BECKET -- Industrious is the word for Wendy Whelan, and, it might be added, courageous.
Here is a woman who has enjoyed an enviable career of more than two decades as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, working with George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and other celebrated choreographers, while enjoying some of the best roles offered by dance. Yet resting on duly accumulated laurels appears entirely foreign to her ambitions.
Whelan more recently has decided to explore the world of modern dance, a realm distinctly separated in many ways from her balletic comfort zone.
"Restless Creature," she might be called, and that is the name of her new project, fully unveiled for the first time Wednesday evening in the Ted Shawn Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.
The undertaking involved the commissioning of duets from four notable choreographers -- Brian Brooks, Kyle Abraham, Alejandro Cerrudo and Joshua Beamish -- who created dances, ranging in running time from 12 to 22 minutes, with each of the dance makers participating in his duet with Whelan.
Brooks and Whelan began working on his dance, "First Fall," more than a year ago, and the effect of that extended period of careful rendition and rehearsal is manifest in what was displayed at the premiere Wednesday. Over that period the two clearly have established a synergy that has given Whelan superb confidence and trust in this partner, and vested in Brooks insight into both Whelan’s endowments and her less developed gifts, allowing the two to draw from this intelligence and move on to a refined collaboration.
When Whelan makes her first appearance in this dance, the last on the program, youthfully vibrant, buoyant in her movement, she seems to exude this great measure of confidence in Brooks, and he returns the assurance that she is in safe hands, as he lifts her gracefully and repeatedly, and the two dip with stylish unity.
Whelan rises to her tiptoes -- the two dance barefoot -- several times falling back slowly as Brooks, behind her on hands and knees catches and supports her as she recedes to a supine position before recovering upright..
Like couples who complete each other’s sentences, each anticipates the other’s next move. They have developed a marvelous two-part movement in which Brooks first carries her horizontally as she reclines with her back on his, moving along the floor until he reaches up to grasp her waist with one hand, then swivels her around to allow both hands on her waist, and proceeds to spin her while holding her in a still horizontal position.
Such intricate ambulations -- and this one occurred more than once -- seemed defiant to human balance within gravitational boundaries. Their breathless execution of Brooks’ 13-minute piece was intensified by the relentless Minimalist music of Philip Glass, including part of his Third Quartet.
Abraham and Whelan have not worked together as long as she and Brooks. Still, in "The Serpent and the Smoke," their concise movement suggests a clearly-developed relationship that serves both well. In the first part of the dance, which Abraham has suggested is drawn from the legend of the snake attracted to a spiral of smoke as a potential mate, Abraham stalks Whelan as she moves sensuously around the stage, his eyes never leaving her, her gaze returning his in the manner of a temptress.
Throughout Abraham’s piece, danced in stocking feet and abetted by Joe Levasseur’s sensitive dim lighting, an air of both passion and mystery prevails as the two draw closer before, ultimately, the myth of love’s consummation is uncovered. Abraham has confined his work to a brief 12 minutes, and not a second is extraneous.
Cerrudo’s "Ego Et Tu," transposed with Beamish’s "Waltz Epoca" as the opening number, began with Cerrudo alone, moving about briefly with copious hand and arm gestures, then suddenly disappearing, while Whelan repeated the same patterns of movement. With a varietal score ranging from Max Richter to Glass in the air, the two offered side-by-side unison forward- and side-steps, and Cerrudo, in his 12-minute assignment, managed some smoothly executed lifts and spins of Whelan.
Several times, while making close body contact -- Whelan behind Cerrudo -- she covered his eyes with one hand while seeming to guide him around, and in movement near the floor, with only one slight mishap, she glided deftly between his parted legs.
Beamish’s piece, performed to a set of six somewhat quirky waltzes by the Slovenian composer Borut Krzisnik, separated the two for much of its too-long 22 minutes. The atmosphere generally was chilly, with minimal body contact until late in the dance when Whelan reappeared, her plain, form-fitting top and tights replaced by a flowing bright red gown, whereupon he spun her around in three-quarter time as perhaps a discovery at the ball.
Whelan’s transition into the modern idiom remains a work-in-progress, but with scrupulous application -- and she certainly seems capable and willing -- and with gifted and sensitive partners like Brooks, and Abraham as well, devoting time to help spirit her further into this new adventure, the possibilities are exciting.
Following Sunday’s final performance, "Restless Creature" will go on a nine-city tour, reaching Boston in March.