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Keep dancing: the ballet stars leaping through the age barrier

Their bodies hurt, the roles are drying up and everyone’s comparing them with their younger selves. So how do ballerinas maintain their careers after hitting 40? Wendy Whelan (48) and Alessandra Ferri (52) reveal all

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Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli in Woolf Works at the Royal Opera House, choreographed by Wayne McGregor. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

“I felt I’d outgrown my shoes,” says Wendy Whelan. “My mind had expanded beyond what was being asked of me.” When Whelan retired from New York City Ballet last year, the art form lost one of its most incisive, poetic and adventurous ballerinas. Yet classical ballet’s loss has been contemporary dance’s gain. Far from retiring altogether, 48-year-old Whelan is simply moving on – to experiment with a new kind of language.

“Contemporary dance is a completely different way of thinking and moving,” she says. “I’m already smitten by it – renewed, energised and inspired.” However, it wasn’t just an appetite for artistic challenge that caused Whelan to leave ballet, it was also – inevitably – her age. She’d continued performing far longer than most classical dancers (the average retirement age for both men and women hovers around 40). Yet while audiences still queued up to see Whelan, she felt oppressed by the diminishing number of new roles that were coming her way, and by the sense that she was always being compared, unfavourably, to her younger self. “There is no comparison with how I was at 28, nor should there be,” she says impatiently. “I’m not as I was then, except that I do now have all this confidence, power and wisdom.”

Wendy Whelan dances at the Royal Opera House's  Linbury Studio in 2014.

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Wendy Whelan dances at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio in 2014. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

It’s a profound faultline in ballet that the point at which dancers are maturing as artists is also the point at which their bodies – at least by the exacting standards of the art form – are on the decline. Ballet is predicated on codified notions of beauty, on a language whose high-powered lifts, pirouettes, pointe work and jumps place extreme demands on the body. Like any championship-level sport, it favours the very young. Many would argue that, as the bar for physical virtuosity continues to rise, it becomes harder for older dancers, even exceptional ones like Whelan, to sustain a long career.

Contemporary dance is different. Constantly evolving, with a freer spectrum of physical expression, it can far more easily adapt itself to older dancers. Merce Cunninghamperforming into his late 60s, and the octogenarian marvelDiana Payne-Myers have, along with countless others, demonstrated that age need not be a bar to dancing with authority and grace.

As Whelan finds new choreographers to work with, she’s delighting in the fact that her maturity is now perceived as an asset. Arthur Pita is one of the five dance-makers commissioned to create Other Stories, a programme of contemporary works that Whelan is performing with Edward Watson this summer. For Pita, Whelan’s age is integral to the gorgeousness of her dancing. “She has so much information and experience in her body. You just look at her back and at how it moves, and you see all this history.”

Pita might say the same of Sylvie Guillem, who made her own transition from classical to contemporary over a decade ago. Guillem was one of history’s great ballerinas, yet when she began to perform modern dance works, she developed a physical eloquence that was no less mesmerising. Even though Guillem has now decided to retire, at 50 she’s dancing her farewell performances to a standard most can only dream of.

Sylvie Guillem (here with Russell Maliphant) is dancing farewell performances at 50 to a standard many artists can only dream of.

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Sylvie Guillem (here with Russell Maliphant) is dancing farewell performances at 50 to a standard many artists can only dream of. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

It was Mikhail Baryshnikov, back in the 1980s, who most famously made the move from ballet to contemporary, in order to extend his career. At 65, he’s still on stage. Yet if a growing number of dancers (interestingly, more women than men) have been following his example, there are signs that ballet is waking up to the fact that it’s been missing a trick in its institutionalised neglect of older dancers. Certainly, the most talked-about performance at Royal Ballet this season was given not by any whiz-kid virtuoso, but by 52-year-old Alessandra Ferri.

Ferri had not planned to continue dancing into middle age. Back in 2007, she’d walked away from her career – discouraged by the increasingly painful toll it was taking on her body, but also eager to develop new interests and spend more time with her two daughters. She hadn’t reckoned, though, on how much she would miss dancing, and in 2013 she returned to the stage. Initially, she was drawn to contemporary dance theatre, performing in Martha Clarke’s adaptation of the Colette novel Chéri, coming to the UK this September. But Ferri was then approached by Wayne McGregor, who asked her to dance the lead in his new ballet, Woolf Works.

She knew it would be challenging and exposing: putting her back on an opera house stage in fiercely demanding choreography. “It took courage to dive back in,” she admits. But, having done so, Ferri says she rediscovered the vocation she’d felt for ballet when she was very young. “It didn’t feel like a job this time. The passion was so pure it gave me the strength to work through the physical difficulties and the pain.”

The performances Ferri gave in Woolf Works were astonishing: her dancing had not lost any of its musicality and line, but had acquired a new measured intensity, an aura of haunting, physical frailty that brought nuance and even truthfulness to the performances of the younger dancers around her. Ferri, rightly, believes that it was important for those juniors to watch her at work. “When I began my career, there were a few older dancers, like Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley, still in the Royal. I learned so much from them, they had so much theatrical weight and I think in Wayne’s ballet I was able to offer the younger dancers the same thing.” McGregor agrees. “Alessandra was fantastic to collaborate with, bringing her experience, authority and her own voice into the studio. She wasn’t frightened to ask questions, to have the conversation with me, which I loved.”

Leanne Benjamin, dancing for the Royal Ballet in 2004.

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Leanne Benjamin, dancing for the Royal Ballet in 2004. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Ferri is of course a remarkable artist and her return to the Royal for this one guest project shouldn’t be exaggerated into a trend. But it’s significant that Woolf Works also featured a revelatory performance from 45-year-old Gary Avis, who as a character artist with the Royal had not done much actual dancing in years, until he was liberated back into pure movement by McGregor’s choreography.

According to Jane Paris, Pilates and conditioning coach for the Royal, new developments in sports science and dance medicine are allowing classical dancers of both sexes to consider the possibility of deferring retirement. She points to former Royal Ballet principal Leanne Benjamin, who danced to a “fantastically high level” until she was 49. However, Paris does believe that Benjamin and Ferri will remain exceptions for some time. “It takes dancers of incredible intelligence and ability to sustain really long careers,” she says, pointing out that many older dancers would only consider staying in ballet if choreographers started to create roles appropriate for them.

No one, clearly, is advocating that performances of Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake should be cast with 50-year-olds. But McGregor has demonstrated how much of a waste it can be for mature artists simply to be put out to pasture as non-dancing kings, queens, eccentrics and crones. They can be capable of a far wider choreographic and expressive range; and, if they’re given the right material, can bring much-needed texture, contrast, wit and realism to the ballet stage.

Whelan, for one, would love to see that occur. “It would take a real change in attitude to break the mould of young, young, young in the ballet world. But it would be genius if it happened.”

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This entry was posted on July 6, 2015 by and tagged , .

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