How many people ever actually grow up to have the career of their childhood dreams? Louisville native Wendy Whelan knew from the time she was a girl that she would become a ballerina. This drive and focus led her to move to New York City for training at the age of 15, and today she is one of the most-celebrated principal dancers with the New York City Ballet.
Kentucky Muse“Wendy Whelan: Moments of Grace” explores the dancer’s childhood and family in Louisville, her career and life in New York, and how her Kentucky roots are with her every step of the way. The program premieres Friday, Jan. 11 at 10/9 p.m. on KET and Wednesday, Jan. 16 at 8/7 p.m. on KET2.
“Whelan is distinct in the way she moves on stage,” says renowned choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. “She can be this incredible piece of hard sculpture, and then she can brush that off and have this sort of quiet, hushed femininity.”
Whelan became a member of the New York City Ballet’s corps de ballet in January 1986. She was promoted to the rank of soloist during the 1989 spring season and to the rank of principal dancer in the 1991 spring season.
“She felt she was destined to dance,” says Whelan’s father, Rick. When Whelan was around six years old, he shot a video of her outside their home practicing dance in a bumble bee costume. Dubbed “The Queenie Bee” film, it shows Whelan both as a girl having fun and one serious about her practice.
“She’s never wavered in her absolute joy and love for what she does,” says her mother, Kay.
The first ballet Whelan ever saw was The Nutcracker performed at Louisville Memorial Auditorium. Soon after, she began her career on the same stage at the age of eight.
“The curtain went up, and I saw the ballet, and all this stuff just came together for me in this weird way,” she remembers. “And then the next year, I was on the stage as a little mouse in The Nutcracker. I’ve been on a stage ever since then.”
The program includes Whelan’s performance at The Louisville Ballet, which celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2011.
“She has always supported the community, and she loves to perform with The Louisville Ballet,” says Whelan’s father. “Her roots are here in the city of Louisville.”
On the outside of the Brown School in downtown Louisville, where Whelan attended her freshman year of high school before moving to New York, hangs a “Wendy’s Louisville” hometown heroes poster.
“I am grateful, so grateful, to all the people that gave me parts of themselves to help me be where I am. And that’s a lot of people, especially in this town, in Louisville,” says Whelan.
This Kentucky Muse also features interviews with Whelan’s brother and sister, her husband, David Michalek, childhood friends, fellow dancers and teachers, and more.
Kentucky Muse “Wendy Whelan: Moments of Grace” is a KET production, produced by Tom Thurman. Teresa Day is executive producer. More information about Kentucky Muse is available at ket.org/muse.