Film Review: Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan

This close-up, captivating look at American ballerina Wendy Whelan as she prepares for her retirement from the New York City Ballet is full of surprises and will interest balletomanes as well as general audiences.
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A shocking documentary, Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan takes a surprisingly close-up look at the esteemed American ballerina as she is forced to retire after dancing for a record-setting 30 years with the New York City Ballet. The first shock comes in the film’s opening minutes when we realize the filmmakers, Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger, are taking cameras into an operating room and filming the 46-year-old Whelan as she undergoes surgery for a labral tear in her hip. Queasy viewers will need to look away as lenses zoom in on bloody body parts and proffer doctor’s-view shots of the surgical procedures.

It’s shocking that Whelan allowed such filming, yet it’s also telling. It shows how unafraid she is of presenting herself intimately and honestly. Devoid of anything resembling diva-like behavior, Whelan faces life’s hard realities with a down-to-earth dignity. Her extreme openness allowed the filmmakers to wander freely into her emotional landscape, terrain we’re happy to visit, as it feels warm and grounded, despite the fears she is harboring about her imminent retirement, confounded by the uncertainty surrounding whether or not she will be able to dance again post-surgery. “If I don’t dance, I’d rather die,” Whelan once declared. And even she sounds shocked when she admits, “I actually said that.”

Another huge jolt comes as Whelan relates a conversation she had with her “boss,” NYCB’s ballet master-in-chief Peter Martins, about two years earlier. The acclaimed ballerina was dumbstruck when Martins informed her that he didn’t want her to dance in The Nutcracker anymore. “You don’t want people to see you in decline,” he allegedly said. Feeling fine, Whelan had had no idea she was “in decline.” It was immediately after that disturbing meeting that she started experiencing the hip pain that ultimately necessitated the surgery.

The film borrows its title from that of a program of new works created especially for Whelan by four contemporary-dance choreographers. The plan was for her to recuperate from her surgery, then—prior to returning to NYCB for her final season—she would perform “Restless Creature” on tour around the country, marking her transition into less physically demanding ways of moving that would allow her to continue her dance performance career. Surprisingly, Whelan doesn’t seem to hear her physical therapists’ instructions about how to pace her recuperation. She overworks and one day, with a heart-stopping thud, a hawk lands on the air conditioner outside her apartment window. Astonished, she realizes it’s a signal and suddenly cancels the “Restless Creature” tour to devote herself fully to her NYCB comeback and culminating season with the company.

Whelan astounds the ballet community when, for her farewell performance—for which dancers are permitted to choose what ballets they’d like to perform one last time—she asks to have a new work created for her, just for that evening, by ballet’s two foremost living choreographers: Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon, both of whom had created ballets for her previously. Not egotistical, Whelan’s request was fitting—since no one at NYCB had originated more roles in new ballets than she had—and also generous because, while memorializing her past, it simultaneously underlined the ever-evolving nature of the art form.

Ballet connoisseurs will find Restless Creature captivating, yet the uninitiated need not shy away from it. An enlightening film, it offers a healthy amount of footage of Whelan in action, which makes her superiority as a dancer easy for any viewer to grasp. And—like a documentarian’s ideal human subject—she emerges as both relatable and remarkable.

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