COURTESY CHRISTOPHER DUGGANFormer New York City Ballet star Wendy Whelan’s contemporary program “Restless Creature” features the dancer in duets with cutting-edge choreographers including Brian Brooks.

COURTESY CHRISTOPHER DUGGANFormer New York City Ballet star Wendy Whelan’s contemporary program “Restless Creature” features the dancer in duets with cutting-edge choreographers including Brian Brooks.

Prima ballerina Wendy Whelan goes modern

Even before ending an amazing 30-year classical career just a few months ago, Wendy Whelan, an internationally acclaimed star of the New York City Ballet, was hard at work at something new.

At 47 – a so-called “dinosaur” in traditional ballet – Whelan has started touring in “Restless Creature,” an evening-length contemporary dance program onstage this week in a San Francisco Performances presentation.

“Terrifying and liberating” is how Whelan describes dancing barefoot for the first time, a new challenge that came with the new repertoire.

Preparing for “Restless Creatures,” Whelan says she had to overcome the fear of cutting her feet or hurting her bones. Later, though, as she attained mastery of the floor, she rejoiced in “being able to grip the floor with my feet that were so strong from the pointe shoes.”

With ballet and modern dance differing beyond the use of toe shoes – body structure, muscle movement, artistic sensibility and longevity also are contrasting factors – only a few famous dancers make the difficult transition after retiring from ballet.

Whelan credits Mikhail Baryshnikov as the example for continuing in dance, while he has saluted her fortitude in embarking on a new career. One of Whelan's longtime admirers, he has called her “the best … with a complexity, a sense of internal life.”

Whelan, who has originated more than 40 principal roles by a dozen major choreographers (including Jerome Robbins, William Forsythe, Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon), now commissions new works for herself.

“Restless Creature” is a suite of duets created by four in-demand young choreographers: MacArthur Fellow Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks and Hubbard Street’s Alejandro Cerrudo. Each performs his own work with Whelan.

The show premiered at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts in August 2013, and internationally in London at Covent Garden in July last year. The Guardian newspaper said, “The duets are … low-lit, tastefully abstract pieces, not too unballetic in style.”

Varied music for “Restless Creature” features works by Bach, Philip Glass (the string quartet adaptation of the “Mishima” soundtrack), contemporary English composers Max Richter and Gavin Bryars, German prepared-piano composer Hauschka, and Icelandic crossover instrumentalists Ólafur Arnalds and Hildur Guðnadóttir.

IF YOU GO

Wendy Whelan

Presented by San Francisco Performances

Where: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard St., S.F.

When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 15-16

Tickets: $40 to $60

Contact: (415) 392-2545, www.sfperformances.org

artsDanceNew York City BalletRestless CreaturesWendy Whelan

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