What happens after you hang up your ballet shoes?

Wendy Whelan on stage by Christopher Duggan
Wendy Whelan on stage ©Christopher Duggan
Katie is an award-winning arts journalist specialising in dance and physical theatre
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The theme of this week has been repurposing. All eyes were on Glasgow for the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games – an event that received a mixed bag of opinions across the nation.

It is an important historical year (possibly revolutionary) for Scotland, with a referendum looming on the horizon. We wondered if the ceremony, told not to be too political, would be as groundbreaking as the circumstances the country is currently experiencing, or reflective of the alternate future they may be moving toward.

Hearts may have sunk at the stage setting – the Loch Ness Monster, the Forth Road Bridge and everything drenched in tartan – but by the time the dancing Tunnock’s teacakes came out it was clear this was a case of Glaswegian humour to the fore and by the time all the clichés were out of the way we could get on with enjoying it.

When a kilted bloke ran across the stage it appeared to be a mistake, but turned out to be a charming duet between Scottish Ballet’s Christopher Harrison and Sophie Martin, in a piece reminiscent of Matthew Bourne’s Highland Fling.

And what was the soundtrack? The Proclaimers’ I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), repurposed so that the crowd could not clap and stamp along (although they did try initially). Instead, they settled down to marvel at the spins and applaud the lifts, as though they were suddenly at the ballet and not a crowd event, challenging the collective consciousness of a 21st century Scottish audience.

All this thinking about progress, change, and moving forward – reforming and evolution – stuck with me when watching an exquisite evening of work at the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House.

Wendy Whelan, darling of the New York City Ballet, was told at the tender age of 43 that she was no longer able to play the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. And that was it. She was on the descent. Wendy found herself in the bizarre and depressing realm of the Career Transition For Dancers (CTFD) workshop for “older dancers”, learning about job searches for over 40s, transferrable skills and resumes.

What do dancers do when they retire? Do they teach? Try something altogether new? After a break due to injury, Wendy repurposed her role within dance. She tried something different – choreography – creating work in a new, contemporary technique, with young choreographers, successfully transitioning into a different dance role, proving that an alternate future of change is as possible for her as it is for Scotland.

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