Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan sets the barre high for dance docs

Film about how the New York City Ballet star deals with injury, aging and how to keep dancing in the face of impending retirement is a must-see

RESTLESS CREATURE: WENDY WHELAN (Linda Saffire, Adam Schlesinger). 90 minutes. Opens Friday (July 21).  See listing. Rating: NNNN

This fast-moving documentary from New York directors Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger looks at a period in 2013 when 47-year-old principal dancer Wendy Whelan is contemplating retirement from the New York City Ballet after 30 years. The dance superstar is also dealing with the first serious injury of her career and getting ready to reinvent herself as a contemporary dancer. That’s a lot – even for an overachiever like Whelan.

The directors handle the dense material smartly, never dwelling too long on any one aspect of the ballerina’s story. We see just enough footage of Whelan dancing to understand her spectacular gifts. We see her struggle with the surgical repair of a hip labral tear and subsequent rehabilitation – which, being aware of the classical ballet clock ticking, she rushes. We get continual small glimpses of the warmth and humour Whelan and her colleagues bring to both work and playtime.

But the primary story here – and what sets this doc apart from other recent explorations of the dancing life – is how Whelan faces the physical challenges of aging, searching for ways to keep dancing even as the classical form she has utterly mastered becomes too difficult. 

The way the ineffable Whelan still moves onstage is not entirely human – but the courage and spirit she brings to a difficult transition is completely relatable.

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