Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan isn’t a “dance movie,” per se. Except during the last 10 minutes (and even then, in what looks like a truncated form), there aren’t really any sustained ballet sequences in which to marvel at the former New York City Ballet principal dancer’s legendary physicality. It’s doubtful that neophytes will come away from Adam Schlesinger and Linda Saffire’s documentary with a deeper appreciation of the art form. Instead, this is a portrait of an artist at a professional and personal crossroads, as Whelan faces the potential death of the creative livelihood that has sustained her for so many decades, one that has given her life joy and meaning.
Certainly, many artists have to grapple with the possibility that one day they may not be able to create anymore. Singers’ voices eventually lose their power and bloom, and while visual artists and filmmakers may not lose technical motor functions as they grow older, the real source of their genius, their minds, are always on the threat of decline. But that potential loss is arguably most acute for dancers: Their entire bodies are their instruments, and we all know that bodies will eventually fail us somehow.
“If I don’t dance, I’d rather die,” says Whelan early in Restless Creature, which is enough to indicate to us the depth of her passion for dance—a passion that has consumed her life ever since she started taking ballet lessons at age three in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and all the way through her 30 years at NYCB (23 of them as principal dancer). She lives and breathes ballet: That much is clear simply from the fervent way she talks about the art form to fellow artists and to the filmmakers on-camera. So when, sometime in 2012, she begins to experience bodily injuries that threaten to end her career altogether, the desperation she evinces as she sees doctors and eventually undergoes hip surgery—a procedure which none of the doctors can guarantee will ensure that she will return to the dance floor—helps infuse this film with palpable life-or-death stakes. Even as she gradually works her way up to returning to the dance floor later on, we find ourselves catching our breath during her every movement, genuinely afraid for her well-being.
It’s sobering enough to witness a dedicated artist facing the possibility of losing his/her ability to create. And yet, Restless Creature is anything but relentlessly downbeat, primarily because Whelan refuses to be cowed by the pressure. Instead of lamenting the hand she’s been dealt, she comes across in the film as tenacious and warm-hearted, resolute in her optimism but also realistic about her limitations. Much of the film details Whelan as she not only gradually comes to accept that her tenure at NYCB is finally coming to an end, but figures out the next stage in her career, through initial stabs at contemporary dance that eventually lead her to collaborate with four young choreographers in the independent project that gives Schlesinger and Saffire’s documentary its name.
Whelan’s process of trying to rediscover herself after a personal setback would not have been half as involving as it is if she hadn’t been so generous with the access she granted the filmmakers. She even allows Schlesinger and Saffire to film her in the throes of her hip surgery (during which her doctor, Mark Philippon, offers arguably the film’s choicest interview bit, in which he calls ballerinas “God’s best athletes”), suggesting the warts-and-all portrait she’s selflessly offering.
Perhaps most touching about Restless Creature, though, is Whelan’s emotional openness. She isn’t afraid to lay bare her vulnerabilities for the camera, and Schlesinger and Saffire are able to capture their subject in occasional private moments—most memorably, a moment of quiet reflection in her dressing room after her return performance at the NYCB, with her expressing both anguish and relief without a word being said—that make their subject seem poignantly human. It’s that intimacy that makes Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan an artist documentary that will play movingly—inspiringly, even—for those who aren’t already fans.
Director: Adan Schlesinger, Linda Saffire
Starring: Wendy Whelan
Release Date: May 24, 2017
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and The Village Voice, in addition to Paste. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.