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DanceView: Wendy Whelan interview

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Among lots of interesting things in Marc Haegeman's interview, one thing really caught my eye: it's the first time I've ever seen a dancer say that having new ballets created on her was not necessarily the best thing. Whelan says that some (not all!) choreographers just look at her and think 'athletic' and make a piece to show off how athletic she is - which she finds neither challenging nor interesting. She often gets more out of finding her way into a role made on someone else.

I've wondered about this before, particularly with Darcey Bussell - does she wish more choreographers would see past her sweet nature and her long legs?

And I remember there was a lot of disappointment when Twyla Tharp made Mr Worldy Wise for the Royal Ballet - she said something like she wanted to celebrate the decorum she found in the company, whilst we, and perhaps the company, would have much preferred something to shake them out of that customary decorum.

Have there been other dancers who've felt so misunderstood by the choreographers they've worked with?

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Interesting question, Jane. Also interesting response from Wendy Whelan, and I can understand what she means, although I did not have a lot of ballets created for me. Because of my legs and feet and extension, and very "classical look", I guess, I was always cast in the tutu roles, and there were a lot of dramatic roles which I really, really wanted to do! A couple of choreographers did discover this, and I had a few very good roles, but I doubt that the director at the time would have cast me in those roles. (Thank you Tudor and Ross, and then a few others which came after the ABT years! :) )

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Thanks for posting this, Jane. I was very interested in that part of the interview as well. I wonder if there are many dancers who would be comfortable saying that? There's such a competetion for new roles, a more junior dancer might think it, but might not want to risk losing those roles by saying it.

I think all dancers want to have roles created on them, but perhaps in today's atmosphere, they'll realize, like Whelan, that they're not really getting a new role, just an old one with different colored bicycle shorts. To be fair, I think this could happen in the repertories of long ago as well. You could be the ingenue, the clown, the villain, in ballet after ballet.

Companies often brought in guest choreographers when they couldn't generate their own repertory (the Royal was the great exception to this, I think). The down side of this is that the guests don't know the dancers, and so can either miscast them after watching one class, or typecast them. But one of the benefits was that often the guest choreographers would see something else in the dancer -- the little mousey one who never got good parts in a demi-caractere repertory might have gorgeous feet and a good jump, and would look fine in an abstract ballet -- and the confidence she got from dancing that ballet, from being successful in something -- might make her less mousey the next time she danced an ingenue part. Et cetera.

I hope choreographers read that gentle complaint of Whelan's and think about it.

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In Whelan's case, the problem may be that most of the new works she dances have been made for the Diamond Project, which has a notoriously short gestation period for new ballets. If NYCB allowed choreographers more time to get acquainted with the dancers they're working with (and with the company itself, since many Diamond choreographers come from far outside NY), they might see more depth in what their instruments have to offer.

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I can't forget Whelan's Odette. A couple of years ago I saw Ananiashvilli's Odette/Odile in the afternoon--and Whelan's Odette in the evening. I have the highest regard for Ananiashvilli's 'Swan', so I was surprised at how very good Whelan's 'Odette' was in comparison. Her second act Coda with the echappees and passes is the most brilliant I have seen---her attack was reminiscent of Danilova, and I have often wondered if she received any coaching from her.

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The only insight I can offer is that Balanchine asked Merrill Ashley to learn from Danilova all the Petipa variations she could remember and in Merrill's autobiography she claims she wrote down all the steps and corrections in great detail. p226 These were suppose to make their way into film. I suppose the question becomes did the filming project ever complete?

I suggest there was access to Danilova's work therein.

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I don't think that anyone was deliberately ignoring atm's question. It was an interesting point, but if no one knows, then no one knows.

I don't know if there was any filming of Danilova's coaching of Ashley. There is a film of Danilova coaching, but I don't remember that Ashley was one of the dancers included. I don't think she was, but -- perhaps someone else knows?

Edited by Alexandra
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Are you discussing the Anne Belle documentary? I know one of the dancers coached was an SAB student named Cindy Drummer

Ahh... here it is in Rose Ann Thom's Obituary for Anne Belle:

Reflections of a Dancer (1982)

It doesn't mention who the other couple is... I must have this tape somewhere, though can't put my hands on it at the moment... They were from one of the regional couples... I want to say Cleveland or Cincinatti... but it could have been Pittsburgh, I suppose.

Isn't there a bit of Danilova coaching in Turning Point? Any chance that was real coaching or was it all scripted? Seems like it would easier and cheaper to just let her do her thing.

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I don't know whatever became of Merrill's sessions with Danilova and Merrill's assignment to get those Petipa variations recorded. I presume if any filming was done it was done with NYCB money and is probably only for nycb company use if it exists at all.

Thanks for the links though. I'll take a closer look at the content at a later time.

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