For seven years, KET’s Kentucky Muse has been documenting the stories of the Commonwealth’s artists. Often, the stories are close to the Bluegrass – the glass blowing of Stephen Rolfe Powell or writing of Ed McClanahan. But the latest installment follows the story of Wendy Whelan, a Louisville girl who dreamed of being a ballerina. She is now in her 22nd year as a principal dancer in the New York City Ballet.
“We’ve never produced a project on ballet,” says KET filmmaker Tom Thurman. “I think Wendy was a perfect selection for our series because she combines two major things: She’s a world-wide, phenomenally respected talent, but she’s also, at heart, a Kentucky girl who’s very accessible, very friendly, warm and generous.”
In Wendy Whelan: Moments of Grace, the dancer recalls her first time seeing the Louisville Ballet:
“I was sitting out there, when I was 6 years old, and I saw the Nutcracker, and it was the first ballet I had ever seen, and I ran up and looked in the orchestra pit, and I saw the orchestra. And the curtain went up and I saw the ballet, and all this stuff came together in this weird way. I thought it was kind of cool. The next year, I was on the stage as a little mouse in ‘Nutcracker’ – I was 7 or 8 years old.
“From then on, I’ve been on a stage ever since then.”
Thurman says old home movies and pictures were a key to telling the story of young Wendy.
“In this instance, we got a tremendous amount, hours of old Super 8 home movie footage,” Thurman says, “and it’s priceless because it gives a kind of window into Wendy Whelan that you wouldn’t normally have.”
Whelan left home early to start her career as a dancer, because dance careers are notoriously short. But Whelan is still dancing principal roles in her mid-40s. Thurman says taking the KET production to New York was essential to tell the story of Whelan’s longevity.
“Showing a day in Wendy’s life, from her warm-up at Steps, to rehearsing, to all the different facets that go into a day allowed me to show the discipline that is required to keep her body in the shape that it remains in,” Thurman says.
In the film, Whelan says she is conscious that she is dancing in overtime, “And I do hear the ticking clock, closer to my ear now. It’s louder. I’m going to dance until … maybe not perform, especially not with the New York City Ballet, but I’ll take it and put it somewhere else, because it’s who I am.”
Wendy Whelan: Moments of Grace premieres at 10 p.m. Friday, Jan. 11, on KET, and repeats numerous times on it KET, KET2 and KETKY. Visit KET.org for listings.
Rich Copley covers arts and entertainment for the Lexington Herald-Leader.