On a January morning in 2012, Wendy Whelan stepped out of a cab at the New York City Ballet dance studio at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. The morning class was about to start. After changing into her dance clothes, Whelan, then 44, started warming up at the ballet barres. After a little warm up—tendu, demi-plié—she started dancing the pirouettes and gradually started doing the grand jetes. The day had begun like any other day at the New York City Ballet. She had been following the same routine for 28 years now.
Suddenly, she realized her right ankle felt a little stiff. Her joint felt locked and swollen. She thought to herself, all will be fine. I just need to get a massage, some help.
Whelan had moved to New York from Louisville, Kentucky, at age 15 in September 1982 to train at the School of American Ballet. In 1986, she became part of the New York City Ballet’s corps de ballet; in 1989, she was promoted to be the soloist. In the spring of 1991, she was promoted again, this time to the role of principal. She danced Ash that night, choreographed by the ballet master-in-chief of the New York City Ballet, Peter Martins.
he would go on to dance to the choreographies of George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Peter Martins, William Forsythe, Christopher Wheeldon, Jorma Elo, Twyla Tharp, Wayne McGregor, and Alexei Ratmansky, among many other top choreographers. In 2012, The New York Times hailed her as “America’s greatest contemporary ballerina.”
But the greatest contemporary ballerina danced that winter season on a stuck foot, and then in the fall of 2012, another accident happened: While rehearsing, she slipped and pulled her hamstring. Whelan didn’t give up, putting in more effort every time she danced. But by December of 2012, each time she hit the fifth position while rehearsing she felt additional pain in her hip joint. She discovered she had a labral tear in her hip.
She hasn’t been to a group ballet class since January 2013. She has not performed on City Ballet stage since December 2012. Instead, she has watched much younger dancers take on the roles she did at the New York City Ballet.
And so, for the first time in her life, she faces the challenge of a career transition.
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