Seattle audiences might not realize they already have a connection with Wendy Whelan, famous principal dancer from New York City Ballet, but those who frequent the Pacific Northwest Ballet are not too many steps removed. Pictures at an Exhibition, part of the final program of PNB’s 2016-2017 season, was staged by Whelan this spring. This was one of many recent projects of Whelan’s, following her retirement from New York City Ballet in 2014. Pictures at an Exhibition also happens to be one of the last ballets Whelan performed at New York City Ballet. She is now the subject of a new documentary (directed by Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger) about navigating the end of her illustrious ballet career and finding joy and inspiration in what comes after.
There’s an emotional moment in Restless Creature where Whelan recounts being told that she’s been taken out of roles at New York City Ballet because the company doesn’t want people to see her “in decline.” Up until this point, decline was far from her mind. Whelan, one of the most renowned contemporary ballet dancers, had a 30-year career with New York City Ballet. This in itself is notable—it’s an extreme feat to perform at her level for that long. But what comes through in Restless Creature is Whelan’s drive to keep dancing. Even as she works through a hip injury and resulting surgery, as she plans her final season and retirement performance with New York City Ballet, as she looks to new dance projects, this persistence remains, taut as sinew.
Peter Boal, Artistic Director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, provides insight into what made Whelan’s career so incredible, noting that her role as a muse for some of the greatest choreographers really took off in her thirties. For other dancers, the best part of their career might come a decade earlier. Any fan of Whelan’s would say her technique is masterful; according to Boal, it went beyond that. He describes her as an orchid instead of a rose, her body itself intriguing, and the way she works with it even more so. “Wendy felt like a reinvention of the form without rejecting it,” says Boal, who also spent many years as a principal with New York City Ballet. When asked what it was like partnering with Whelan, he says he loved dancing with her. Partners could “dare to do less” because she was so strong, doing most of the work holding herself in lifts, finding her center of balance more quickly than other dancers. She approached the studio process with a sense of discovery, inspiring choreographers and partners to see how far they could go with a piece.
In Restless Creature, we see Whelan struggle with injury for the first time, to be unsure of what her body can do. Even then, however, she’s clearly most genuine and happy when dancing. We see her rehearse with young choreographers for the titular contemporary show that’s a new project of hers, grinning when she tries a new step. Outside of the studio, she’s noticeably worried, and frank when talking about her “shocking” pain, about the challenge of deciding which season should be her last. “It’s not overdramatic to say it’s like a death,” says Boal, who himself retired from New York City Ballet at age 40 and now, as Artistic Director of PNB, works with dancers to determine the right time for their own retirements. “The tragedy of dancing is there’s an arc for the physical, and a different arc for the artistic,” he says. That artistic sensibility often comes a little later in a dancer’s development. “It’s hard to grapple with because your soul wants to keep performing and knows it has something to offer,” even when it’s impossible to continue the grueling physical training required.
In Restless Creature, Whelan faces a descent from the peak of performance. It’s an incredibly vulnerable position, and the film offers a rare glimpse into an astonishing career and its inevitable close. She allows viewers access into her deepest fears and intimate moments. There’s even a scene in the operating room during Whelan’s hip surgery that may make some viewers squirm. The film translates Whelan’s anxiety of not knowing how her body will feel, how performances will go, even if she’ll be able to get through class. She invites us on a journey that’s remarkable in its raw determination. She may be restless, but that restlessness inspires creative freedom and a fragile, necessary hope. May we all learn from her tenacity.
Restless Creature, directed by Linda Saffire & Adam Schlesinger, is at Northwest Film Forum July 26 – August 3. Tickets Available at NWfilmforum.org. A Q&A with Peter Boal, Artistic Director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, will follow the July 26 performance.