Wendy Whelan: Restless Creature

How does an artist live with the knowledge that one day, their powers will wane? This question is particularly poignant for artists who use their body in their work, and where the physical demands are so great.

Wendy Whelan is one of the dancing greats. A thirty-year career with the New York City Ballet, an exceptional career at the forefront of the ballet world, for far longer than ballet dancers normally sustain. Whelan is exceptional not only for her dancing excellence and physical resilience, but also because she is known as a physically strong dancer. Her dancing is powerful, athletic. It upends traditional ideas of the craft.

This perceptive, warm-hearted and quite compelling documentary portrait captures Whelan at a critical time. She knows her classical ballet future must end soon; her body is starting to labour painfully under the strain of a very demanding type of dance. The New York City Ballet will likely ask her, ever so gently, to consider withdrawing from their stage. But dance is her whole identity and passion.

She explains that when she was younger, she could not imagine ever stopping ballet – she thought she would rather die. Whelan is such a positive and strong person, and she says this in a completely undramatic way. It is more an expression of love for her craft, than despair. The moment has come when she has to prepare herself for a different life. And when it happens, it is beautiful.

While the film will of course appeal to balletomanes and Wendy Whelan fans, it has a much greater reach. The challenge Whelan faces in this story are universal ones, and the emotions she navigates through are ones that are shared by everyone one in life.

Directors Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger have followed Whelan closely, with unwavering attention and were given exceptional access during both hard and good times: at parties, in the operating theatre where Whelan has surgery for dance-related hip damage, during potentially difficult meetings with New York City Ballet management, at home when she discusses with her husband how she plans to shape her future, during rehearsals, during physio sessions. As a fellow dancer notes, Wendy Whelan has also had a strong impact on the culture of the dance world, bringing into it kindness and warmth.

It is a pleasure to see her working, in this film, with choreographers such as Christopher Wheeldon, a British choreographer who, like her, displays so powerfully the strength and fluency of contemporary dance. Her surgeon comments that ballet dancers are the best athletes, and this athleticism in both body and spirit shines out as the film concludes. There is life after dance, for Whelan, and that life too, is a life full of dance.
Directors: Linda Saffire, Adam Schlesinger