For almost two decades I have greatly admired Wendy Whelan as an artist – with New York City Ballet and in performances here with Christopher Wheeldon’s Morphoses troupe – of sophisticated musical sensibility, of vivid physical presence. Every performance to be cherished.
She has lately arrived in London, and on Tuesday night – amid the Alpine cussedness of the Linbury Studio, the stage at its most forbiddingly bare and grimly lit – she offered us four new duets, made especially for her by Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks, Alejandro Cerrudo. The pauperish little programme listing uttered not a word of information about these gentlemen, who each partnered Whelan in their creation, which were set to scores that offered accompaniments by turn gritty, nagging, but all of sheer-damned-awful tedium.
These encounters had titles, and you may hazard their dire intent from such identification as Ego et Tu and The Serpent and the Smoke. Whelan, in soft slippers, soul-destroying shifts, and one actionable ballgown (confected, it would seem, as revenge rather than dress), danced every lamentable step, whose evident intention was to treat her like an articulated doll. Movement had all the wayward charm of a migraine as these choreographers imposed arcane and unlikely dramatic schedules on their disjunct and arid musical choices. It was, frankly, an evening of the most depressing, most teasing and taxing awfulness.
And there, amid the mayhem and the fudged dramatics, the posturings and the dismal manipulations of her ever-expressive physique, was this lustrous artist, her every gift of musical felicity, of physical intensity, of dedication to dance itself, denied by the fatuities, the blazing tedium of the situations in which her chosen choreographers contrived to maltreat her gifts. That stage design, the least whisper of chic or elegance (which Whelan’s art demands), or scores of more than modish impermanence, were all notable by their absence, is of itself typical. That Wendy Whelan’s considerable and potent artistry was traduced by these earnest dance-makers, is deplorable. That the Linbury programme book kept wholly silent about the choreographers seems unnecessarily discreet. The event should be renamed Hapless Creature. It bears every resemblance to a cabin-booking on the Titanic.