The film is a tribute and moving portrait of the longtime New York City Ballet principal dancer, who contemplated a life without ballet after hip surgery in 2013. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.
“She has the inexplicable ability to make abstract movement take on a certain poetry through simplicity. A look, a breath, a sculpted shape. Story always hovering in the air around her.”
These words, from choreographer Christopher Wheeldon in The New York Times in 2014, described Wendy Whelan, a longtime New York City Ballet principal dancer. The opening moments of the documentary “Restless Creature” bring that description to life: Whelan, in a pas de deux from Jerome Robbins’ “Glass Pieces,” simply becomes the dance. Her long limbs brush the air in endlessly malleable sculpture; her presence seems both ethereal and deeply powerful.
Movie Review ★★★½
‘‘Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan,’ a documentary directed by Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger. 90 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. Through Thursday, Aug. 3, at Northwest Film Forum. Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic director Peter Boal will host a Q&A on July 26.
Yet “Restless Creature” isn’t a mere celebration of a great artist; it’s a moving portrait of what happens when that artist confronts the possibility of not being able to make that art any more. Whelan, a teenager when she joined the company, danced with NYCB for 30 years. The film documents a period toward the end of her tenure when, sidelined by hip surgery in 2013, she contemplated a life without ballet.
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Directors Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger follow Whelan through her surgery (literally; the squeamish may need to look away), through months of hobbling on crutches, to her triumphant return to NYCB and her subsequent retirement from the company a year later, at the age of 47. We hear tributes to her from colleagues — look for Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Peter Boal, an NYCB colleague of Whelan’s for many years, speaking of her “graciousness and kindness” — and watch her in class, on the street, at social gatherings, in quiet solitude in her dressing room.
But mostly, we listen, as this practitioner of an art without words eloquently reveals herself in conversation, taking on a journey that begins with the unthinkable — “I’ve said, if I don’t dance, I’d rather die” — and ends with a graceful world opening around her. “I want to see more,” she says, “of what’s in me.”