Wendy Whelan | “Restless Creature”

by Glenn on February 17, 2020

I seem to be a fan of documentaries that show people who are unusually devoted to the pursuit of artistic excellence. Years ago I watched Pianomania, about a Viennese piano tuner—actually more of a piano “preparer” because there is so much more involved in it—named Stefan Knüpfer, who gets pianos dialed in for the great piano artists who roll through town. He was impressive.

Recently, we watched the Netflix series, Cheer, that follows the Navarro College cheerleading team—which is misleading because it’s more like a gymnnastic stunt team—in its pursuit of a national championship.

Last night we discovered Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan, about a New York City Ballet principal dancer who is trying to navigate middle age. It’s remarkable. She is remarkable.

We enter the story as Whelan is nearing 30 years in her career as a ballet star. (I believe she was 47 in the film.) That is extraordinary to think about in an of itself. While she somehow managed to avoid major injuries most of her life (although she had a major physical challenge to overcome growing up), she is facing an injury to her hip and trying to figure out how to move forward. No spoilers, but there is surgery and then there is the challenge of whether or not she can get back into good enough shape to perform at the level that she, the New York City Ballet, and the public all require. And looming over everything is the question How does this end? She doesn’t want to stop. But physical abilities don’t last forever. And ballet is incredibly competitive.

One of the revealing moments in the documentary is when Whelan discloses that a teacher once told her she wasn’t a prodigy, which meant that her success was something she had to earn. She seems grateful for that. Obviously, there are talented people, and certainly Whelan had to have some abilities, but she had to work. We see some of this in the film, but there’s no attempt to capture the full extent of the grind, which has to be considerable. And it’s a grind with uncertain results. You don’t know how far you will go. You don’t know how long you will be able to perform.

There are unanswered questions in the film like, How do you devote the time to your craft and balance life? The answer appears to be that in some sense you live unbalanced if you want to perform at a high level. Whelan talks about how she eschewed relationships and didn’t have children. Her identity was as a dancer.

Left out of this documentary is a lot of the competitive aspect of being a ballerina. How many 30-year careers are there in ballet? And for every 30-year career how many were stopped short for one reason or another? How many never actually started? Like every field of pursuit, there are people with dreams who don’t achieve their dreams or find they need to change them. This thirty-year career feels one-of-a-kind, which I suppose is why it warrants a documentary. In fact, in the course of the film we meet a number of former ballet stars who appear to be much younger than Whelan.

One theme in the film is the idea of collaboration. And there’s a lot to that. First of all, Whelan is an artist in white-hot pursuit of her craft, but she is surrounded by agents and choreographers and instructors and designers. She has a dance partner. It turns out she has had a number of them over the years. One of them refers to Whelan as an instrument. Some of the most impressive people in the film are the physical therapists who work on Whelan. And then there is the whole realm of personality. Can you get along with others? On the one hand there are mad geniuses in the world that no one wants to be around. On the other, it’s not clear to me how a person can be excessively social and manage to become excellent at something.

While I don’t believe artistic endeavors have to suffer from a fixed pie theory of economics, where one artist’s success means another artist must fail, there most definitely are scarce resources in ballet. There is the principal ballet star, who gets the glory, and then there are the members of the corps, who do not get the same recognition. Many people are competing for few roles. And most people dance, in a sense, anonymously. They are interchangeable. You perform for a while and then there is someone to replace you. It seems like the world of ballet could be a pirate ship. Whelan doesn’t appear to be anything like ruthless. And that’s a tough line to walk between being overconfident and arrogant on the one hand and needy and full of self-doubt on the other. You need to perform. And if you can’t, there’s someone else who wants to. It seems to me you’ve got to be both tough and tender in some ways.

This is an inspiring story. There is some language from time to time and the scenes from surgery are not for the squeamish.


One comment

[…] from someone else’s perspective, my receiving favor could appear to be unfair. We just watched the documentary Restless Creature, about the ballerina Wendy Whelan. Interesting to think about what she would think about this idea. […]

by The Power of Favor | Pre-Thinking « glennaustin.com on 18 February 2020 at 9:24 am. #