Wendy Whelan, at 50, has two hip surgeries and 30 years at the New York City Ballet behind her. Given her luxurious performance Saturday with dancer-choreographer Brian Brooks, in front of her lies still more dancing.
Retired ballet stars generally take a few select paths in their second stage of life, among them teaching, joining the artistic staff at their home company, directing some other troupe or running a university dance department. Not many continue filling their calendar with dance gigs.
Only a handful of ballerinas have continued in ballet roles past 50, such as Alessandra Ferri and Margot Fonteyn. Whelan, the most celebrated NYCB dancer since Suzanne Farrell, bade farewell to ballet in 2014, and does not seem interested in ever donning pointe shoes again. (She told Dance Magazine how liberating it was to give away all her leotards.)
She's more like Mikhail Baryshnikov, who, after injuries sidelined him from ballet, dived into a busy touring life as a modern dancer, performing works less punishing on the body. Whelan has hit the road with a couple of different tours, dancing in works she has commissioned from young contemporary choreographers. Her latest collaboration is "Some of a Thousand Words," an absorbing and beautifully rendered evening of duets, which she and Brooks unspooled at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland at College Park. The excellent string quartet Brooklyn Rider accompanied the dancers on the Kay Theatre stage.
Brooks's fascination with spiraling and flowing motion, and how it can be interrupted and redirected, is a good match for Whelan. She possesses incomparable smoothness, capable of extending and sustaining an action — say, sweeping her arm up and behind her — in such a slow, steady and mesmerizing manner that her limbs seem to float. Movement pours out of her; she doesn't push or whip herself around. This effortless quality must somehow be related to her undiminished drive to dance: The motor impulses that carried her through three decades of elite athleticism are still strong.
In her renaissance as a modern dancer — freed from the bindings of pointe shoes and fitted bodices — Whelan appears softer, yet, as is clear in these duets, she is internally even more gutsy, more of a risk-taker. When the program opens, she's the anti-ballerina, in a tank top, slim trousers and bare feet, dressed identically to Brooks. The couple emerges from darkness in perfect synchrony, barely moving. They materialize so slowly it's as if we're watching dream babies take their first probing steps.
An hour later, after they've glided and spun across the stage as if in a windstorm, the two have progressed to superhero status. Brooks once performed with Elizabeth Streb's Extreme Action company, which specializes in heavy, high-impact moves — jumping and slamming onto mats — and he brings that approach into the finale, titled "First Fall." Here, Whelan plunges blindly into Brooks's arms and they start experimenting with force, energy and how deeply two people can trust each other while one is being vigorously tossed around.
She's a cylinder and he's the ramp she rolls on; she's a lever, tilted against him, and he's the fulcrum, seesawing her up and down. As Philip Glass's String Quartet No. 3 builds and thrashes, Whelan and Brooks wheel around like a single heaving contraption powered by gears and springs. Delicacy has been left behind, and in its place is a spirit of adventure.