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There’s a tender image that speaks volumes near the end of Restless Creature, an intimate chronicle of New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan’s emotional departure from the company that had been her professional home for 30 years. While Whelan works with choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and partner Tyler Angle in a small rehearsal room, developing a piece that will serve as the 47-year-old ballerina’s farewell performance, a growing cluster of bunheads from the School of American Ballet watches rapt outside the door. They appear to be contemplating their own futures in a punishing field in which most careers are over by 40, their faces a flickering collision of admiration and apprehension.
That’s not to infer that Whelan dances like somebody no longer in command. Even after undergoing hip reconstruction surgery and pushing herself hard through recuperative physical therapy, her sinewy body still moves with the angular grace and sensual intensity, the playfulness and dramatic complexity that made her such a distinctive star.
It’s that resilience that makes this probing documentary portrait by producer-directors Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger so pleasurable. It focuses not on an artist in decline but on a woman of extraordinary strength and determination as she concedes to the dictates of time while figuring out a way to continue doing what she loves. In a presidential election year in which questions concerning “stamina” have been hurled at the female candidate like a dirty word, the film is inspiring. That factor alone should make it of interest to audiences beyond ballet aficionados, in home-screen formats and select theatrical dates.
With a half-laugh suggesting that she’s aware of the self-dramatizing nature of the statement, Whelan early on confesses: “If I don’t dance, I’d rather die — I’ve actually said that.” The reality of a limited shelf life is arguably more unforgiving for ballet dancers than for artists in any other field, putting them in the same league as professional athletes. While Whelan had already shown more endurance than most in her City Ballet career by the time shooting on this documentary began, the honesty, anxiety and even the occasional humor with which she approaches its looming end date are quite moving.
A ballerina since she was three in Louisville, Kentucky, Whelan moved unaccompanied to New York to train at 15. (Photographs and footage of her dancing as a child and teenager are charming.) She joined City Ballet as an apprentice in 1984, becoming a company member in ’86, a soloist in ’89 and a principal dancer in ’91. More than once, Whelan points out that she’s been fortunate in remaining relatively pain- and injury-free throughout her long career, despite being diagnosed with scoliosis, which required her to wear a back brace to ballet class at age 12. However, the extended grace period ended in 2012 with a joint tear requiring hip surgery.
Whelan is a candid subject at every turn as she prepares to go on the operating table and then throughout her recovery, all the while wondering if the difficult decision about her retirement from City Ballet has been made for her by her body. Anyone versed in the ballet world — which means a large part of this film’s audience — will know the outcome, and yet the filmmakers skillfully build an element of suspense.
Her farewell performance, with a piece titled By 2 With & From, created for Whelan by two of her most frequent choreographer collaborators, Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky, took place in fall 2014. It’s recapped here with gorgeous footage from the ballet itself, but also of the stirring curtain calls, during which Whelan is swamped with roses, most touchingly receiving an individual stem from each of the company members as they flood the stage.
Eschewing talking heads for Whelan’s own first-hand recollections and snatches of conversation between her and some of her many City Ballet colleagues, past and present, the film assembles a full-bodied appreciation of her contribution to the art and the profound respect she commands within the field. This is enhanced by thrilling footage from celebrated pieces by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Ratmansky and Wheeldon, among others, and pas de deux in which she dances with longtime stage partner Jock Soto, and then later with Angle and Craig Hall. But alongside the celebratory coverage is a frank account of the sadness for a prima ballerina at being gradually nudged out of the leading roles for which she was so acclaimed.
Refreshingly, Whelan chooses to dwell less on the sacrifices she has made and the losses of late-career transition than on the conviction that continuing to dance for her is simply a physiological need. The process by which she accepts the end of her tenure at City Ballet — while exploring new paths in modern dance, working with four young choreographers to develop the piece that gives this film its title — is both humbling and triumphant.
Aided by impeccable work from editor Bob Eisenhardt, co-directors Saffire and Schlesinger weave this extended diary into a narrative as fluid, committed and elegant in its movements as one of Whelan’s performances. Perhaps the loveliest touch is a string of images over the end credits from Whelan’s Instagram feed, validating her choices with evidence that she continues to perform Restless Creature and other post-City Ballet work at age 49 and into the future.
Venue: New York Film Festival (Spotlight on Documentary)
Production company: Got the Shot Films
Producer-directors: Linda Saffire, Adam Schlesinger
Executive producers: Diana DiMenna
Director of photography: Don Lenzer
Music: Philip Sheppard
Editor: Bob Eisenhardt
Sales: Cinetic Media
Not rated, 93 minutes
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