I’m the middle child of my biological family, and I’m also a middle child in my other family, the New York City Ballet. As Joni Mitchell sings, I’ve “looked at life from both sides now,” for I’ve experienced many shifting roles within the sixty-five-year lineage of the NYCB, including now the company’s Associate Artistic Director. I’ve spent over thirty years working with and knowing hundreds of artists from each side of the spectrum—from the company’s first generation of dancers to those of its present day. I’ve been a student to some and a mentor to others. I’ve had knock-down, drag-out fights and encountered a few guardian angels along the way. My heart tells me that the only thing that could ever run this deep is family.
When I first came to study at the School of American Ballet nearly thirty-six years ago, I was fortunate to find a place to live in the home of the NYCB’s legendary star, Jacques d’Amboise. His family took me in as a fifteen-year-old ballet student, fresh off the plane from Kentucky. I rented a floor of their brownstone with three other students for a number of years until I was invited to join the NYCB. In the years I lived at Jacques’s, I enjoyed my fly-on-the-wall status, overhearing conversations about the inner workings of City Ballet. I got the inside scoop on injuries and new ballets, who was headed for promotion, and who was causing trouble. I remember Mrs. d’Amboise taking home-cooked meals to Balanchine as he lay in his hospital bed for the last year of his life. And like a child eavesdropping from the top of the staircase, I got the news of Balanchine’s death in 1983 from hearing the family’s conversation two flights below.
I joined the company soon after Mr. B. died and was raised by his dancers. Like brothers and sisters, the corps members taught me the rules of the roost. They laughed at my naïveté and my disastrous stage makeup, and occasionally one of them would take me aside to quietly commend me on a job well done. As dancers in the company, we often share twelve-hour workdays, six days a week. We learn to perfect up to fifty different ballets within a season. Each dancer does his or her part to learn the ballets and understand the nuances within every work; but most importantly, we have to be able to bring the ballet to life on demand. No one’s work is taken for granted, and everyone’s contribution is considered of equal value.
Today’s dancers will sometimes spot the luminous face of Balanchine’s former muse, the great ballerina Allegra Kent, in the audience, or feel the vibrancy of Jacques as he rushes backstage after a show to connect with one of today’s young stars. The older generations have always kept their eyes on and cultivated the younger ones, and even if it’s only on occasion and from afar, it stirs us to know that they are there, watching.
There’s no denying that it’s an intoxicating world filled with vibrant, intelligent people who are loyal and committed to living in the confines of the art form; but it would be remiss not to mention the less romantic reality of the life we lead: it isn’t always beautiful at the ballet, and it has a dark side just like any other family unit. We are all forced as human beings to confront character-defining life lessons in order to keep our egos in check. Favoritism, jealousy, fear, and the ever-present shape-shifting hierarchy within the company: these are all part of the family dynamic, and we deal with them as such by accepting them as necessary parts of the whole beautiful package.
The one truth I hold most dear beyond any stage time, applause, or notoriety is the realization that every NYCB generation has shaped my life in the most profound and inspiring ways. From the incomparable era of Jacques and Allegra to the City Ballet dancers of today, each generation will forever be part of a singular family, a philosophy, and a unique heritage. Each generation of dancers has defined their own NYCB, and I will simultaneously look up to and look out for these dancers with each passing day.
Wendy Whelan is the Associate Artistic Director of New York City Ballet where she was a member for 30 years and one of its principal dancers. She has also been a guest artist with the Royal Ballet, the Kirov Ballet, and Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company.