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"Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan"

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I did not seem to find a thread started yet on the documentary about Wendy Whelan "Restless Creature": https://www.filmlinc.org/films/restless-creature-wendy-whelan/

The film was directed by Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger and follows Whelan through her severe hip injury, surgery and rehab, and decision to retire from NYCB and pursue contemporary dance.

I attend a screening at Lincoln Center this weekend, which was followed by a Q&A with Wendy Whelan and Adam Schlesinger. The film appears to be distributed somewhat widely in independent movie theaters.

A few thoughts:

- The movie spends more time than I would have expected on her injury, including filming in the operating room during her surgery. I could have done with more ballet and less blood!

- I did not know how strained her relationship with Peter Martins had become during her last years at NYCB. There are always two sides to every story, but he seemed keen to have her retire several roles, such as the Nutcracker, which she didn't think she was ready to let go. The two are apparently barely on speaking terms at this point, which is sad considering how much they have both brought to NYCB.

- There was some discussion of her partnerships with Jock Soto, Craig Hall and most recently Tyler Angle. Lots of great rehearsal clips as well. However, she does not seem to have kept in touch with any of the current NYCB dancers, and is not doing any coaching there. Which is a shame since she was one of the last ballerinas who worked directly with Robbins. She did work with PNB on staging a Wheeldon piece - she appears to have a great connection with Wheeldon and Ratmansky, as evidenced by the pieces they created for her farewell.

Has anyone else seen the film? What did you think?

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Thanks for the report. I hope to see this film. (I know Whelan  recently worked with PNB staging Ratmansky's Pictures at an Exhibition, but though that was the first staging she had done--in any case it would be great if she continues staging.) 

Edited by Drew

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16 minutes ago, Drew said:

Thanks for the report. I hope to see this film. (I know Whelan  recently worked with PNB staging Ratmansky's Pectures at an Exhibition, but though that was the first staging she had done--in any case it would be great if she continues staging.) 

Thanks, Drew - my memory was off, it was the Ratmansky piece I was thinking of, not something by Wheeldon, that she staged. I should have taken notes!

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As I understand it, this staging (Pictures at an Exhibition for PNB) was the first time she had a break in her schedule that was large enough for that kind of task -- although she's retired from NYCB, she has most certainly not retired from performing, and has been spending a significant amount of time in the studio and the theater with these new works.

 

The dancers at PNB were very enthusiastic about their experience with her in the studio, and I'm hoping that will lead to more staging/coaching/teaching.  As you point out, she brings first hand experience with Robbins to the work (as does Peter Boal, who staged Opus 19 for the same program here) -- the further we get from the choreographers of that generation, the more valuable those insights become.

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Has anyone seen her perform and does anyone have an opinion about Peter Martin's ideas that she needs to retire? 

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24 minutes ago, balletforme said:

Has anyone seen her perform and does anyone have an opinion about Peter Martin's ideas that she needs to retire? 

I have not seen this film, but I did see her in performance at the Joyce back in early March. You could see glimmers of what we all remember fondly - the flexibility, stretch, extension - but I guess the choreography she developed with male partners and a musical group is just not my cup of tea. She was barefoot, of course. I left the theater thinking: well, I'm glad I saw her once, but I can't imagine ever going back.

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2 hours ago, California said:

I have not seen this film, but I did see her in performance at the Joyce back in early March. You could see glimmers of what we all remember fondly - the flexibility, stretch, extension - but I guess the choreography she developed with male partners and a musical group is just not my cup of tea. She was barefoot, of course. I left the theater thinking: well, I'm glad I saw her once, but I can't imagine ever going back.

I had the same experience as California. I wanted to like the Joyce show more than I actually did, and would never go back.

As for Martins taking her out of roles at NYCB. I heard her on an WNYC interview recently where she said (paraphrasing) that he had a lot of younger dancers that he wanted (or had to) put into those roles. It's a tough thing for a ballet dancer. There were roles she wasn't ready to drop but Peter Martins had to look at the big picture. It is very tricky. We all want new exciting stars and mature stars and everything in between but there are just so many roles to go around. 

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Honestly when I watched the scenes where she was in tears about being taken out of roles I thought- how nice for you that this is the biggest problem in your life!  I really love her as a dancer, she had a fantastic, long career- what more could she have asked for?  Was she going to dance til she was 60 (at NYBC)?  I think Martins gave her the tough love she needed.

Edited by Balletwannabe

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I would think that if ballet was my life, being taken out of ballets would be the biggest problem in mine.

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38 minutes ago, Helene said:

I would think that if ballet was my life, being taken out of ballets would be the biggest problem in mine.

Of course!  And I'm not saying any of us wouldn't react the exact same way.  I guess I'm just noting, wow, she has an incredible life!  Her biggest problem, perhaps, was not really a problem, but just a painful transition.  She lived her dream.  And Martins gave her the option of still continuing, she said that in the documentary.  Even though he was essentially asking her to step down, could he have been any nicer about it?  I'm not sure why anyone would see him in a bad light. 

 

Just my personal reaction when watching this.  Would love to read others opinion's on this.

Edited by Balletwannabe

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Any time a dancer is pushed down or out when the audience watching feels it's premature likely will see the person making that decision in a bad light.  Especially Peter Martins, who kept on his wife at a very high salary when her dancing had degraded, something I witnessed.  (I didn't see the end of Whelan's career, so I can't judge that.)

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6 minutes ago, Helene said:

Any time a dancer is pushed down or out when the audience watching feels it's premature likely will see the person making that decision in a bad light.  Especially Peter Martins, who kept on his wife at a very high salary when her dancing had degraded, something I witnessed.  (I didn't see the end of Whelan's career, so I can't judge that.)

That makes sense.  I didn't know that about Kistler.

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I've been impressed that younger dancers are thinking ahead to their second career. Tiler Peck, Megan Fairchild, and probably others at NYCB completed Bachelor's degrees at Fordham and elsewhere, so they're looking forward to...college teaching? arts administration? lots of opportunities if they can get that formal degree.  There are possibilities for retired dancers who never went to college to get faculty appointments at colleges and universities (the late Rebecca Wright comes to mind), but it isn't easy for most. I'd guess that this forward-thinking makes it easier to face reality when they can no longer dance at their best.

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In Seattle, the PNB program Second Stage not only has professors come to the company, but dancers can use the funds to go to other colleges and universities, to get graduate degrees, to do training like becoming a Pilates instructor, or to start their own businesses, for which they are given mentorship.

 

Tiler Peck, like Elizabeth Murphy at PNB, has a dancewear line, as well.

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PNB's "Second Stage" program (cool name, isn't it!) has several wonderful qualities, one of which is that it is funded by both the audience and the dancers.

 

At all perfomances of one rep in the season (there are 6 reps total), one of the dancers (in normal clothing, not costume, and normally not performing that night) comes before the curtain and presents the idea of Second Stage to the assembled audience.  Naturally, the dancer requests contributions. There are PD students in tutus in the lobby where you can give money; there are envelops you can use to send money; and many subscribers give on on-going basis. The talk is also a great opportunity for a dancer to speak before hundreds of people.....a great experience for any career ambition (some are born to it; others are extremely nervous).  But best of all, the announcing dancer ends her/his talk with the declaration that all the dancers in the company are giving their full salary from opening night of that rep to Second Stage.  Audiences love it.

Edited by SandyMcKean

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I've been so pleased to see these programs emerging all over the country. Colorado Ballet dancers do a fund-raiser concert at the black box theater at the end of the season for their transition funding program. One of the soloists just finished a B.A. in political science at University of Colorado, Denver, which is about a mile from the ballet studios. As these become more widespread, the younger dancers realize: there is life after ballet and I should start thinking about my own transition. 

 

San Francisco  has a cooperative program in the bay area for dancers to earn college degrees. I suspect there are many more around the country.

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I really enjoyed the documentary not just for Wendy and NYCB itself but for also presenting the idea of how difficult it is to cope with no longer being in a position/job that you've built your whole life around. This can cause such great distress for those who have built their entire lives around their career and suddenly just don't know what to do next--even past jobs that are physical. I know several doctors and researchers who completely lost themselves once they retired since their whole identity was built around their jobs. It is something I feel we think about with these physical jobs (ballet, athlete, etc.), but not something that can extend past those realms. I believe Wendy said in one of her interviews people of all professions that have encountered this intense loss have thanked her for the documentary. It is just so fascinating to me how work provides you with stuff that is good for you (routine, fulfillment, insurance [sometimes]), but it also can be so detrimental when somebody devotes too much of themselves to their job/makes it their whole identity.

 

I think you all are correct in there being a new era of having a "plan b" past dancing in a company versus one may have previously been thought of as opportunities. For instance, there are traditional routes like teaching ballet, getting an education for a different career, using skills to leverage a career (I bet Janelle Manzi will do that with her cooking), etc. I thought it was interesting when Wendy stated that in her day/that era when she came into the company, you didn't date, have a baby, etc. (something like that). This is a mere observation, but it seems like, even past career/educational opportunities, dancers are able to lead much fuller personal lives outside of ballet. 

 

My heart went out to Wendy as she was coming to terms with dealing with this loss of her identity, but I also liked seeing her linear growth throughout the movie as she finally became okay with moving on and find fulfillment through her modern dance endeavor. I know a few dancers who saw it who felt like, with her being 47, she should have just been grateful for being physically capable/her body holding up that long, but I really don't think that would have been comforting to her with having so much of her identity looped around her being a Principle at NYCB. I do have to say, I think she came off as a very humble, kind, and funny person, which I definitely enjoyed. You could tell how much love and admiration there was for her within the company. It's always nice seeing a "big name" like that seeming so down to earth.

 

In terms of what was presented (and not going off my impression of Peter Martins' decisions to keep his family on the roster and fire corp members during the recession), I don't think it portrayed him poorly. I think he seemed diplomatic, and I actually came to think how difficult it would be to be an AD. You have these relationships (he and Wendy worked together for 30 years) and your own love and admiration these dancers, but you ultimately answer to a board and see talent that also deserves to be cast. I am sure he has lots of difficult conversations--I for one would have major difficulty dealing with that! Overall, it seemed like NYCB/the board gave Wendy a lot of time and flexibility around coming back and retiring.

 

Las thought--being frozen out of roles/people no longer speaking was mentioned by Wendy in reference to herself, but it also was briefly mentioned about in terms of Jennifer and Janie ultimately retiring (something was said between her and a friend like "they just weren't getting casted"). I wonder if that has always just been the way to say "we want you gone" or "you're on the decline", and if that is ultimately why Ana Sophia Scheller left and possibly why Rebecca Krohn is retiring.

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I'm watching Restless Creature and it feels immensely sad and empty, in many ways. A talented woman who's having a hard time moving on. A person who has chosen dance above almost all else. The sad "icing" out that happens to dancers who are injured or past prime.  I do wonder if that's unique to NYCB or just pro ballet in general. I wonder if pro dancers avoid their colleagues who are injured or in decline because they so fear it themselves.

I also thought the Peter Martins actually came across as very humane and sensitive and it seemed that the situation was pretty tough for him. Seemed like he had been working toward her retirement for like 2 years. What patience.

NYCB is a very youth focused organization. Good and bad.

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Many similarities to Merrill  Ashley's "retirement" documentary, The Dance Goodbye:

https://www.amazon.com/Dance-Goodbye-Merrill-Ashley/dp/B00U1U2SL8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1506611744&sr=8-1&keywords=the+dance+goodbye

She now seems to be busy as a Balanchine stager, but she expresses much the same sentiment about a feeling of death when they have to retire. I hope younger dancers are better prepared for this transition, which is inevitable for all of them.

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"A dancer dies twice, once when they stop dancing, and this first death is the more painful." -- Martha Graham

"A Dancer Dies Twice," a BBC radio doc is still available online for streaming, and it isn't geoblocked in the US:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b075pm41

Whelan is one of the dancers featured.

ETA:  Whelan staged "Pictures at an Exhibition" for Pacific Northwest Ballet last spring, her first staging.  PNB dancers had nothing but raves about working with her.

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Preparation surely helps, but it is likely going to be a wrenching adjustment in any case. Professional athletes often report having similar challenges. We all have to cope with bodies that fail us and declining abilities, but dancers and athletes have to do so at an age when many people in other professions are still considered to be relatively young and just entering the prime of their careers.

Suzanne Farrell said that for a long time she could not listen to any beautiful music, until she began coaching and staging and could relate to the music in her own dancing once more.  She also said before her retirement that even though she had other things in her life besides dancing, she knew nothing else would ever mean as much, because dancing had taken up so much of her life.

In the cases of Ashley and Whelan, it’s true they were not ready to go even though it seems to have been time to go and that can hardly make the transition easier, but that’s just people being human. Also they had been in the company since they were kids. It must feel like getting kicked out of your house.

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I wonder if that has always just been the way to say "we want you gone" or "you're on the decline", and if that is ultimately why Ana Sophia Scheller left and possibly why Rebecca Krohn is retiring.

It's certainly gentler than getting a pink slip.

Melissa Hayden said she once asked Balanchine if she could have one of her old roles back, and he said, “No, dear, you’re too old.” Well, she asked.

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 For Whelan I think an addition wrench was that she was Christopher Wheeldon's muse, and other choreographers were lining up to work with her.  It wasn't just a matter of having her old roles taken away -- for example Verdy said she left after there were just a few things left ("Symphony in C," "Emeralds") and the rest were given to others -- but in her case, they were replaced by new works and collaborations, which is rare, although in both "Restless Creature" and the BBC doc, she speaks about losing colleagues.  That's pretty rare, particularly in companies where there is a single dominant choreographer who loses interest or has no interest, especially when that choreographer is also the boss.

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I guess Martins figured they could line up to work with her somewhere else.

 I think Verdy told B.H. Haggin that the last straw was when Balanchine took “Emeralds” from her and gave it to Christine Redpath, explaining that Redpath didn’t have enough to dance that season.

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