You never know who you’re going to run into at Nancy’s Bagel Grounds in Crescent Hill, but the array of celebrities on a recent Sunday morning was enough to alert the media! International ballet sensation Wendy Whelan was in town for a whirlwind tour of her childhood haunts, filmed by the Kentucky Educational Television Network. The New York City Ballet’s principal dancer was accompanied by her famous mom, Louisville’s own Kay Whelan, first dance teacher, Virginia Wooton Weber, and Weber’s husband, noted musical theatre actor William Weber.
“Isn’t it amazing how life comes full circle,” said Kay, her daughter’s host for the whirlwind tour of the Bluegrass. KET is in the process of filming the story of Wendy’s life from her humble beginnings in Louisville to her heady status as one of the most-watched dancers in the world. “Wendy walked into (Ginnie Wooton Weber’s) dance studio at the age of three, and Ginnie’s been in our family circle ever since.”
The teacher’s pride in the student is evident as Wooton Weber recalls “the most enthusiastic three year old dancer I ever taught.” Wendy’s appreciation of her roots in the Bluegrass is still apparent to the woman who gave the aspiring dancer her first exposure to ballet…and Wooton Weber smiles as she says, “Even as she’s grown to be an adult, an international prima ballerina, she is still the same sweet girl I met so long ago.”
As a wide-eyed six-year-old witnessing her introductory performance of “The Nutcracker,” Wendy was enchanted by the Arabian, danced by a young woman named Lisa. Today, attorney Lisa Leet’s law office window overlooks the Brown School’s north wall, which features a four-story portrait of New York City Ballet’s prima ballerina…an all-grown-up Wendy Whelan. “Wendy absolutely loved it when Peter Martins offered her the role of the Arabian in a NYCB film version of ‘The Nutcracker’…even though she’d never done the role, she was so caught up in it the first time she ever saw the ballet at age six. Wendy danced the role once and only once in her life, in that film performance,” confirmed Kay Whelan.
Wendy’s film experience has branched out since that early 90’sfilm role, and her technical advice was sought by Darren Aronofsky in preparation for his Oscar-winning “Black Swan,” featuring Natalie Portman. Wendy called Portman’s performance “fantastic” and recalled her own experience dancing the dual role of the Swan Queen in an December 2010 interview with The Daily Beast:
“I remember my own premiere as the Swan Queen and the fact that because of an extreme case of nerves, I couldn’t complete my warmup. My legs literally froze, and I was forced to sit until I made my first entrance. Incidentally, that debut ended up being one of the most magical and pivotal performances of my career.”
Kentucky Network spent nearly a week following Wendy Whelan’s path from her childhood home on Top Hill Road and her elementary school, Holy Spirit, to the jumping-off point that led to her current status as principal dancer in one of the world’s most prestigious ballet companies. The aspiring ballerina’s life in Louisville abruptly changed when she was recruited by the School of American Ballet, the feeder company to NYCB; the 15 year old Wendy moved to the Big Apple, learned to take mass transit on her own, and became a dancer in training while she finished high school, thanks to a benefactor whose identity she learned only after years of dancing professionally.
With unparalled technique and an ageless body, Wendy Whelan is triumphant in her fourth decade of a grueling regimen only athletes can fully appreciate. She took time out of her busy schedule this week to dote on Emma Lou “The Coonhound That Could,” a neighborhood dog who is recovering from two broken legs recently endured when she was hit on I-64. Considering the high-profile life lived by a performer of her stature, it was a gift to this writer to sit on the sidewalk and experience the “real” Wendy snuggling the injured dog, while affectionately relating tales of her dumpster-rescued kitties; from first-hand experience witnessing both, I can attest that her compassion for animals is as authentic as her stage presence.
It’s always a pleasure to greet a hometown girl who hasn’t lost the excitement of being back in her old stomping grounds, and who is grateful for the things that growing up in small-town Louisville have offered her in her life under the bright lights of a bigger city.
Wendy Whelan’s KET special will air sometime in December…watch your local listings for times. And drop into Nancy’s Bagel Grounds on Frankfort Avenue any day of the week…the Whelan clan and yours truly consider it among their favorites!