Reviewed by Steve Sucato
A single file line of female corps de ballet dancers in silhouette shuffles across the back of the stage at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater. Accompanied by the haunting string music of composer Philip Glass and looking like some cliché of automaton factory workers, the line of dancers is suddenly juxtaposed by New York City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan lifted by partner Tyler Angle soaring across the stage like some goddess exalted. The scene out of Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces played out like a metaphor for the charmed career Whelan, and few others have attained, basking in the spotlight of stardom for decades while the all but anonymous line of corps dancers trudge along in the background, for most, their careers never to see such heights.
But Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger’s 90-minute documentary Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan (2016) isn’t about the fickle nature of stardom nor so much about Whelan’s ascent to it, but rather what she feels is her impending descent from it and the loss of her identity. It’s a very personal, somewhat inner circle, glimpse into her coming to grips with aging, injury and what happens next.
Filmed beginning in 2013 when she was 46, the documentary takes us through her battle with a painful hip injury, her inner battles over her career, and through her final performance with NYCB and the beginnings of a new chapter in her life.
Like any great athlete that has self-realized or been told that they have lost a step and subsequently see the finish line to their careers is in sight, early on in the film Whelan is knowingly rather fatalistic about her future.
“’If I don’t dance, I’d rather die’—I’ve actually said that,” recalls Whelan in the film. “I feel the ticking clock.”
Shattered and heartbroken at times in the film, Whelan’s penetrating and sometimes mournful expressions harken back to anguished images of runner Mary Decker after falling in the women’s 3,000m final at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, watching in tears as her dreams of Olympic gold ran away from her.
Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Whelan’s early training at the Louisville Ballet Academy led her to New York and the School of American Ballet. In 1984, she was named an apprentice with NYCB and in 1986 she joined its corps de ballet. One of the first post-Balanchine stars of the company, Whelan went on to spend a record-setting 30-years at NYCB, 23 of them as a principal dancer.
Says current NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins about his hiring of Whelan, “It’s not rocket science, when somebody pops up with that gift it’s very easy to identify, you just grab it.”
Unlike other dance documentaries about a single artist, Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan isn’t filled with film/video clips of her dance oeuvre which includes works by choreographers William Forsythe, Alexei Ratmansky, Twyla Tharp, Christopher Wheeldon and her performing most every major Balanchine role, instead the focus is on getting to know the affable waif during a most crucial intersection in her life ─ career reinvention or permanent retirement from the stage.
Cognizant of her gifts as a dancer and her stardom, Whelan says in the film, “I had the world in my hands. I was getting every part under the sun…it was like gold streaming into my world.”
Having worked closely with Jerome Robbins twelve years, originated more roles at NYCB than any other dancer in its history, guested with the Kirov Ballet and The Royal Ballet’s, received numerous awards including the Dance Magazine Award (2007), the Jerome Robbins Award (2011) and a 2011 Bessie Award, Whelan is considered by many as one of the modern era’s most important ballerinas.
It is perhaps that fear of falling from such great heights that seems to haunt Whelan most in the film ─ adulation and stardom are but holes in your parachute once they disappear.
Unusual in its approach to revealing Whelan as a person and an artist during a time of personal crisis, Saffire and Schlesinger’s documentary is a powerfully engaging, wonderfully choreographed and edited film that like any great dance work or film, speaks passionately to the human condition.
The documentary moves through scenes of Whelan reminiscing with the recurring male dance partners she has had in her career (Jock Soto, Craig Hall, Tyler Angle), shows her discussing and rehearsing a new ballet with Ratmansky and Wheeldon for her final performance at NYCB, and details a few somewhat uncomfortable encounters with boss Martins.
Particularly engaging are scenes of Whelan discussing her hip surgery with Dr. Marc Philippon of Colorado’s Vail Valley Medical Center, who says to her “Ballerinas are probably God’s best athletes,” and operation room footage of Whelan’s hip surgery, from prepping her to the first scalpel incision with Whelan awake during it.
The most thoughtful and riveting scenes of the film however are of Whelan’s final performance with NYCB on October 18, 2014. Saffire and Schlesinger masterfully intercut her backstage routine with Whelan dancing onstage for the final time. The soundtrack to these scenes bounces between audio from a backstage hallway monitor and from the performance hall. Cameras from seemingly every angle capture Whelan’s movements. Especially poignant are the silent, reflective and distant stares of Whelan feeling what that ending is like; a different Wendy leaving Neverland knowing she has to grow up.
At films end, Whelan comes to realize that this is not the end for her and dance. That she can take her dancing, career, and stardom to new places and new heights, which we see she has already begun to do.
Abramorama presents a Got The Shot Films Production Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan, directed and produced by Adam Schlesinger and Linda Saffire, executive producer, Diana Dimenna, edited by Bob Eisenhardt, A.C.E., director of photography, Don Lenzer with original music composed by Philip Sheppard. Running time: 1h 30min, WW Dance, LLC © 2016. www.restlesscreaturefilm.com
Abramorama will release Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan in New York at the Elinor Bunin Theater and Film Forum today, May 24, 2017.
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.