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By Joseph Carman
Five ballerinas on Christopher Wheeldon's serene After the Rain
Rare is the ballet that resonates so profoundly with audiences that it becomes an instant hit. Premiered at New York City Ballet in 2005 as the second part of a two-part ballet choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, the pas de deux from After the Rain quietly made a deeply felt impression. This duet has now been performed as a standalone by several other companies, including the Joffrey Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, and The Australian Ballet. The original cast at NYCB included the unforgettable pairing of Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto.
On paper, it sounds slight. Running around 11 minutes, with no bravura jumping or turning, and consisting of slow, measured movement without a crescendo and with a ballerina clad in soft slippers rather than pointe shoes, it doesn’t sound like the type of ballet that would produce ecstatic ovations. In the age of slam-bang, competition-obsessed choreography, it provides the perfect antidote—an intelligently, masterfully choreographed ballet that strikes an emotional chord. The still point at the heart of the work lingers long after the curtain has descended.
According to Wheeldon, the piece was choreographed quickly—within three rehearsals. Even though he set out to create the ballet the same way he often did with Whelan and Soto—without a lot of discussion and instead concentrating on a process of collaborative movement—something subconsciously emerged. “What came through was this love letter, this poem to both of them as artists. It also touched on my personal relationship with Jock and my professional relationship with both of them,” says Wheeldon. (This was the last piece he choreographed on Soto before Soto’s retirement.) After the first run-through in the studio, everyone was stunned, even Wheeldon. “I’m usually fairly unmoved by my own work,” he says. “I didn’t quite understand as we were making it what kind of poetic moment was being created.”
The music Wheeldon chose is Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, and it’s hard to imagine anything else that fits the other-worldly score so perfectly. The title means “Mirror in Mirror,” denoting the images reflected back and forth by facing mirrors. “The music has been compared to a prism,” says Rachel Foster, soloist with Pacific Northwest Ballet, who has danced the ballet with partner Jeffrey Stanton. “When you hold it up to a light, you can see so many colors.”
The music was sent to Wheeldon by a friend at a time when the choreographer says he was “stressed out.” “Even though you could consider it minimalist because of the very repetitive phrases for the violin and the piano, it seemed to have such an emotional resonance,” says Wheeldon.
Set in 6/4 time, with the piano playing triads that sound like falling raindrops and the violin playing slow scales that rise and fall, the ballet has the gentle lilt of a lullaby. The serenity is wholly matched by the choreography, which evokes feelings of tenderness, devotion, loss, and melancholy.
The two dancers start side by side, the woman in a light pink leotard and the man clad in white pants. Standing in parallel position, they rock quietly from side to side. The ballerina eases into a backbend and her partner lifts her gently, her feet flexed as though still on the floor, and rotates her around. All the partnering maneuvers are delivered seamlessly during the unwavering adagio. When they step away from each other, it’s as if to inhabit separate but simpatico spaces. In one sequence, she kneels, leaning against but facing away from his leg, and pushes his feet forward as she moves backwards on the balls of her feet.
Whelan’s interpretation has changed over time and with different partners. But with Soto, she says, “there was so much in my version with Jock of letting go—of having had a strong connection of human bodies and letting go. It feels like I’m part of him peeling away. We’re taking off the skin and bones and getting down to the spirit of the person and the spiritual connection between the people.”
Images enter and leave the imagination like fragments of a dream. The angels are in the details. Yuan Yuan Tan, principal dancer with SFB, has two favorites. One is what she calls the “Rolls-Royce” figurehead, in which the ballerina perches ethereally on her partner’s right leg and leans forward in croisé arabesque as she reaches outward. Another occurs when she is lying on the floor and her partner (Damian Smith) offers her a hand and leads her up gradually from the ground. “My head slowly comes up—it’s like a shampoo commercial,” says Tan.
But one of the most memorable images occurs twice after the man drags the ballerina in a second position split and she then embraces him. The first time, his hands drift and sway downwards like falling leaves. Later, on the repeat of the phrase, her hands do the same. “I associate it with autumn,” says Victoria Jaiani of the Joffrey Ballet, who was partnered by Fabrice Calmels. It encapsulates the feeling of the whole piece for her. “It’s as if it’s the last time I get to touch this person, or even feel him. That type of sorrow is what I’m feeling—not being able to share or see this person. It’s like the last breath.”
For Danielle Rowe, former principal artist with The Australian Ballet (and now first soloist at Houston Ballet), dancing the piece brought a natural serenity. “I imagine the sense of calm and simple beauty that appears after the rain,” she says. “Like a ray of sunshine peering through a rain cloud or a single leaf floating in the breeze, peaceful images that allow me to reflect on the quiet nature of the choreography.”
Wheeldon, who coaches the casts after they have learned it, encourages each ballerina to find her own way into After the Rain. (Ashley Wheater, Edwaard Liang, and Damian Smith have set the ballet.) “The worst thing you can do with After the Rain is to ‘act’ it,” he says. “It’s better to settle in and dance it as a piece of movement. When Yuan Yuan dances it, it’s like a piece of nature, like watching a beautiful piece of willow move. With Wendy, it is very human.”
Likewise, Whelan doesn’t want her performance to be robotically replicated. “I don’t ever try to tell them what I do,” she says. “I just try to help them make it their own. It has to be a really honest portrait of each dancer who does it.” Of the ballerinas interviewed for this article, only Tan had never seen Whelan dance it live. Even watching Whelan on tape, she was still floored by her endlessly stretched lines and the beautiful use of her hands.
The feeling of weightlessness coupled with a grounding of movement on the floor and flexed feet makes for a tricky combination in a ballet with such a hushed atmosphere. “I forget that it’s a ballet,” says Whelan. “It has to lose the balletic energy and become something way different.”
To give the proper illusion, Rowe allows her partner to lead and manipulate her with effortless simplicity. “I endeavor to eliminate affectation and leave the choreography to its own devices,” she wrote in an e-mail.
That the ballerina wears ballet slippers and never goes onto pointe adds another element to the “unballet” feeling. At first, Whelan was miffed and confused without her pointe shoes. “It was alarming to me. I had never done anything off pointe in NYCB—ever. It was like a mortal sin. I was like, Are we allowed to do that?” Obviously, she adjusted quite well. In Whelan’s performances, her extraordinarily lithe body communicates through line and motion a sense of relinquishing any tension while expressing a full subtext of emotion.
“With ballet slippers the trick is to really spread the toes and feel the ground,” says Jaiani of her Joffrey performances. “In order for it to look effortless and light, it has to be grounded.”
When the audience watches the pas de deux, an uncanny combination of focus, stillness, and awe permeates the crowd. “I forget that I am performing in front of an audience,” says Foster. “But I know there is a shared sense of feeling with the audience.”
Whelan approaches it from an opposite attitude. “I definitely feel like I’m steering the audience wherever it goes. I am extremely aware of them. That adds a whole other element to how I dance it.”
The fact that the ballet has become universally popular with dancers and audiences is evident. Why it does so on such a resounding scale remains a little more elusive. “I think people are able to attach a little piece of themselves to it,” says Wheeldon. “It is sort of bonding for an audience. There aren’t very many places or opportunities for us these days to share in a common experience like that.” He also feels that the working process helped to shape the work’s possibilities. “What can be so useful about working in a strictly abstract way and building a dance through a musical impetus is that you are quite often surprised at what comes across and that it communicates a narrative.”
“I think that because the pas de deux is so simple and spare, if it is done really well, it takes the art of ballet to a different level than what we are used to seeing,” says Whelan. “It reaches more people because it is a little more human.”
Wheeldon claims he’ll be lucky if he can create something that casts that spell again in his career. “And, hey,” he says, “if I don’t, at least I did it once.”
Joseph Carman is a contributing editor at Dance Magazine.
Pictured: Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto in After the Rain. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.