Wendy Whelan was one of the celebrated ballet dancers in the New York City Ballet. until her retirement in 2014. She danced leading roles in many of the classic Balanchine and Robbins works that form the basis for the company’s distinctive style and reputation, but she also created roles in new dances by a younger generation of talented choreographers, including Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky. One day, after nearly 30 years with the company, Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins called her into his office to tell her he was not casting her in the annual “Nutcracker.” “I don’t want people to see you in decline,” he said. “I’m in decline?” she asked. “Am I that bad?” Shortly afterwards, she began to suffer from a painful hip condition which caused her to eventually take a leave from the company and undergo surgery.
“Restless Creature,” is not a movie about a ballerina’s decline. It is a powerful and moving documentary about one artist choosing to rise above the seemingly insurmountable obstacles placed upon her by age, injury, and ballet itself, to come to terms with her own power as a dancer and, in her own words, “to grow up.”
For any professional dancer, moving on to a life after dance is excruciatingly painful. Be prepared to sob, as this ex-dancer did, throughout “Restless Creature.” The film-makers, Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger, present Whelan in the most intimate, uncomfortable and honest light imaginable, from close-ups which hide none of her 47-year-old wrinkles, to scenes during her surgery, to heart-to-heart talks with friends who have retired before her. What emerges, through day-to-day interactions, as well as excerpts of stunning dancing at NYCB over the years, is a portrait of a funny, down-to-earth, completely obsessed dancer.
“I have never been this lost,” she says, in the middle of the slow and painful process of physical therapy, in which her doctors gave her a 50-50 chance of ever performing again. “I’ve been living in a fantasy world for most of my life. As a young kid, you don’t see the end. You don’t have babies, you don’t have a boyfriend, you don’t get married. You think you’re going to keep blossoming forever.”
Whelan’s determination to return to the stage on her own terms is remarkable, as is the love and respect shown to her in scenes with friends and colleagues. Wheeldon and Ratmansky create a piece for her farewell performance, but in what is perhaps the more generous act, Ratmansky casts her in a new ballet. “That was the best thing ever,” she says. “I didn’t expect to be thriving just in time to say goodbye.”
“Restless Creature,” is a not-to-be-missed journey way, way behind the scenes in a ballerina’s life.