Rest­less Crea­ture: Wendy Whelan

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Nutcracker. Rest­less Crea­ture Rest­less Crea­ture Pic­tures at an Ex­hi­bi­tion,

Wendy Whelan was one of the most cel­e­brated bal­let dancers in New York City Bal­let un­til her re­tire­ment in 2014. She per­formed 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

“I don’t want peo­ple to see you in de­cline,” he said. “I’m in de­cline?” she asked. “Am I that bad?” Shortly after­ward, she be­gan to suf­fer from a painful hip con­di­tion, which caused her to even­tu­ally take a leave from the com­pany and un­dergo surgery.

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. The film­mak­ers, Linda Saf­fire and Adam Sch­lesinger, present Whelan in the most in­ti­mate, un­com­fort­able, and hon­est light, from close-ups that hide none of her wrin­kles, to scenes dur­ing her surgery and heart-to-heart talks with friends who have re­tired be­fore her. What emerges, through day-to-day in­ter­ac­tions as well as ex­cerpts of her stun­ning danc­ing at NYCB over the years, is a por­trait of a funny, down-to-earth, and 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 give 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, on the verge of her re­tire­ment. “That was the best thing ever,” she says. “I didn’t ex­pect to be thriv­ing just in time to say good­bye.”

is a not-to-be-missed jour­ney way, way be­hind the scenes in a bal­le­rina’s life. — Michael Wade Simp­son

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