Wendy Whelan is among the best dancers in the world. She's a principal ballerina with New York City Ballet and a guest artist with the innovative Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company ballet.
She's also danced in Wichita for 20 years. Whelan will take her annual turn as the Sugar-Plum Fairy in Friends University's "The Nutcracker" today through Sunday. Philip Neal, also from New York City Ballet and also a Wichita regular, will dance the Prince Cavalier.
Whelan, 42, first came to Wichita in the late 1980s as a guest of two dancers who were former students of Stan Rogers, director of Friends University Ballet, and of Sharon Rogers, who teaches there. Whelan has returned every year since.
"I almost feel like I'm one of their kids," Whelan said. "I was in my early 20s. I came and danced in the spring shows. We hung out for a week each spring."
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When Stan Rogers first choreographed "The Nutcracker" at Friends in 1992, he invited Whelan to star. She's returned every year but one, usually with Neal. "After all this time he's an extension of my body," Whelan said.
To celebrate the final weekend of "The Nutcracker" at Friends, we talked to Whelan about how she prepares to dance the Sugar Plum Fairy and what's on the horizon for a prima ballerina who's danced professionally for 25 years.
Do you look forward to "The Nutcracker" year after year?
We joke about it being drudgery because we do it all the time, but it's not really. It's the most-done ballet and you have to really work hard to keep it fresh.
How important is your partner, Philip Neal, in your preparation for "The Nutcracker"?
Philip was my first Nutcracker Cavalier, ever. That was probably around 1991. We've done it for so long we really know what's good and what's bad. I get to watch him do his solos, he watches me do mine, and we give each other feedback. We really know how to give each other the right support.
Does the Sugar Plum Fairy dance change from year to year?
We try to sculpt it for where we're at now — what do we feel like doing this year? It's pretty close to what we usually do. In our solos we might add a different kind of a feeling at a different part. We grow each year.
Is it hard to get into the character of the Sugar Plum Fairy with such a short time on stage?
The music pretty much takes care of that for you. Feeling it every year, it kind of grows over all this time. Now, any time the music comes on it will create something in my imagination.
In Wichita do you interact with the children and student dancers backstage?
I think these kids are pretty much told to not bother us. They are incredibly polite; they are very professional. It's very visual; it is not so verbal. It's a watching and learning thing. It's always been like that and it will always be like that.
What is exciting about dancing for choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and his company Morphoses?
He makes work on me. At New York City Ballet I learn and perform works that were made on other people. It's very different. I want to continue working with choreographers of all sorts and stay active in the studio and be a part of creating new works.
You are 42 years old. Are you the Brett Favre of ballerinas?
Dancing feels better than it ever has. My thought process, my understanding of what I do, is now very well developed. I can express myself better and clearer than I ever have in my career.
If you go
What: Friends University Ballet performs the seasonal classic
Where: Sebits Auditorium, Riney Fine Arts Center, Friends University
When: 7:30 p.m. today-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
How much: Tickets are sold out. Call 316-295-5537 for more information.