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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.”