Wendy Whelan of the New York City Ballet in Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan (Paul Kolnik)

For many, thinking about retirement may be the first time they’ve realized how inextricably their chosen profession is tied to their identity. In 2012, New York City Ballet’s principal ballerina, Wendy Whelan, found that realization as she neared a record-breaking three decades with the company. In this intimate documentary, ripe with emotion, directors Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger capture a very vulnerable time in Whelan’s life as she faces up to her first major injury and the physical realities of aging.

Childhood photos show Whelan beginning ballet lessons at the age of three and dancing through a diagnosis of scoliosis at the age of 12. (Undergoing traction, she wears a brace beneath her tutu in one.) Despite her twisted spine, she was accepted as an apprentice to the New York City Ballet in 1984, and in 1991, became a principal dancer. The physical demands of ballet force most dancers into retirement by the age of 40, if not earlier, but Whelan had remained relatively pain and injury free into her mid-40s.

However, she began noticing that roles that had traditionally been hers were going to other dancers. Then, the head of the company, Peter Martins, called her to his office to discuss whether she should continue performing The Nutcracker. He didn’t want the audience to notice her dancing was in decline. She was unaware of any change in her abilities, but, shortly afterward, Whelan, still reeling from his comments, began experiencing debilitating pain in her hip.

A midlife crisis set in as Whelan was diagnosed with a joint tear. Surgery would keep her sidelined for an indefinite period, and she couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t dancing. Saffire and Schlesinger were there before, during, and after the surgery, documenting the long and difficult rehabilitation process as Whelan began to seriously contemplate the possibility of retirement.

Short clips from many of her celebrated performances are included throughout, including ballets choreographed by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Alexei Ratmansky, and Christopher Wheeldon. These glimpses of her signature physicality and sensual grace make doubly poignant the extent of her injury and uncertain prognosis for recovery. A post-surgical period on crutches, followed by weeks of painful physical therapy, allow Whelan to accept that, while she can’t imagine a life devoid of dancing, she may have to give up ballet. But not just yet. As she struggles through warm-ups and practices, she sets a retirement date for the upcoming year, determined to complete one last season with the NYCB.

Whelan allows Saffire and Schlesinger unflinching access to her coming to terms with physical limitations. Whelan, who half jokes about how, for 45 years, she has been living a child’s fantasy, might consider the film closer to a coming-of-age narrative.

Ballet lovers and fans of Whelan may be disappointed by the brevity of the performance scenes, but aspiring dancers should consider this required viewing for career preparation. Anyone whose career has helped define who they are will take heart in Whelan’s ultimate discovery that retirement is not synonymous with identity crisis, nor does it have to mean the end of one’s life passion. There are more ways than one to keep dancing.

Directed by Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger
Released by Abramorama
USA. 90 min. Not rated

Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan from Wheelhouse Creative on Vimeo.