Review: the documentary ‘Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan’

by Andrew Parker

A famous, but aging and injury plagued ballerina struggles with obsolescence in Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger’s observational and complex documentary Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan. Following a titular subject who says she once told people she would rather die than live in a world where she couldn’t dance, Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan simultaneously functions as comeback story, a loving ode to a career well spent, and a character study of a professional determined to go out on her own terms.

Whelan, a staple at the renowned New York City Ballet, has been dancing for 43 of the 47 years she has been alive. Starting with the NYCB in 1991, Whelan is about to enter her thirtieth full-time year with the company when Saffire and Schlesinger first arrive to start documenting what could be her final season. For the past 23 years, she’s had the same dressing room as one of the company’s featured performers, but things are quickly changing. In addition to not being able to physically keep up at 47 as she did in her twenties, Whelan has recently undergone necessary arthroscopic hip surgery that leaves her with some mobility issues and a fair bit of pain. Some of the company’s directors have stopped talking to Whelan outright, and the artistic director has pulled her from many of their high profile shows. Talk begins to swirl that Whelan might have already been forced out and has unwittingly settled into retirement. Not wanting to fall into a coaching or teaching role like many of her retired peers, Whelan begins relentlessly retraining her body and begins to mount a self-produced comeback-slash-farewell tour titled Restless Creature, where the dancer will branch out into different styles of dance and pair herself up with a quartet of younger contemporary choreographers and dancers.

With Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan, Saffire and Schlesinger often opt for a fly-on-the-wall approach that fits the demeanour of their strong, likable, no nonsense subject. While there are some obviously staged interviews peppered throughout to provide some needed context and background, Saffire and Schlesinger remain content following Whelan’s journey from a detached distance, keen to not interfere in the artistic or rehabilitation process. The best moments of Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan are whenever the dancer is allowed to be her vulnerable, jovial, realistic self: hanging out with friends and family, questioning her doctors, negotiating the terms of her eventual stepping down from the NYCB. The viewer doesn’t need to be told in a sit-down fashion that Whelan’s body is fighting her and that her spirit is still willing because these things are abundantly clear after spending only a few moments with her.

Whelan is a fascinating person to build a performing arts documentary around. To some, she might seem delusional; an old hand desperately trying to hang onto their glory days of yore. But while Whelan certainly doesn’t want to go quietly into the night, it’s easy to see what drives her and to note that she has realistic expectations of the time she has left as a dancer. She hates that her place on the stage might be coming to an end, but she has known for years that her time at the top of her profession was finite. She understands the business decisions behind the NYCB wanting her to move on, but she wants these decisions to be made with a bit more respect. She knows that Restless Creature is the kind of thing she could only do once. She passionately tells a friend that ballet is such a rigorous and lifelong pursuit that it forces those in the field to shun relationships, families, and personal lives, so Saffire and Schlesinger return that sentiment by making a loving case as to why someone who has sacrificed so much should be allotted a way to end their career in a befitting way.

If there’s any real criticism to be had with Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan, it’s that little time is spent among the dancer’s obvious detractors. If a face and personality had been placed to those wishing to see Whelan move on, there would be a bit more emotional heft and viewer investment. But even without those more obviously manipulative perspectives, it’s an inspiring look at a passionate artist’s last and most personal stab at greatness.

Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan opens at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto on Friday, July 21, 2017. It also opens at the Regina Public Film Library on Thursday, August 10.

Check out the trailer for Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan:

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