• Nisian Hughes
  • Wendy Whelan in motion

Last fall, at 47 years old, Wendy Whelan retired from the New York City Ballet after 31 years, 22 of those as its principal dancer.

Considered “America’s greatest contemporary ballerina,” according to the New York Times, Whelan made clear at the time that her retirement didn’t mean she was done with dance. As she told the New Yorker, “I have something more interesting to say than I did when I was 25.” And so Whelan launched her New Works Initiative; the first work, a program of duets entitled Restless Creature, makes its Chicago debut on Wednesday, January 21, at the Harris Theater.

But the continued evolution of Whelan’s career almost wasn’t. Her Chicago performance was delayed because of a severe hip injury that required surgery.

“I started feeling a very severe pain in my hip around Christmas 2012, and in 2013 I was just on this quest to find out what the heck was this problem that was really severely limiting my dancing,” Whelan tells me. “Ultimately, I had a tear in the labral of my right hip, which kind of just came from wear and tear of a long career.”

Whelan’s career began in 1986 when she became a member of the New York City Ballet corps de ballet. Being promoted to principal dancer in 1991 led to numerous iconic performances and achievements, among them originating more than a dozen feature roles in Christopher Wheeldon ballets and being honored with a Bessie Award. One of Whelan’s most memorable career milestones was her first time dancing the lead in Swan Lake. “It’s so iconic and stressful and exciting, and I think it’s because you never really know how it is going to turn out,” she says. “I felt like I conquered a bit of a beast, I was happy with myself.”

Diving into new roles and learning to be secure with herself while performing allowed Whelan to establish a new path to walk in her already impressive journey as a dancer. “I’m kind of in the quest of development,” she says. “I love process, I love development, I love figuring out new things and I don’t want to keep doing the same old things that I know are good and fine. I kind of want to keep diving into the new ideas.”

In developing Restless Creature, Whelan kept in mind choreographers she’d previously worked with, and selected Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks, and 2012 People Issue person Alejandro Cerrudo, each of whom choreographed the dance they perform with Whelan.

In August 2013, immediately following the premiere of Restless Creature, Whelan had her right hip repaired. Ironically, the restless creature found it was the perfect time to recover and rest. “I was like, I can finally have a break, because I’m not really good at vacationing,” she says. Of course, it wasn’t much of a vacation: “I was in physical therapy every single day for seven months, and then I finally got back on stage April 29 of last spring.”

Prior to returning to the stage after surgery, Whelan became extremely anxious about her ability being diminished. “I was a nervous wreck, and I learned how to meditate so I could try to keep myself calm,” she says. “I didn’t know. Even the doctors couldn’t promise me that this was going to be perfect. So I was just really figuring things out.” Whelan then discovered she was also suffering from a back injury, which is why she had to postpone the Chicago premiere of Restless Creature, which was supposed to take place in March 2014.

Recovered and rested, Whelan says she’s excited for audience members, as she put it, “to see an experienced ballerina exploring new territory, with some really unique voices in contemporary dance.”