Ballet lovers will recognize the subject of “Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan” as the former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, who retired from the company in 2014. The fact that the then-47-year-old ballerina had been dancing with the NYCB for a remarkable 30 years means that there are lots of archival performance clips for directors Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger to choose from, but this isn’t primarily a documentary about Whelan’s admittedly great artistry. Dance fans will probably be surprised to discover that there is actually precious little dancing in “Restless Creature.”
Rather, it’s a portrait of an artist in transition.
The film begins in 2012, as Whelan prepares to undergo surgery to repair a debilitating labral tear in her right hip. Much of the film features Whelan talking about the changes she is about to face, and how she feels about them, as she undergoes physical therapy and only gradually works her way back to the stage for one final, farewell season.
The movie’s title comes from the name of a touring show of modern dance that Whelan followed up her ballet career with in 2015, but it also applies to Whelan herself. As the film gets underway, the woman we meet is someone who says that she would rather die than stop dancing. By the end of the movie, she’s in a very different head space — and a very different person.
Whelan, who grew up in Louisville, makes for a warm and genial host to her own life story. Several scenes show her reconnecting with old high school friends, and gathering with NYCB colleagues who clearly love her. What little dancing we do see is lovely to watch, but it’s also lovely to see a performer who once seemed to have an iron grip on the barre finally learn how to be gracious and let go. After all, there is always another generation of young dancers waiting in the wings — in this case, quite literally — for the veteran to step aside.
Unrated. At area theaters. Contains brief coarse language and images of surgery that are not for the squeamish. 90 minutes.