Wendy Whelan and cellist Maya Beiser

Longtime NYCB dancer Wendy Whelan tackles new ground

by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal

Dancer Wendy Whelan and cellist Maya Beiser gave an ethereal performance last Wednesday, November 6th, of their new collaborative, total-theater piece, The Day, at the Williams Center for the Arts. The elegant Whelan retired several years ago from the New York City Ballet after a decades-spanning career as a principal dancer, and earlier this year she was named Associate Artistic Director of the company. Beiser is a passionate cellist who is a luminary of the contemporary classical music scene.

In “Part 1: the day,” the two performers’ faces are projected on a background screen, as they begin chanting a series of phrases that complete the sentence “I remember the day I…” For example: “I arrived / I arrived at the fear of being alone / I arrived at the prison / I attended her wedding…” In front of the screen, the real-life Whelan and Beiser launch into the movement – choreographed by Lucinda Childs – and the music – composed by David Lang – that form the core of the piece.

Whelan moves angularly, wielding at first a string and then a stretchy loop of fabric like an archer preparing to launch an arrow from her bow. Her serene demeanor contrasts with the emotional storm that Beiser is kicking up with the lush strains of her cello. All the while, the chanted phrases continue to pour forth like a stream of collective unconsciousness. In the beginning, Whelan’s movements suggest some of the words being said. By the end of the section, she moves less but seems to embody more of the meaning of the phrases.

The mood changes completely in the second half of the piece, titled “Part 2: world to come.” Rumbling noises, smoke rolling across the stage, and falling, smashing images on the screen combine to form an ominous opening. According to the program notes, Beiser and Lang began working on the score for this section in September 2001, and the music evolved as a “kind of prayer” for the people lost in the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11.

Whereas dancer and musician come across as detached from one another in Part 1 of The Day, they are powerfully attuned in Part 2. Whelan’s full-bodied dancing matches Beiser’s dramatic musical intonations; here the former ballerina executes the intricate footwork and sweeping turns expected from an NYCB dancer.  There’s a sense that she’s become a conduit of energy beyond herself – as if she’s shed off her body and become pure spirit.

In a recurring motif, Whelan slides on her feet down the slippery slope of a ramp on the stage. As she becomes more unsteady, she loses her footing and rolls sideways down the ramp. In the final moments, a long, white silk curtain falls onto the stage from overhead. Whelan cloaks herself in the fabric like an angel and rolls down the slope for the last time entwined in the silk curtain.

The Day is built up from elemental blocks of music, text, film, and dance. A cadre of designers – Sara Brown (scenery), Dave Cook (sound), Joshua Higgason (projection), Natasha Katz (lighting), and Karen Young (costumes) – have created a striking world composed of black and white imagery. Ultimately, The Day generates an immersive, meditative environment that takes over the senses. The music by Lang, the choreography by Childs, and the performances by Beiser and Whelan send the audience out of the theater enveloped in a mantle of grace.

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