In 2014 Wendy Whelan retired from the great New York City Ballet with its seasonal demands and challenging repertoire. After rehabilitation from hip surgery, Whelan faced the question that most long-term stars of the ballet world must ultimately face: What now? Thirty years as a principal dancer, built on a lifetime of dedication and practice, isn’t easily left. Whelan’s decision to continue to dance resulted in the 2015 independent dance project Restless Creature. Its performance showcased Whelan in duets with choreographers Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks and Alejandro Cerrudo. Some of a Thousand Words, expands on that first project by continuing her collaboration with choreographer Brian Brooks.

Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks © Nir Arieli
Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks
© Nir Arieli

Whelan and Brooks danced Some of a Thousand Words at Herbst Theater for San Francisco Performances, and their performance showed that virtuosic dance remains central to her life. Only it’s dance without pointe shoes, mind-boggling extensions or breath-taking lifts. She and Brooks danced barefoot. Extensions, when they infrequently appeared, were no higher than Whelan’s waist. And Brooks’ lifts were no higher than shoulder to shoulder. What made this dance virtuosic was its continuous movement combined with complicated interweaving, split-second timing and the demands that all of those require of memory and the mind.

Brooks has commented that their collaboration is about “force and gravity and momentum”, and the dancers in relation to each other. That literal connection, he says, is “electrifying”. Brooks’ choreography does not use dance as a means of supporting narrative, but rather captures dance in ceaseless physicality and grace. This is not to say that Some of a Thousand Words is purely formalist. The body as it moves, in all its human vulnerability, is never free of emotion, engagement and longing. To watch these dancers is to yearn.

The hour-long program was accompanied by Brooklyn Rider, the New York City–based string quartet, and included the work of five composers – Jacob Cooper, John Luther Adams, Tyondai Braxton, Philip Glass and the quartet’s violinist Colin Jacobsen. The music was edgy and experimental, favoring minimalism and repetition. It fit perfectly with the non-stop intricacies of Brooks’ choreography. The quartet was placed upstage right, and all the flies, wings and curtains of the stage were removed, exposing backstage. A single decorative scrim hung upstage, lowered to about a third of the performance space. That too disappeared for the final dance.

The first movement began with the entrance of the cellist Michael Nicolas, who entered to sit and play Jacob Cooper’s stunning “Arches” – a hypnotic piece for solo cello with live processing. The dancers then entered and positioned themselves upstage center, and from there they began a slow walk forward, in something like walking meditation. Their movements were synchronized throughout, moving from walking to swaying, then swinging their arms. It was as if the dancers were slowly awakening, and discovering the limits of their bodies. Whelan has the preternaturally thin body of the ballerina, and Brooks is muscular rather than thin, though there is no fat on his body. Together they seem otherworldly.

The second movement, with Braxton’s “ArpRec1”, included the entire quartet. The music comprised of clusters of sharp staccato fragments. Whelan performed solo, as if swimming, moving through a medium denser than air – her arms curving over, her head rounding in circles.

Humor enters the piece with Brooks and Whelan in a duet where chairs are their partners. Whelan falls from standing on a chair onto Brooks’ body. She is an object dropping from the sky, he is terra firma. The dance becomes a kind of musical chairs set to the buzzing and pluck pluck pluck of the strings in Jacobsen’s “BTT”. Brook sits on the chair, he revolves out, Whelan’s sitting on the chair then she revolves out. It is not their central action but rather their shifts of weight and complications of limbs and torso that transform their interactions into dance.

There is dance to silence and to the Adams’ environmental music, while the choreography grows more complex. Finally, the dancers end with First Fall an expanded version of their original Restless Creature collaboration. Based like the music on repetitions, Whelan falls back onto Brooks’ body as he drops to his knees then to the ground, their two bodies crossed, over and over, here and there.

No dancer ever wants to stop dancing. Whelan seems to have found her way to continue her masterful expression of the medium through the subtle, intricate and equally masterful contemporary dance choreography of Brian Brooks.