It is an established pattern for ballet dancers nearing the end of their classical careers to look towards contemporary dance choreography. That makes it sound like a way of winding down, but it is by no means an easy step to take, as Wendy Whelan’s four-part programme shows.
The idea is sound. Whelan, a steely, fine-tuned dancer on the point of retiring from the New York City Ballet, invited four dancer-choreographers to both create and partner her in a duet. The resulting programme follows Whelan through these different encounters.
Actually, the duets are not so different: low-lit, tastefully abstract pieces, not too unballetic in style. Alejandro Cerrudo’s Ego et Tu is a silky slipknot of a work, which sees the pair constantly intertwining and sliding apart. It suits Cerrudo more than Whelan: her technique, founded more on control and carriage than on weight and momentum, does not match his fluency.
Joshua Beamish’s Waltz Epoca fits her better. Like its soundtrack, layering odd noises with references to classical music, the duet is built on ballet technique, dislocated by odd angles and isolations. The puppet-like effect chimes with the dancers’ relationship: throughout, we’re uncertain who is pulling the strings. If Waltz Epoca is more a curious study than a piece, Kyle Abraham’s The Serpent and the Smoke is more of a vague sketch – a dreamy evocation of figures who flicker about and fade away, both from the stage and from the memory.
Brian Brooks’s First Fall is by far the strongest and most fully realised work. Echoing rather than imitating its Philip Glass score, it is built on repeated motifs, developed slowly and deliberately: cradle-armed spirals, cushioned falls and finally, slanted walks, with Whelan tilted across Brooks’ back as if stepping in a different dimension. If Whelan is to step further into contemporary dance, she’ll need more choreography of this class, as well as greater range and risk.