Monday, May 22, 2017

Saffire & Schlesinger's RESTLESS CREATURE WENDY WHELAN goes inside a legendary ballet dancer facing age, pain and retirement

A great ballerina coming to terms with aging, a possibly career-ending hip operation, necessary change and the eventual need to do something other than dance -- all this and more is covered in one of the best ballet-dancer-biographies yet brought to the screen. RESTLESS CREATURE WENDY WHELAN, the new documentary from Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger, is right up there with Nancy Buirski's Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq and much better than the recent Misty Copeland bio-doc, A  Ballerina's Tale.

Saffire and Schlesinger (shown at right) appear to have had remarkable access to Ms Whelan -- at rehearsal, in actual performance, at home with her husband (photographer, David Michalek), and with her New York City Ballet "boss" Peter Martins (who, as always, comes across as someone you can trust about as far as you can toss), and with many of her ballet partners, past and present. The result is a multi-faceted look at Whelan that makes the ballerina seems remarkably consistent: a huge talent who is simultaneously a good person. As one of her contemporaries points out far into the movie, Whelan's behavior to everyone in the company -- from security guard to dresser to other dancers -- changed for the better the way that the dance company operated.

Restless Creature (which doubles as the name of the dance project Whelan came up with as a route to her post-NYC Ballet career), though it does not spend all that much time on her past and childhood history, opens in media res, as the dancer is faced with an upcoming hip operation that could end her dancing career. How she handles this, with courage and difficulty, is as exemplary as so much else that we see.

And yet, because the filmmakers zero in so finely and consistently on this woman, we can easily believe what we see and hear.  Whelan does indeed seem beloved of so many of her co-workers and choreographers, and as we see her dance (at first just in snippets, then longer and more involved as the documentary proceeds), we actually get some understanding of how difficult all this is and why dance careers, so like sports careers, are usually quite circumscribed, if not downright short. (At age 47 -- when the movie was shot -- Whelan has had an unusually long and successful run of 30 years.)

We hear from her choreographers, too, and learn something of how they work with their dancers to create the beauty and magic we view from the audience. Though the idea -- first of the operation and what its result might be, and then of the actual retirement that looms  -- seem to have our dancer often on the verge of tears, she never (or the filmmaker have chosen not to let us see this) gives in to them.

The post-operation ups and down are shown us, too, and at times the movie seems almost like a suspense thriller: So the career is over? Wait: Maybe not! "When am I gonna know that I'm safe again?"  the  dancer asks at one point.

Overall, bits from some 20 different ballets are shown us, and at the conclusion, we realize what all this has been building toward: a final dance that is so sensational that you'll fully appreciate and understand both why ballet is such a beloved art form and what Whelan has done to enrich it. Then all the applause and the flowers and the love arrive. What a moment. What a movie!

From Abramorama, Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan opens in New York City this Wednesday, May 24, at Film Forum and The Film Society of Lincoln Center. It hits Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal on Friday, June 9, and will play a number of other cities around the country, as well. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

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