By Tracy Wang
With the same name as her modern dance project, Restless Creature, in which four contemporary choreographers created duets with her, ‘Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan’, the documentary, captures Whelan at perhaps her most vulnerable and lost period of professional career as a Principal dancer for NYCB. The documentary reveals one of the harshest realities a dancer has to face: retirement, the time when they need to say goodbye to the stage which is filled with their sweat and blood.
The film starts with an image of Whelan’s pointe shoes, and quickly takes us into all the preparation, the make-up, warm-up, a ballet dancer needs to do on a daily basis. Then, it brings us into the operation room where Whelan’s hip surgery occurred. As a dancer who had not suffered much injury throughout her career, this hip injury forced her to stop doing what she loves for the very first time, and to begin thinking about the unthinkable, her retirement from NYCB.
The film provides us a window to experience her recovery period by following her around with her walking with crutches and her many visits to her physical therapists. At the same time, we get glimpses of her working with four young male choreographers, and creating new duets. However, with the ballet world considering her as the former ballerina and NYCB taking her out of roles, will she be able to return to her former life as a professional ballerina? What could be her next step after her retirement?
What makes this documentary similar to other ballet documentaries is its focus on the extreme athleticism and precision required in a ballet dancer. Throughout this film, we see how much an injury can set back a dancer’s career, and how much ballet can wear down a dancer’s body. As the public are still trying to acknowledge ballet as a sport, this film is a wonderful addition to make people understand the effort required in ‘flying across the stage’.
But what makes this film stand out from the rest of ballet documentaries is its attention on the universal topic of transitioning from one career to the next. For most of this film genre, we usually see the start of a dancing career or the height of a career. However, for ‘Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan’, we have a rare opportunity to witness Whelan’s struggle in recovery as well as her struggle in finding a new direction after her retirement. When Whelan said ‘If I don’t dance, I would rather die’, and when we hear her saying the fantasy (her professional career) is over, we are presented with a lost dancer, who for a second is not a famous ballerina but a common person facing the end of her dream. We stop focusing on her beautiful make-up and her inspiring movements; instead, we start to see her, and all the other ballet dancers, as one of us, and begin to think about our own dreams, its coming end and her pain in leaving a world of hers for more than forty years.
Though the film at times causes tears and serious reflections on ourselves, the film is only partly about being lost, and its main message is on resilience and finding out a way to continue achieving one’s dream. Using contemporary dance and her Restless Creature project as a stepping stone, Whelan shows us how to move forward with our sights on things we can do as well as things we love to do.
‘Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan’ is playing at Northwest Film Forum through August 3rd. For more information, please visit http://www.nwfilmforum.org/live/page/calendar/4428 .