NEW YORK — If anyone can dispel the toxicity of the past year at New York City Ballet, it is Wendy Whelan. So it was encouraging when the company announced Thursday that it was handing over its artistic reins to Whelan and another former dancer, Jonathan Stafford. They succeed Peter Martins, who retired at the beginning of last year amid allegations of sexual and physical misconduct.
When the pair gave a brief pre-curtain speech Thursday night, a beaming Stafford announced “the homecoming of one of the greatest artists in the history of New York City Ballet: Wendy Whelan.”
Whelan, who retired from the company in 2014 after 30 years, admitted she was nervous as she began to talk. It was endearing how she started to rock from side to side with straight legs. And if she faltered a bit, her sentiment came through clearly: She and Stafford, she said, want to “not only transform the company, but help lead and inspire the larger dance world as well.”
Whelan’s generous spirit, humor and intelligence will surely be a balm. As principal dancer Sara Mearns wrote on Instagram, “I’m dying to be in the studio w/Wendy again!!” Mearns was also full of praise for Stafford.
I’ve always supported the idea of seeing two people share City Ballet’s top position because of the job’s immensity. But there’s a problem here: equality. Stafford is to become artistic director of both City Ballet and its affiliated School of American Ballet; Whelan has been named associate artistic director of City Ballet.
The company has undergone much turmoil in recent months: Three male principal dancers were forced out after they were accused of sharing text messages of sexually explicit photos of women. In the current climate — something City Ballet and its board should know a thing or two about — elevating the job title of a man over a woman seems like a regressive, shortsighted and even cowardly act. It’s also a confusing one given that in an interview in The New York Times the two said that “they intended to work as partners.”
While City Ballet seems to be on the mend — you could sense it the moment Stafford and Whelan stepped onstage and were greeted with roars of approval and in the dancers’ elated bows Thursday — the new appointment signals an imbalance of power. Whelan’s professional relationship with Stafford is missing a prefix, as in co-artistic director.
At the same time, it’s progress. Whelan is the first woman to have a permanent leadership role on the artistic side at City Ballet.
Stafford, who has led an interim team since the resignation of Martins, possesses the kind of steady hand that has served the company, at least from the outside, well. He brought in former Balanchine dancers as coaches, as well as guest teachers for the company’s daily class.
Whelan brings something else. She may not have the experience of running a ballet company — few women do — but she has star power. (Stafford, solid and serious, can’t match her in charisma, and it’s best that he doesn’t try.) She certainly faces a steep learning curve. Until recently, she hasn’t done a great deal of teaching, coaching dancers or staging ballets.
Hopefully, she’s ready for those challenges and will be given ample chance to prove herself, to make mistakes and, most important, to become more than the public face of the company.
Neither Whelan nor Stafford is a choreographer, and that’s good: The last thing City Ballet needs is a return to the gloomy period of the 1990s when Martins was churning out one mediocre ballet after another. But what will their day-to-day duties be? It seems that Stafford will have the authority: running the company and the school and deciding who dances what. But some of City Ballet’s recent casting choices have been questionable; it has felt, uncomfortably at times, like friends casting friends instead of the best dancer for the part.
As associate artistic director, Whelan will focus on programming and commissioning works by choreographers, composers and other artists, as well as coaching and teaching. After leaving the company, she began to explore contemporary dance and to work with choreographers outside of the ballet world, including Kyle Abraham. Her taste is something I continue to wonder about — for her program of duets, “Restless Creature,” she seemed drawn to choreography based on how movement would feel on her body more than the resulting dance.
In her new position, she must be able to see the big picture. But there is reason for hope: Her recent project is a work by Lucinda Childs, the great postmodern choreographer. It’s possible that many City Ballet dancers, especially the younger ones, have never heard of Childs, who has been choreographing ballets in Europe for years. Whelan’s new job is an opportunity to impart, along with technique and musicality, some dance history beyond ballet, to be a bridge between the worlds of contemporary, or downtown dance, and its more classical uptown counterpart.
Whelan gets out into the world — recently, I’ve seen her at New York Live Arts and the Museum of Modern Art. It’s extremely important to know what’s going on in dance outside Lincoln Center: This is an art form that is not only about the body but also about ideas, and Whelan has demonstrated in her own career, especially post-retirement, a solid grasp of that.
But even before she started exploring dance outside of the City Ballet, Whelan was always a different kind of ballerina. Remembered for being angular, modern and sharp, during her final years at City Ballet she transformed into a dancer of such angelic authority that just watching her stand still on the stage could give you the chills. She knows a dancer doesn’t have to spend a career being typecast. She’ll fight against infantilism, particularly among the women.
A dancer can change, just as she did, and City Ballet will change, too. She concluded her onstage speech by talking about how the strength of the company had always come from the individual talent of its dancers, “showcased together by a strong sense of unity,” she said. “Tonight, we are united, and we are making history.” It was good and true.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.