Posted on October 19, 2017
Daniel Pratt sees a documentary film about Wendy Whelan
“You know I’ve sat at this spot for 23 years?” Wendy Whelan opens the film Restless Creature looking into a mirror whilst applying stage make-up. Her frank, wise and intimate tone presages much about this moving documentary that charts the last months of her classical career with New York City Ballet (NYCB) in 2014. I often comment on the evanescence of a dancer’s career in these blogs; the idea that you only have one chance to reveal the knowledge you have gained within yourself. Amongst that finality, there is much repetition; much ritual that grounds you and forces constant self-evaluation. Throughout Restless Creature, Whelan reveals the paradox that over time, dancers are the same, but different. Each day, each class, each rehearsal, forms another layer of paint for us to express a choreographer’s intentions with: the same steps take on a more sophisticated vocabulary to speak with. The film looks at how a dancer comes to terms with all that accrues over a career and offers some ideas about where to place all the “gold that [streamed] into your world”.
I first saw Whelan dance when NYCB came to London in 2008. She was performing the pas de deux in George Balanchine’s Agon and she was like no one else I had ever seen. The power in her coltish frame was compelling. Directed by Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger, Restless Creature shows how Whelan defined an era of dance in New York. Joining NYCB the year of Balanchine’s death, Whelan worked extensively with Jerome Robbins in the last years of his life, and became the muse for new work. As Christopher Wheeldon observes, Whelan embodied “something very modern… a different type of ballerina.” In her 30-year career at NYCB, she originated more new roles than anyone else, but the film isn’t simply a valedictory ode to Whelan’s career: in the words of The New York Times’ Brian Seibert, “the film [turns] an extreme form of midlife crisis into a heartening tale… the potential compensations of age seem as beautiful as any ballet”.
The film has a special relevance for me because it details Whelan’s journey through surgery to repair a labral tear in her right hip. I suffered the same injury in 2015, and was put back together by the same doctor Whelan sees, at the same clinic in Vail, Colorado. Whelan was the first person I read about when I became injured, and looking at the personal record of her recovery on her Instagram account held talismanic power for me during one of the most challenging moments in my career to date. It was fascinating, then, to see the ebb and flow of her recovery played out on screen because it made me see my experience was the same; though different.
In the early stages of recovery, Whelan confides in a friend that “people are now calling me the former ballerina of New York City Ballet… people think I’ve retired already”. Though she’s good-humoured about the comment, it’s piercing quality lingers. Whelan shows the kind of determination to keep exploring her dance that Arlene Croce detailed in reference to another NYCB legend, Suzanne Farrell, whom after her own hip surgery, “did not care to become the latest victim claimed by those who think that ballet destroys dancers.” I was struck by the alien nature of the operating theatre where Whelan’s surgery takes place; it’s juxtaposition with the interior of the Koch Theater, where Whelan spends her working life, is cogent. The implicit message, seeing a person used to supreme command of every muscle in their body, immobile and operated on, is unnerving, but humbling. I love the way blogger and former dancer with Boston Ballet, Shelby Elsbree observes when talking about Restless Creature that: “Wendy [exposes] the emotional binaries that all dancers… face… fear/bravery, doubt/courage, defeat/resilience, weakness/strength.”
Though dancers are “God’s best athletes”, control within a ballet career is another aspect the film holds a dressing room mirror up to. In candid moments, Whelan talks about the nature of technique: “I worked for 20 years to be able to do that, I mastered it, I did it, I did it, I did it, I did it… I can’t do that anymore.” The loss of skill is devastating. The rawest moment comes when Whelan curses at herself, “You’re 46 years old and you’re still dreaming like a you’re teenage kid.” I found it interesting to see how even a dancer of Whelan’s calibre felt pressure “from above”. Detailing a meeting with her director Peter Martins, Whelan points at the symbiotic relationship between a dancers physical health and their mental well-being, something the dance world is starting to make increased connections between: “[Peter] took me out of The Nutcracker… Things that I’d always done, were all of a sudden not mine anymore… I had never been in debilitating pain until I had that meeting. It started to eat me up. It started to take everything from me, it started to steal what I had.”
Whelan’s husband, the photographer David Michalek, says to Whelan, “You weren’t living your life like a chess board, you were just dancing”, a beautiful sentiment that manifests in footage of her returning to the studio for her debut post-hip surgery with Tyler Angle in Christopher Wheeldon’s This Bitter Earth. The insight the dialogue of the film gives you is incisive, but what Whelan learns over its course, over her career, cannot be put in to words. Though she asks the questions, “When am I going to know that I’m safe again?”, there’s no ghost of this when Whelan blithely bourrées back on stage as if nothing has changed. Her pragmatism is invigorating, and the intimacy of her relationships with her dance partners and choreographers is clear throughout the film. I was caught off-guard and choked back tears when Whelan talks about Alexei Ratmanksy’s idea to take “the first steps that we ever made together nine years ago [and] the last step he made for me about two weeks ago” to form the ideas behind his choreography in the piece made alongside Christopher Wheeldon to end her last show with NYCB, By 2 With & From. The poetry of the gesture is life affirming.
Whelan says she desired to be “a dancer who would offer her best self in every inch of her work.” Known for her strength and directness, the footage of By 2 With & From danced with Tyler Angle and Craig Hall exposes a beautiful softness, and is more riveting than many live performances I’ve seen recently. At one moment, Whelan is promenaded as her arm carves out a soft crescent moon in the space; it’s like an embrace for all the people she has met along her career, and a frame to all that has occurred. Look at the expressions on the dancer’s faces: they are exquisitely animated and in direct conversation with each other, the apex of a lifetime on stage. Ratmansky’s playful section combines exhilarating dives with buoyant hip swaggering, perhaps a nod to Whelan’s democratising approach. The sudden contrast with this to the piece’s last section is the real punch in the gut. Whelan looks back on an empty stage, alone, before being rejoined by her stalwart partners. It’s as if Whelan is saying, “You helped me be greater than I could be on my own; you held up the mirror and my image was made multiplied”. What I see in the final pose is an allusion to the pas de deux in Wheeldon’s After the Rain, perhaps the enduring image of Wendy Whelan.