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"Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan"

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A number of years ago, when I was grappling with a career transition, I spent some time going to a career counselor who also a licensed therapist based in Manhattan.  We went through a number of exercises as I tried to figure out what direction I wanted to go in, and in the course of that, she mentioned that BY FAR the group she worked with that had the hardest time making that kind of transition was professional ballet dancers.   Most of them have been extremely focused on one path their entire lives since very young.  It can be genuinely emotionally wrenching when that path comes to an end.

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On the matter of having a baby. It was more rare in Wendy Whelan's day than today but dancers did it. Karin von Aroldingen, Helene Alexopoulos, Patricia McBride, Lourdes Lopez all gave birth and continued to dance in NYCB afterwards. There were probably others. It bothered me a bit that Whelan implied that the company owed her something because she made the personal choice to not be a mother.

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8 hours ago, vipa said:

On the matter of having a baby. It was more rare in Wendy Whelan's day than today but dancers did it. Karin von Aroldingen, Helene Alexopoulos, Patricia McBride, Lourdes Lopez all gave birth and continued to dance in NYCB afterwards. There were probably others. It bothered me a bit that Whelan implied that the company owed her something because she made the personal choice to not be a mother.

That passage in the film reminded me of the comments by Emily in the 1977 The Turning Point, who said essentially the same thing and felt pity for the over-the-hill dancer Emma (Anne Bancroft). Wendy's comment seemed like it was from that different era, 40 years ago!

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I didn't necessarily interpret her comment as saying that they owed her something for her decision not to have a baby. I thought she was speaking more to her own intense focus on achieving her ballet goals. It really struck me when she was talking about ballet and dancing and then she said she sounded like an excited 12-year-old. I don't think it was just that her identity was wrapped up in being a principal with NYCB, she was also still as passionate about dancing and growing as she was when she was a young girl hoping to become a professional. I think that's part of the reason, along with her previous lack of any major injuries, that she was almost caught off guard when the reality of aging hit her. I also think being able to take that passion for dancing to more contemporary opportunities really helped her accept the end of her career at NYCB. 

 

 

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1 hour ago, AB'sMom said:

I didn't necessarily interpret her comment as saying that they owed her something for her decision not to have a baby. I thought she was speaking more to her own intense focus on achieving her ballet goals. It really struck me when she was talking about ballet and dancing and then she said she sounded like an excited 12-year-old. I don't think it was just that her identity was wrapped up in being a principal with NYCB, she was also still as passionate about dancing and growing as she was when she was a young girl hoping to become a professional. I think that's part of the reason, along with her previous lack of any major injuries, that she was almost caught off guard when the reality of aging hit her. I also think being able to take that passion for dancing to more contemporary opportunities really helped her accept the end of her career at NYCB. 

 

 

 

I agree.  I didn't thinking she was blaming anyone, just acknowledging her own personal priorities and devotion to dance.

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I thought that Whelan was honest about her choices and her focus on dance and her analysis of "the way it was."  At some level her singular focus was part of her rise and her success.  I was sad for all that she gave up but I did not get the sense at all that she  was sad.

 

She did strike me as going through things that many people her age had gone through previously. Ballet crafts a very interesting psyche.

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What I sensed was that Whelan's transition was harder than most ballerinas because her career never really had the ups and downs of most ballet careers. No major injuries until she was in her mid-40's. At the NYCB she was THE undisputed star for so many years and she had a virtual monopoly on so many roles. Not just the ones created for her by Wheeldon or Ratmansky, but Agon, Symphony in Three Movements, La Sonnambula, Glass Pieces, In Memory Of ... and a bunch of other leotard ballets. So when reality hit (first subtly, by Peter Martins taking away Nutcracker), then more obviously (an extreme injury) she was shocked.

 

 

 

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On 9/27/2017 at 10:09 AM, Balletwannabe said:

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.

 

I had something of the same reaction, Balletwannabe.  Whelan had three decades at the top of one of the world's great companies without any major injury until the very end, she had memorable roles made on her by the top guys around at the time, she had a decade with the legendary Robbins. All through a combination of talent, drive, good fortune, and what I'm sure was good management on her part in a profession that's very tough.  Her reactions, of course,  are entirely human and understandable.  

 

I think, as Whelan said in the movie, Martins was offering her a graceful out and she saw it and took it.  

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I think that Martins has a mixed reputation in the dance community -- while he shows well here, many people will average that with other opinions, and make their own judgment.

 

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What I admired about Restless Creature was that Whelan allowed the film-makers to watch her go through much of the process of the career transition as it was taking place. So we hear/see a lot of thoughts and reactions that perhaps we might not have heard or seen if she were to have given an interview five years later after she had sorted the transition out in her mind--or at least sorted out how she wanted her reactions to be perceived. She is sharing -- in a serious, dignified way I thought -- things that other ballerinas might prefer to keep to themselves. (And wasn't it interesting to hear what Phillip Neill had to say about how hard the transition from being a ballet dancer has been for him!)  I thought Whelan took a brave approach towards a very vulnerable time in her career, especially as she appears to be very much a perfectionist who gives thought to every aspect of how she presents herself. 


In this film, Martins rather graciously takes no credit for spotting and promoting Whelan early in her career -- he says it was easy because she was so talented. But Whelan was far from a cookie-cutter ballerina even in the context of New York City Ballet.  I hope everyone recognized her talent and like to think that she would have risen to the top whoever was directing the company...and yet I don't know that any and every director would have featured her in the way Martins did as early and quickly as he did or given her some of the opportunities he did (he even let her make a pass at Aurora--far from an obvious role for her); just consider, too,  that one prominent critic was constantly complaining about her body type and her dancing all during the final years of her career and this was after she had already attained her prominent status. So, I think Martins has to get some "director" credit for his support of Whelan and creation of roles for her at the beginning of her career and,  in this film, there is no evidence he handled the end of her career with harshness or indifference--though I admit it always surprises me as a fan to get a glimpse into how 'cold' the backstage world can be in a general sort of way. That it was a hard situation and that Whelan experienced what Martins said and did at times badly...well, yes. And that, as Dirac says, is perfectly human and understandable.

Edited by Drew

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I think there would have been serious hating on Martins had he not recognized Whelan's talent after being with and creating for Heather Watts for so long and had he rejected her because she wasn't orthodox.

 

I found it interesting watching early Whelan that the first thing she did that floored me was a Watts specialty:  Novice in "The Cage."  I don't remember what rank she was then, but she owned it.

 

I'm also so glad he gave her Aurora.  Except for Fugate's "Vision Scene," which I loved equally, Whelan was my favorite Aurora at NYCB in "Sleeping Beauty"'s first seasons.  (I've only seen it once since.)

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We do regularly see serious hating on Ballet Directors for talent they do and don't promote -- including hating on Martins even now regarding Ashley Laracey's career.  I can't say it seems to move him. (Nor do I really think directors should be dictated to by fans even if, as a fan, I have a lot of amateur opinions on casting :wink:.)

 

But I do think that in the story of Whelan's career at NYCB Martins was a clear and early supporter, creating roles for her and giving her opportunities that may or may not have come her way that quickly if someone else had been directing the company.  (Martins himself in Restless Creature just says her greatness was obvious...so he takes no credit for supporting her career.)

 

Martins also kept the faith with premiering new works with new choreographers year after year when the results seemed mostly dreary and forgettable--as indeed he still does. And he got a lot of hate for that... That's the context in which Whelan-as-Muse emerged.

 

I have no idea what Martins is like to work for...and I am pretty sure I wouldn't have the stomach for even the most benign back-stage ballet politics. But from the outside one sees a lot of positives for Whelan's career in Martins' NYCB.  And of course the other way round! Martins' New York City Ballet benefited immeasurably by having such an extraordinarily gifted and dedicated ballerina. From what Peter Boal says in Restless Creature, one gathers Whelan even contributed to a more gracious and humane backstage atmosphere.

 

 

Edited by Drew

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What I sensed from Restless Creatures was that yes, there's competition in a ballet company, and company politics, and Whelan was hurting emotionally and physically during the film. But I also saw a fairly warm and supportive community which is NOT the environment of many ballet companies. For instance Albert Evans (RIP) welcoming Wendy back with huge tears rolling down his cheeks, or Abi Stafford and some of the more junior members of the company knocking on Wendy;s dressing room door to check in -- it was pretty nice. 

 

Also, Martins let Whelan retire gracefully on her own terms. He might have given her a nudge but there are many, many AD's who would have simply sent a letter in the mail informing of the non-contract renewal.

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What I admired about Restless Creature was that Whelan allowed the film-makers to watch her go through much of the process of the career transition as it was taking place. So we hear/see a lot of thoughts and reactions that perhaps we might not have heard or seen if she were to have given an interview five years later after she had sorted the transition out in her mind--or at least sorted out how she wanted her reactions to be perceived. She is sharing -- in a serious, dignified way I thought -- things that other ballerinas might prefer to keep to themselves.

 

True. I appreciated Whelan's candor, which was refreshing and brave (and made for a more involving  and complex film than I initially expected).

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On ‎10‎/‎5‎/‎2017 at 3:46 PM, canbelto said:

Restless Creatures is going to be released on DVD. It's already streaming on Amazon video and Netflix.

https://www.amazon.com/Restless-Creature-Whalen-Linda-Saffire/dp/B075P9VPCX/ref=sr_1_2?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1507232448&sr=1-2&keywords=restless+creatures

 

 

I received and viewed my DVD yesterday. Eventually a story of triumph in the face of adversity and sadness.  I admire Whelan more than ever. The generous extras, particularly the extended portions of four ballets (Concerto DSCH, Sonnambula, Dances at a Gathering and After the Rain) alone are more than worth the cost. Another nice extra is the 45-min interview with the ballerina.  On the negative side, I could have done without the bloody details of her hip operation but we see worse on reality-TV nowadays.

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Luckily I was with a friend who was able to warn me about how graphic the surgery scenes were, and I was able to cover my eyes and get an elbow when it was over.

 

I remember a medical channel on cable TV in NYC in the early '90's, and while channel-surfing, happened upon arthroscopic knee surgery, the memory of which still makes me shudder.

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On 11/8/2017 at 10:32 AM, CharlieH said:

 

I received and viewed my DVD yesterday. Eventually a story of triumph in the face of adversity and sadness.  I admire Whelan more than ever. The generous extras, particularly the extended portions of four ballets (Concerto DSCH, Sonnambula, Dances at a Gathering and After the Rain) alone are more than worth the cost. Another nice extra is the 45-min interview with the ballerina.  On the negative side, I could have done without the bloody details of her hip operation but we see worse on reality-TV nowadays.

Thanks for the heads-up about the extras -- I've seen the film a couple of times, and so wasn't going to buy the DVD, but for Dances at a Gathering I will reconsider!

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The dance extras run from 4-5 minutes to 11 minutes each. I think that After the Rain is complete. I've particularly enjoyed the Sleepwalker pdd from Sonnambula. Wendy's quick bourres on pointe are wondrous.

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On 11/8/2017 at 10:32 AM, CharlieH said:

 

I received and viewed my DVD yesterday. Eventually a story of triumph in the face of adversity and sadness.  I admire Whelan more than ever. The generous extras, particularly the extended portions of four ballets (Concerto DSCH, Sonnambula, Dances at a Gathering and After the Rain) alone are more than worth the cost. Another nice extra is the 45-min interview with the ballerina.  On the negative side, I could have done without the bloody details of her hip operation but we see worse on reality-TV nowadays.

I add my thanks for the details about the DVD extras.

I was interested in the surgery footage and thought it was courageous of Whelan to let us see her at her most vulnerable.  I cannot speak to the resemblance to medical reality shows because I have not seen any, but I thought the sequences in the film were tastefully handled and not overly graphic. I also liked what the doctor had to say in the operating room about ballerinas. :)

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I too ordered the DVD and loved the extras, especially the performance footage and the conversation with Wendy.

One part of the film I thought was so moving was when Wendy made her "comeback" in 2014 Albert Evans ran down the corridor to welcome her back, his face overflowing with tears. Evans was obviously a nurturing figure to many of the dancers (he plays the same role in Ballet 422), and it's hard to believe that less than a year later Albert would also be gone :( 

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On 11/20/2017 at 3:55 PM, canbelto said:

I too ordered the DVD and loved the extras, especially the performance footage and the conversation with Wendy.

One part of the film I thought was so moving was when Wendy made her "comeback" in 2014 Albert Evans ran down the corridor to welcome her back, his face overflowing with tears. Evans was obviously a nurturing figure to many of the dancers (he plays the same role in Ballet 422), and it's hard to believe that less than a year later Albert would also be gone :( 

That was such a fraught moment for me -- I didn't realize I'd see him, and there he was.

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Wendy Whelan is coming to Olympia, Washington next weekend, January 27-28, to teach master classes and to do a Q&A following a screening of "Restless Creature."  The screening is at 6:30pm on Saturday, January 27.  According to this article, she is appearing through a collaboration among Ballet Northwest (BNW), Studio West Dance Academy, and the Olympic Film Society.

https://www.thurstontalk.com/2018/01/21/weekend-wendy-whelan-world-class-dance-opportunities-come-olympia/

Quote

Ken and Josie Johnson, co-artistic directors of BNW, saw Whelan dance in New York and speak in Seattle while dancing with Pacific Northwest Ballet. “We were impressed not only by her amazing talent, but also by her warm and accessible demeanor,” Ken explained. After the release of her film, Restless Creature, earlier this year, they knew dancers and dance enthusiasts in Olympia needed to meet Whelan.

 

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