Ballerina Wendy Whelan is feeling antsy, as well she might. The former star of New York City Ballet has passed the age when everything is beautiful at the ballet. In her late 40s and scarred by surgery, her body won’t take any more. Yet the trouper in her refuses to quit; and she continues to crave artistic highs.
“Restless Creature,” the touring program Whelan presented on Tuesday at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, is a way to avoid retiring. This evening of four contemporary duets keeps Whelan in the spotlight without demanding she wear pointe shoes or take flying leaps. In each duet a different male choreographer partners her; and each of these cavaliers has his own, quirky style. Yet the duet format, combined with Whelan’s physical limitations, leaves this evening short on contrasts. Although the pieces are freshly commissioned, it’s hard not to feel a sense of déjà vu watching this attempt at one last fling.
As the program begins, a cello plays a see-sawing melody and the lights in the theater slowly dim, inviting us into a world of shadowy encounters. Choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo opens his own piece, “Ego et Tu,” splaying himself and signaling with his arms. When Whelan enters she’s an apparition, clothed in white and outlined with a fiery glow. The duet that follows is a cautious affair. They butt each other with their heads, yet the blows feel soft and weightless; and they prod each other delicately with limbs like feelers. When it’s over, they walk out, chummily embracing — a familiarity that rings hollow, since they have been so shy.
“Conditional Sentences,” by Joshua Beamish, is more stylish. It includes feet pointed in “tendu” and arms gracefully rounded, like memories of the ballet woven into sharp contemporary phrases. The music is by Bach and, at first, the dancers seem to preen for each other, invisibly connected like the symmetrical partners in a Baroque “danse à deux.” Standing close, they mesh without touching. Far apart, they avidly watch each other perform. Eventually their attention wanes, however, and the dance unravels. Exhaustion seems programmed into the choreography, like Whelan’s swoons. No sooner is a pose completed than it freezes and a piece breaks off. The body relaxes, and the dancer moves on. Finally “Conditional Sentences” shows the partners collapsing, lying on their sides next to each other on the floor.
The title of the next piece, “The Serpent and the Smoke,” suggests choreographer Kyle Abraham is going for allusion. When he emerges from darkness, his arm snakes like a serpent. Whelan flattens herself, wafting as gently as smoke. They face off and dance in parallel, but are these two compatible? Or have they simply happened to cross paths while wandering alone across a midnight landscape? Abraham’s piece feels unfinished, but maybe that’s because after nuzzling, gently taking hands and supporting each other, the dancers decide to go their own ways, vanishing and reappearing as they forage through patches of shadow.
So far the evening has made no physical or emotional demands upon its star (yawn), but Brian Brooks, author of the closing number, “First Fall,” won’t let her off so easily. The piece begins dramatically as side curtains rise, two by two, until Whelan and Brooks stand revealed, facing each other in profile across the empty expanse of the stage. Then he leaves, and she walks to the center swinging into action.
The carefree atmosphere doesn’t last long. When he returns, the two begin a nattering duet, nudging and grabbing each other and crossing limbs in a frantic exchange that’s nothing like the casual squirming of the earlier dances. She swivels in his arms and folds across him. When he threatens to come loose, she pulls him back in. As he carries her, her hair tousles and — at last — she becomes breathless.
Then the falling starts. Slowly and stiffly Whelan topples over like cut timber, with Brooks repeatedly crouching to catch her weight against his back. Whelan never freezes completely. Even tilted sharply to one side, she can still walk with Brooks crawling beside her and tented under her arm. When she rides his back, he can make her fly. Yet gravity will not be denied. When these two leave us they are perilously low to the ground, Whelan once again propped sideways against her partner, and Brooks straining to push them backward into darkness.
Growing old isn’t easy for any dancer, but at least men aren’t expected to be somebody’s “Muse.” Whelan’s restlessness may take a while to subside, as she grapples with a new idea. Her future now depends upon her judgment in assembling repertoire — proving she can be the boss — and not upon her figure and its capacity to inspire.
“Restless Creature” will be performed at The Joyce Theater in New York, May 26-31. Visit joyce.org for details.