On October 18, Wendy Whelan, 47, stood on the stage at the David H. Koch Theater in New York and bade farewell to her admirers. A principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, Whelan began her career with the company in 1984 as an apprentice. Over and above her superb technical skills, she possesses an extraordinary stage personality, which inspired many great choreographers to create remarkable solo passages for her.
“She’s resolute and vulnerable, incisive and responsive, rapturous and bleak, angry and funny, implacable and compassionate, enthusiastic and inquiring,” the New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay wrote on the day after her farewell performance.
But Whelan is special not only because of her late retirement age. She represents a vanishing cultural and artistic credo, which views the dancer (especially the principal dancers) as the center of the work. The company’s other principal dancers, including Sara Mearns and Tiler Peck, are superstars in every respect. They have tens of thousands of followers on Instagram, a devoted public of fans that responds to every photograph and video clip, and are featured in fashion and accessories campaigns. On the other side of the world, at the Bolshoi, it’s the dancers performing the principal roles on a particular evening who draw people to the performance. The lure is not the choreography, but the performance and the performers.
The common perception is that this approach is mostly typical of classical ballet, but for decades outstanding modern dancers were also a focus of attraction for the public. Many of them subsequently became choreographers, and exploited the love of their fans to fill halls.
However, in recent years, and particularly in Israel, it’s the choreographers who have positioned themselves at center-stage. Here, it’s the names of the choreographers – such as Ohad Naharin, Rami Be’er and Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak – that sell tickets, and only secondarily, if at all, particular dancers.
Many dance companies in Israel only list the dancers’ names in the program, not even bothering to add their photographs. Even if this is a budget-based decision, to cut down on marketing expenses, it is an implicit declaration of priorities. The audience, in other words, is not meant to take an interest in the identity of the dancers; they are tools through which the work of the choreographer is carried out.
The execution, and more specifically its technical aspects, is increasingly losing its significance for dance creators. True, paying meticulous attention to execution is partially an echo of a conservative (even outmoded) conception of art. But it also represents a splendid element, notably in dance, and should certainly not be consigned to oblivion.
A choreographer’s legacy should include dancers whose names are known far and wide, no less than his own.