In ‘Restless Creature,’ a Portrait of Pain and Meaning

In conversation and in movement, the documentary captures a defining moment in the life of storied dancer Wendy Whelan.

In the past, the offstage life of a ballerina was shrouded in mystery. But in the era of reality television, it makes perfect sense that the camera follows New York City Ballet principal dancer Wendy Whelan just about everywhere in the new documentary Restless Creature. After 30 years dancing with the company, she’s contemplating retirement and considering what might happen next while grappling with a debilitating hip injury. From physical-therapy appointments and massage sessions all the way to the operating room, directors Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger give us a remarkably unvarnished look at an extraordinary life.

Whelan joined NYCB at a precarious time for the company: George Balanchine had just died, and the institution’s future was in flux. Her work there helped to launch its next phase, as well as the careers of two significant 21st-century choreographers, Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky. She’s an integral part of an important institution, but as we watch her in rehearsals and listen in on her commentary, it becomes clear that the decisions she needs to make at this point are entirely personal. It’s not about a legacy or a company so much as it is about someone who has been dancing her entire life, and who needs to find some way to maintain that commitment.

And so she heads off to Vail, and that operating room, where we watch sports surgeon Marc Philippon reconstruct the labrum of her right hip joint, looking for all the world like a video-gamer in his use of arthroscopic tools. Rehab is longer and more grueling than Whelan anticipated, but the biggest challenges seem to be more mental than physical—for someone who has said “If I don’t dance, I’d rather die,” the trick is literally to find the next step.

For Whelan, that step is a shift out of neo-classical ballet and into more contemporary dance styles. Her status in the dance world really works in her favor here; she is able to commission new duets from four different choreographers for a touring program that she hopes to use as a bridge to this new life. And though the transition is less seamless than she’d hoped, with her lengthy rehab slowing her down, her experiment seems to have worked: The film follows her performing life after her NYCB retirement in 2014, and she is still in the studio, working on new creations.

Restless Creature is full of dancing, but it’s also full of conversations. We eavesdrop on Whelan as she talks through her dilemma with many of her colleagues (including Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic director Peter Boal, who danced with her at NYCB), and though the particulars of her job are specific to dancing, what becomes clear is how universal her fundamental desire is—to find meaningful work and to do it well. Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave., 329-2629. $12. July 26–Aug. 3. See nwfilmforum.org for times.

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