Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan
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