A Conversation on Pointe

Photo by Christopher Duggan.

Photo by Christopher Duggan.

Kentucky’s greatest ballerina will soon take the stage in Louisville – but not to dance. Wendy Whelan, who spent 30 years with the New York City Ballet, will discuss her life with historian Emily Bingham in “Wendy Whelan: To the Point – a Conversation with Emily Bingham,” October 24 at The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts.

Bingham, who is “super excited” about the event, said she will ask Whelan about her childhood in Louisville, her recent career transition and what it’s like to dance without shoes.

“I want to get her describe after all those years, having that thing [pointe shoes] between her when she’s working and now to be grounded that way, and what does it mean to dance and what does it mean to her body?” says Bingham.

“I’ve never seen her perform live,” continues Bingham. “I’ve heard about her, of course. I have a friend who grew up across the street from her, an old childhood friend. She said, ‘Don’t you remember when she used to dance down the road in her back brace?’ No, I think I would remember that!”

Shelly Zegart, president and founder of Kentucky to the World, is looking forward to witnessing the Whelan-Bingham dynamic. She said she was struck by something Whelan said after she left the New York City Ballet.

“She said, ‘I decide now,’” Zegart relates. “[Bingham] has found her own voice as well. We try to find a pairing with a twist. People who you wouldn’t necessarily put together.”

Last year, Bingham released “Irrepressible: The Jazz-Age Life of Henrietta Bingham,” a biography of her great-aunt. She teaches history at Bellarmine, Centre College and the University of Louisville, as well as St. Francis High School. She has a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina.

She looks forward to the interview: “I’m a historian but have a lot of journalism in my background. I love talking to people and bringing people out.”

Whelan, now retired from the ballet, produces her own dance projects with other dancers and choreographers and teaches at Barnard College. She is an artistic associate at the New York City Center, where she participates in talks or educational projects. “Whatever they want to incorporate me into,” she describes. “I’m really trying to do different things, face my fears, challenge myself. I’m like a baby learning to walk again at this place in my life.”

In a way, she has had to relearn to walk. She’s had two hip surgeries and has fully recovered. “My hip is fantastic,” she smiles. “I’m very, very happy about where I am now.”

Whelan is the star of Linda Saffire and Adam Schlessinger’s documentary film, “Restless Creature,” about her life. It came out this year and debuted at the New York Film Festival but hasn’t made it to Louisville yet. The documentary follows her transition from the dance company to civilian life.

“I’m working on four projects that are my own,” she explains. “I try to just do something different, not focused on ballet. Even though ballet is my base, I’m trying to make a new product.”

Whelan says that she comes to Louisville a couple times a year and sees Kentucky as an important part of her development.

“I look at it as really a time that shaped me heavily,” she maintains. “A lot of friendships I had, I still have. And a lot of them really, honestly, shaped who I’ve become as an adult, as an artist: the teachers, classmates, experiences I’ve had. My roots [in Louisville] are very strong, and they feed the tree that I am now and in every way that I flower.”

Kentucky to the World’s mission is to enhance the state’s image by showcasing talent, ingenuity and excellence of those who claim strong Kentucky ties. “We want to be a catalyst for igniting change and inspiring all Kentuckians,” Zegart emphasizes.

The organization hosts multimedia programs that range from a live-audience speaker series to the website’s written profiles, video interviews and social media news. VT

Tickets are $25 and are available online, over the phone or in person at The Kentucky Center. For more information, visit kentuckycenter.org or kentuckytotheworld.org, or call 502.584.7777.