Ballet legend Wendy Whelan shares wisdom with local dancers

MIDDLEBURY — World-renowned ballerina Wendy Whelan’s master class at the Middlebury College Dance Theater last Wednesday was filled with lively sounds — piano and percussion, encouragement from an elite artist and plenty of laughter.
The sounds that spoke most to the magnitude of the occasion, however, were the sounds of silences broken by synchronized gestures made with great concentration: the whisper of toes across the floor; the squeak of leather slippers twisting through pirouettes.
For the 40 people who managed to get a ticket to the 90-minute class, which was open to the public, learning from and interacting with Whelan — a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet for 23 years whose repertoire included more than 50 ballets — was a very big deal.
“It was the equivalent of having an A-list actor come and visit the film department,” said Maggie Phillips, a senior dance major at Middlebury College. “She’s probably one of the most famous ballerinas in the world. But it was cool because she’s really nice and fun as a person.”
For Phillips, who dances in the “modern” style, the master class was interesting and sometimes difficult, she said.
“It was funny to have spent so much of my life dancing but then to be so challenged in the class like that. Ballet is different from contemporary dance, which is much looser.” Still, she said, “it was a unique experience to work with someone so famous in another branch of dance.”
The class, which focused on strong and efficient positions for the body and on using the body the way it was meant to be used, has inspired Phillips to explore proper alignment in her own practice, she said.
Whelan moved swiftly and lightly among her master class students.
“I like to think about ballet as smiling through your body,” she told them. “Smile with my hips, smile with my chest — everything is kind of open and broad and wide.”
She stopped occasionally to adjust a dancer’s pose and, happy with the result, would sigh “yes!”
“Let’s do a mirror of each other real quick,” Whelan said to another student, who for the tiniest split second looked stunned by the attention.
Passing another dancer, Whelan whispered, “beautiful!” The dancer’s concentration slipped for a moment to make way for a smile.
Three students who were unable to score tickets to be on the floor with Whelan, followed the class and executed dance moves from a back corner of the room.
“She was able to teach ballet in a way that was light and accessible for all students,” said Middlebury College senior Annie Aguilar, who has received formal classical ballet training. “Just seeing her move and hearing her speak — I felt wildly impressed and excited, especially because I’ve been watching her since I was a little girl.”
Whelan’s visit to the college was part of the Movement Matters program, a multiyear interdisciplinary endeavor to bring emerging artists in the field of dance together with Middlebury faculty and students for creative and curricular development. It was arranged by the dance department through a patron of the arts at the college, said Christal Brown, assistant professor and department chair.
Although the project is based in the dance program, Movement Matters is meant to benefit all Middlebury students. When the program in 2013 earned a $310,000 grant from the Melon Foundation, Brown emphasized this point:
“Regardless of academic discipline, dance and movement offer deep insight into how we think about ourselves, both individually and as part of the larger human community.”
Earlier in the day, Whelan had given a brief career talk and visited two classes.
“She was so generous,” said Lida Winfield, visiting assistant professor of dance. “She fielded questions from students and there was a real humanness inside her answers.”
For the dance department faculty, who in addition to being educators have active careers in dance, “it was lovely to see how someone else in the field operates,” Winfield added.
The master class was populated by students — from the college and the town alike — with widely varying levels of training.
“There were folks there who had started dancing three weeks ago in Christal Brown’s Intro to Dance class,” Winfield said. “Some were new to ballet. And there were some ballerinas.”
Some were middle- and high-school-age students from local dance studios.
Barbara Elias brought seven of her Middlebury Dance Center students, five of whom participated in the master class.
“It was a gracious class,” said Elias, whose own career, encouraged by famed choreographer George Balanchine, took her from the Boston Ballet to Europe and back. “I was pleased with how many corrections she gave. Master classes don’t typically correct individuals.”
Whelan’s class also reinforced Elias’s own teaching methods, she said, which “boosted my morale.”
At their Seminary Street studio the following day, Elias’s students talked about Whelan’s visit and tried variations of the combos introduced in the master class.
“Remember what Wendy said,” Elias began one sentence, before explaining a technical aspect related to balance and posture.
Whalen, 51, gave her farewell performance at the New York City Ballet on Oct. 18, 2014, after a highly celebrated 30-year career there.
A 2016 documentary, “Restless Creature: Wendy Whalen,” chronicles her final years with the company, struggling to recover from a hip injury that required surgery. The film, said a New York Times review, “humanizes dance” and “makes the compensations of age seem as beautiful as any ballet.”
Whalen last visited Vermont in 2015, when she performed work in a contemporary style at the Flynn Center in Burlington.
Students, faculty and observers alike knew how special Wednesday’s visit was.
“Wendy Whelan just being in Vermont was a big deal,” Christal Brown said.
For information about future events sponsored by the Middlebury College dance department, visit middlebury.edu/academics/dance/events.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected]
   WORLD RENOWNED BALLERINA Wendy Whelan leads 40 local students through a master class at Middlebury College last Wednesday afternoon.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell

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