KET documentary focuses on successful Kentucky dancer

New York City Ballet principal dancer Wendy Whelan is a Louisville native.
New York City Ballet principal dancer Wendy Whelan is a Louisville native.

Seven years into making features for Kentucky Educational Television's Kentucky Muse, filmmaker Tom Thurman finds he is still learning new things. This time, he learned about dance.

"Dance has never been a strong suit for me, so it's been kind of a steep learning curve for me throughout this entire process," Thurman says of making Wendy Whelan: Moments of Grace, which premieres Friday on KET. "I don't know much about jazz, but I know when I listen to Thelonious Monk I'm hearing something very different, very distinct.

"Wendy Whelan is one of those artists you don't confuse with anyone else — she looks and moves so differently."

Whelan, 45, is a Louisville native who says during the hourlong documentary that she got her first taste of ballet when she attended the Louisville Ballet's performance of the Nutcracker when she was 6.

"I ran up and looked in the orchestra pit and I saw the orchestra," Whelan says. "And the curtain went up, and I saw the ballet, and all this stuff came together in this weird way. I thought it was kind of cool."

In retrospect, that's an understatement.

The next year, Whelan was in the show. Today, she has been dancing for nearly 40 years. Most of those years have been with the New York City Ballet, which she joined as an apprentice in 1984. She has been a principal dancer with the company since 1991.

Thurman says Whelan was an obvious choice for a Kentucky Muse feature. The key to getting it done, he says, was to secure financing to travel to New York and film Whelan at home and in performance at Lincoln Center. Being in the city, he says, was important in telling the story of her longevity as a dancer, a field known for notoriously short careers.

"There was a reviewer in The New York Times referring to her musculature, saying she was like a Thoroughbred — she's so distinct and so muscular and so cut," Thurman says.

The film shows Whelan going through the daily routine that keeps her fit, including classes and studio work. It also goes into her past through home movies showing young Wendy taking her first dance steps.

"The great thing is if some kids see this, maybe from Eastern Kentucky," Thurman says. "Maybe they'll watch her and say, 'She's one of the greatest dancers in the world and she comes from Louisville. Maybe I can do that, too.'"


'Wendy Whelan: Moments of Grace'

What: The new Kentucky Muse feature

When: Premieres at 10 p.m. Jan. 11 on KET and repeats numerous times on KET and its sister channels, KET2 and KETKY. Go to for full schedules.

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