physicality from my grandmother.”

In 2003, she tore the plantar fascia tissue in her left foot during the middle of a performance at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. “I continued with the piece by staying on my toes because I couldn’t put my heel down. I altered things a little bit, but not so much that the audience would notice. We finished it, my partner carried me to dinner, carried me to the airport, and I flew home. Four months in a boot.”

More recently, she began having trouble with her right hip. She slipped during a class, then slipped again in rehearsal the same day. She also strained her hamstring twice. “Whatever it was,” she says, “my hip was never the same.”

The Surgeon From Vail

Her orthopaedist and physical therapist suspected she might have a torn labrum (the rim around the top of the hip joint). They also said that if she did have a labral tear, the only person she should consider seeing was Dr. Marc Philippon of The Steadman Clinic and Steadman Philippon Research Institute in Vail.

“I didn’t want to believe it was as bad as it was, but Dr. Philippon thought he could be helpful if I wanted to pursue surgery. It took a while, but I decided to have reconstruction hip surgery in Vail in August of 2013.”

[Dr. Philippon developed the technique and refined it through his research at the Steadman Philippon Research Institute. It is now used as standard procedure throughout the world.]

“My experience at The Steadman Clinic was phenomenal. I got there on Sunday, had surgery on Monday, and flew back to New York on Friday. The day Dr. Philippon performed the procedure, I was up, walking on crutches, and riding a bike at the hospital.”

Wendy returned to the stage in April of 2014 and performed regularly until her previously planned retirement from the New York City Ballet in October 2014. Dr. Philippon was there, as he was for a performance in April.

“I can’t put into words the level of care I received from Dr. Philippon,” says Whelan. “He is one of the warmest physicians and individuals I’ve ever experienced. He has given back to me my career and my life. He’s a force of nature.”

“When I think of The Steadman Clinic and the Steadman Philippon Research Institute,” says Wendy, “I think of a group of individuals who are in the forefront and pioneers, developing new surgical procedures and understanding the kinds of injuries that result from sports, dance, and active lifestyles.”

“They define new levels of excellence—always thinking about the future and how to make things better. They go non-stop; won’t sit still. And they are connected to physicians and researchers all over the world who are forward-thinkers at the highest level.”

Three New Projects

Wendy Whelan has a unique ability to continuously reinvent herself. Since her final performance with the New York City Ballet, she has moved forward with three new projects. Restless Creature, in which she performs separate duets with four young choreographers, began touring in January. A different performance will debut in London in August, and a third will open in New York in November.

Like Dr. Philippon and his colleagues in Vail, she just can’t sit still. Always going. Non-stop.

“I will continue to perform, teach, and explore my craft,” she says. “I’m thankful to Dr. Philippon for letting me continue to do that.”

The Master Speaks

Whether you are part of the ballet world or not, a person with whom you might be familiar offered a concise, profound observation regarding the extraordinary life and ever-changing career of Wendy Whelan.

“She’s the best.” — Mikhail Baryshnikov

For more about Wendy Whelan, go to wendywhelan.org.

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