On Oct. 18, 2014, fans sprinkled rose petals outside of Wendy Whelan’s dressing-room door. That was the night the beloved ballerina performed for the last time as a principal dancer for New York City Ballet. Her frequent collaborators Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky honored her 30-year career there by choreographing dances made specifically for the occasion, and Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger filmed their documentary Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan in the months leading up to that farewell performance, recording Whelan’s repeated resistance to the idea of retiring. “What the fuck is it going to be like when I can’t do this anymore?” she wails.
This justifiable fear of a career ending too soon — or, sooner than she’s psychologically prepared for — runs parallel to her undergoing reconstructive hip surgery. The filmmakers show a woman driven, not by vanity or someone seeking attention, but by her enduring and iron-hard love of dance. What eludes them is something more intangible: How did a 12-year-old girl with scoliosis become one of the premier interpreters of George Balanchine’s ballets? The artist’s inner life isn’t attended to in the same way that her willpower is, as this is a portrait painted in daylight. At the rousing, climactic ending, the talking head, whose scuffed pointe shoes drip red with blood, becomes a sylph. When Whelan takes the stage, her transformation is that much more extraordinary, because it simply hasn’t been accounted for.
Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan
The film is not rated.
Opens Friday at the Opera Plaza Cinema.