I have been a huge fan of Wendy since my student days, and her long evolution as a dancer has been incredibly inspiring to me and my peers. When I got to the School of American Ballet Wendy was a fully realized artist in her prime, and she had already been a principal for many years. I went to watch the company perform nearly nightly and she was always on, often in multiple
But I remember being especially excited about watching her in newer rep during my SAB years. She wore cropped hair and no tights in a Kevin O’Day piece called Open Strings that I loved. She was the closest a ballerina can get to being a rock star in William Forsythe’s Herman Schmerman and Ulysses Dove’s Red Angels. She was rivetingly athletic in Peter Martins’s Ash and Fearful Symmetries. Even though they aren’t performed any more, I will never forget Dick Tanner’s Ancient Airs and Dances, Christopher D’Amboise’s Circle of Fifths, and Robert La Fosse’s Concerto in Five Movements because of her.
Wendy was great in everything she danced, but she really shone in the abstract rep. Her taught angularity and directness of approach made her the perfect vessel for more geometric choreography. In certain ballets she will forever be the template in my mind of what the choreography should look like: namely Agon, Symphony in Three, The Cage, and Stravinsky Violin Concerto. She was not the originator of any of these roles of course, but more than anyone else I’ve ever seen she boiled the choreography down to its essence. With her spare frame and minimalist approach she did not seem like an interpreter of steps; she simply was the steps. She never missed a musical cue or played with phrasing in these works, she knew that precision and timing were the keys to the ballets’ effectiveness. Nothing extraneous was added, she was not a practitioner of filigree. I believe there are two kinds of performers: the spontaneous, natural kind (I think of another wonderful recent retiree, Jenifer Ringer—who was always surprising onstage) and the meticulous, perfectionist kind—and Wendy exemplified the latter camp. This is not to say that her shows were rote or monotonous—quite the opposite—but that her approach came from hard work in the studio and a premeditated idea of what she wanted to look like. You could see that she was sublimating herself to a carefully considered ideal, and the intensity of her quest was hypnotic.
Wendy also had an ironclad work ethic. She rehearsed endlessly, without marking or cutting corners. Many dancers save things for the show in rehearsals. Not Wendy. When she rehearsed her pas de deux from Violin Concerto or Symphony in Three everyone in the cast would sit quietly to watch, for she would be as dedicated in practice as she was in performance. It was such a treat to see every day, up close. What better role model can there be than someone who achieves unparalleled success through deep artistic thought and sweat equity?
Even though I will always think of her as more of a neo-classical dancer, Wendy was also terrific in the full-length classics. Other people have brought more thespian emotion to the Odette/Odile role in Peter Martins’s Swan Lake, but Wendy was not one to dramatize things and she found her own way to expression in the role. Her White Swan was deeply moving despite her lack of theatrics because although she didn’t broadcast pathos with her face, she somehow managed to convey mournfulness in her legs and feet. She sketched character through musculature, and she could speak volumes by changing the movement quality of a passé or développé. A dancer in the truest sense, every feeling she had was transmitted through motion.
Another reason she was so galvanizing to the company was her continuous artistic growth. Ballet is thought of as a pursuit only for the young. (And yes, there are infinite merits to youth in ballet!) But Wendy has proven the common wisdom wrong; she has shown that ballet dancers can evolve and progress for decades past what people expect. It is a lesson that I hope the ballet world absorbs. Wendy gave up her most physically punishing and technical roles little by little along the way, but she gained in so many ways. And her more seasoned instrument, far from being cast aside by the creative powers that be, was in high demand among the youngest and hottest of choreographers. Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia and After the Rain, as well as Alexei Ratmanksy’s Russian Seasons and Pictures at an Exhibition were all made for her after she had passed what most would consider prime ballerina age, and they are all considered to be contemporary classics. Pictures at an Exhibition—an incredibly challenging piece—was created for her just this past season!
Wendy originated demanding rep up until the very end. Far from being a sentimentalist, the last piece she performed as a NYCB dancer was a joint Wheeldon/Ratmanksy world premiere! This iconoclastic streak has served her well over the years, and I have no doubt she will continue to challenge the way people think about ballet dancers as she forges ahead in her solo career. As much as I will miss her at work, I am thrilled for the next chapter of her artistic journey.