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“Crystal Cut and Clean” — Former Ballet Star Teaches Master Class at Princeton University

By Anne Levin

Wendy Whelan’s retirement from the New York City Ballet last fall was marked with great fanfare and emotional tributes. In her 28 years with the company, she performed a broad range of repertory and won loyal fans for her individualistic style and distinctive approach to her roles.

Teaching a ballet class Monday at Princeton University, a day before she was to appear at McCarter Theatre in a program of contemporary choreography called “Restless Creature,” Ms. Whelan made it clear that though she still loves ballet, she isn’t exactly bereft about no longer being a principal dancer with one of the largest ballet companies in the nation.

NYC Ballet LogoWhen she was introduced to the students as “formerly a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet,” Ms. Whelan grinned and said, “Yes, formerly!” Retirement from the ballet company clearly agrees with this 47-year-old, who looks decades younger. But she has hardly been idle. In the current phase of her career, Ms. Whelan has been developing new collaborations with choreographers who take ballet to a new level.

Small and delicate but with long, sinewy limbs, she wore a gray leotard, black warmup pants and black socks — no ballet slippers. She demonstrated each step, and within a few minutes was sweating along with the students.

The 29 students in the class — 26 women, three men — had no trouble keeping up with Ms. Whelan’s movement combinations at the barre, then in the center of the room, and finally “across the floor.” Some were tall and willowy, and appeared to have years of ballet training behind them. But it was those who looked less like the standard ideal of ballet dancers that she singled out more frequently for praise.

“That’s beautiful — crystal cut and clean,” she said to a young woman after asking her to demonstrate a combination of jumps. When one of the male students leaped so high that he nearly crashed into the wall, she whooped with delight.

Growing up in Kentucky, Ms. Whelan started ballet classes at age three and performed in her first Nutcracker at age eight. She was awarded a scholarship to the School of American Ballet, the official school of the New York City Ballet, in 1981. Five years later, she was invited to join the company. By 1991, she had reached the rank of principal dancer.

Her years at New York City Ballet included performances of works by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Peter Martins, and numerous other choreographers who worked with the company. Ms. Whelan came to be identified with the more contemporary, rather than classical pieces, and formed a particularly productive working relationship with choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who has frequently credited her as an inspiration.

Ms. Whelan had already begun collaborating with several choreographers when she danced with New York City Ballet for the final time last October. Since then, she has focused on “Restless Creature,” which premiered at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in August 2013. The program at McCarter Theatre on Tuesday night featured her in works by Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks, and Alejandro Cerrudo.

Teaching is also one of Ms. Whelan’s strengths. Challenging the Princeton students with some tricky timings, she said, “This is the most complicated it will be today, I promise you. I know you’re dealing with finals.” Quoting the late ballerina and teacher Melissa Hayden when urging the students to tighten their posteriors, she made them laugh when she said, “You’ve got to use your cheeks — all four of them.”

There is no dance major program at Princeton, but students who pursue a certificate in dance are offered a wide variety of courses in a range of genres. “You guys are awesome,” Ms. Whelan told the students at the conclusion of the class on Monday before posing with them for a group picture. “Great job.”

Lincoln Center