Considered by many to be the world’s greatest living ballerina, Wendy Whelan is also the epitome of dedication to one’s art, a supreme example of what it takes to be great. Having danced since she was three, Whelan faced possible career-ending surgery at the age of forty-seven–an age at which most other dancers move away from performing into teaching or choreography. But Whelan so identified with the dance itself that she refused to give up, instead staging a comeback that allowed her to retire from City Ballet on her own terms and begin to explore the new world of modern dance. Whelan’s personal struggle, as well as her breathtaking dancing, is captured with great humanity and passion in Restless Creature. •Availability: Opens May 24, New York City, Film Forum and Lincoln Center. Click here for listings near you. Click here for trailer. •Thanks to Michelle DiMartino, Falco Ink, for arranging this interview.•
DT: Your film left me speechless. There have been a lot of documentaries about people who are completely dedicated to their craft or artists whose identity is synonymous with their art, but with Whelan there’s no daylight between what she does and who she is. I wanted to talk to you about how you chose to deal with that in your filmmaking.
AS: The way the project came about relates to what you’re asking. Diana DiMenna, our executive producer, knows Wendy very well, and she realized this was a moment in Wendy’s life that was a pivotal transitional moment. She also knows Wendy’s personality. She approached us with the thought that this would be a very interesting time to explore an artist’s life.
We met with Wendy and she told us a little bit about what she was going through. I think she was a little hesitant at first to do the film. It was this unsure moment in her life, but she agreed to let us film some work she was doing in the studio. We really wanted to show her that we were going to be as much a fly on the wall as possible and blend in and just follow her process as she was going through her life experiences at this moment.
The first day we filmed her she was in the studio working. Then we spent some time talking to her a little bit on film. We showed her the footage and she was happy with what she saw, so we took it from there. Little by little we got to know each other more and more, and she became more and more comfortable with us.
LS: She was always very approachable. She was never a diva. I was a fan of hers and I loved watching her as a spectator. In my opinion—and in most people’s opinion—she’s the greatest ballerina of our time, but she was just so grounded. She knows she’s good, but she’s also still a kid from Lousiville. There’s something relatable about her.
She was also able to articulate to us how to get her body into a certain condition where she was able to achieve a difficult move, as well as the feeling of it. She could take us into that world, and suddenly I felt, Oh, I get it, I understand! She was able to get us into her world and allow us to feel like we were experiencing what she was experiencing.
DT: Who drove the film—you or Wendy?
AS:We wanted to follow her through this transition. As things would occur, she would be in touch with us and say, “This is what I’m doing today.” Little by little things started to unfold that way, but we would also be reaching out to her regularly, ask her, “What are you up to? What are you doing? We want to film that.”
LS: We had an agenda of certain things we’d make sure to get—things we might need later on. Sometimes it would come out in conversations Wendy was having with a friend, and we could say, Oh, we got it—we don’t need to try and pull it out of her unnaturally. For instance, there’s a scene in a coffee shop where she’s talking to another former principal dancer from the New York City Ballet. She’s describing Balanchine’s world: “I’m in, I’m in, no boyfriend, no babies, I want this, I’m in.” We didn’t have to say, “So, you gave up having a family.” Instead it came out in a very natural way.
AS: As opposed to us saying, “So why didn’t you have children?” she was going through this process of dealing with coming to the end of a career. She was meeting with different friends and talking about their experiences. In the conversation Linda is referring to, Wendy said that if you’re in Balanchine’s world, you didn’t have babies, you didn’t get married, you were all in, you were all or nothing. For us what was important was to capture her process of going through and dealing with this moment in time, and we felt, Let’s take that approach to it.
DT: It’s so interesting to me that everyone talks about ending her career, whereas in fact she did not end her career at all; it just took a different trajectory. One remark in the film struck me like a thunderbolt: She said that other people had the option of teaching or coaching dance, but that option was not available to her. The only option available to her was to dance. She didn’t end up not dancing, she didn’t stop doing what she needs to do.
AS: Exactly right. When someone asked us about the film, we we’d say, It’s not about the end, it’s about re-creating yourself and figuring out how you can still continue to create under the circumstance, as a pure artist. That’s what Wendy’s mission and goal are, and that’s what was so interesting for us. It wasn’t about the end; that’s what was exciting about it. For us the idea that she was doing Restless Creature and using that vehicle to explore a new world and a new dance form was very interesting. One of the original reasons we started the project was that question: I know I can’t dance ballet the rest of my life, but I do want to continue to create, so how am I going to do that? I’ll do it by trying this.
LS: It was actually very difficult in the edit room. We took a lot longer than necessary to edit this film; we were grappling with it because there were so many different types of endings. The one thing we were not going to do was have this being the end of her career at City Ballet. But there it was: footage of the curtain call, the final performance. We asked, Should we make a comeback film—can she do it? The finale [at City Ballet] is an end, and we were really working to make sure that wasn’t the end of our film. It was very hard to get the ending we had.
DT: Catching dance on film is very difficult, but you were lucky to have Don Lenzer as your DP, a cinematographer who not only knows dance but knows City Ballet from previous films he’d shot, like Dancing for Mr. B: Six American Ballerinas and Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse. Can you talk about working with Lenzer and what he brought to your film?
LS: He’s brilliant, and he disappears. He disappears with this big camera on his shoulder, and he captures these moments so beautifully. He’s like a ballerina when he has it. He dances with his subject. He’s in and out and it’s magic. We’d worked with him on other projects, but we knew from the first day’s shoot that he was the perfect cinematographer for this because the way he shoots dance is just so subtle. It looks like there’s no cameraman.
AS: When Wendy saw that first bit of footage we shot of her in the rehearsal studio… One technique Don uses is to put his camera on a tripod with wheels. The dance studio is the ideal space for that because he can actually move with the dancer as he or she is doing their choreography. It’s a really beautiful technique and very smooth. And Don has the background. The world of dance is a passion for him, it’s something he just loves to death. He’s always excited to come to work every day, but particularly so with this project.
DT: Linda, you were a fan of Whelan’s long before you began the film. When you first started shooting, was it difficult to separate the individual from the legend?
LS: On any film that Adam and I both do we really try to be objective, in a “Here’s this person I know nothing about and I want that person to take us into their world” way. We really want to get inside their heads. We really want to feel and understand who they are. It just so happened that Wendy was a wonderful person. It could have been horrible, but it wasn’t. We really try to be objective.
We did the same thing with Ron Galella [Smash His Camera]. Going into that project I kind of thought he’s got to be horrible, he’s got to be a terrible human being, but we went in saying, We’re going to tell the story and get to know him. We ended up thinking, He’s an artist, and this is his craft as a paparazzi. It’s fun to throw away anything we may think or know about the person and then start fresh. With Wendy it wasn’t very difficult. She’s a brilliant dancer, and I would be speechless after some of her performances.
AS: What was interesting was that Linda had no idea what Wendy’s personality would be, and that was what was kind of exciting about it.
LS: I didn’t know how much work went into doing what she did. She really took us into the ballet world, and you see that for these athletes, these artists, the work they do is grueling. Six days a week, maybe seven, in the morning they go to class, then rehearsal, then PT, then they do a performance, then they go to bed and repeat it the next morning. They’re constantly working on their bodies, and they know every detail about their bodies.
AS: As you were saying at the beginning, there’s no separation between Wendy as an artist and what she does, because that’s her day. Every day. That’s who she is.
DT: Other dancers do the same thing, but there’s something about Wendy in particular that is just different.
LS: Vocation. It’s her being. It’s truly who she is: an artist who expresses herself through her body. She does find other ways to express herself—as I discovered, she’s a very smart woman, she’s a photographer, she’s very articulate, she’s a philosopher. But the way she expresses her emotions and her feelings really comes through her body. It’s her essence.
AS: As she says in the film, “If I don’t dance, I’d rather die.”
DT: What about her surprised you the most?
AS: I was surprised at how down-to-earth she is. I always had this image of the prima ballerina as something different. Her salt-of-the-earth qualities were really interesting to me. I got the feeling that maybe this exemplifies what the modern ballet dancer is.
LS: She’s so honest. So approachable. One night she was talking at great length with this couple after a performance, and I thought they were friends of the family or friends of hers or maybe patrons. When I asked her who they were, she said, “Fans. They come to the ballet a lot.”
AS: I would also say her work ethic and her determination are really, really extraordinary. You don’t get to where she is by not having that. All of the other dancers respected that in her and were enamored and in awe of that. She works that much harder, that much longer, and she demands that from her partners. She works truly hard with them but in the most respectful ways. She seeks to get the most out of. She conveys that when she’s talking to Craig [Hall] and Tiler [Peck] at the end of the movie, when she says, “You guys are now masters.” She takes very seriously the whole idea of passing the baton, so to speak, from man to woman to woman to man. That’s very important to her.
DT: Moving from ballet to modern was something of a double-edged sword for her—in one way it was liberation into the future and in another way it was acknowledgment of a completed past. You’ve seen her do both. You’re not dance critics, but did you sense that in her dancing at all?
LS: It was more a sense that she was going to work as hard as she worked in ballet to really master another form of dance. We filmed a few rehearsals with Risa Steinberg over at Juilliard, hours on end trying to let go of the ballet moves and redirect her body. She hasn’t perfected that craft yet, but she’s continually working at getting there, going to class every day.
AS: At one Q&A she was talking about the difference for her between doing modern dance vs ballet. Taking the toe shoes off was a big deal for her. She hadn’t had toe shoes on for a very long time, and then she put them back on and she basically said, “Aaaah,” because she was so comfortable in the toe shoes.
LS: She said, “I’m home, I’m home.”
AS: The idea of taking her shoes off and dancing without them was so different for her. I don’t know if it was a double-edged sword, but it was definitely something unique for her, the idea of not having—I don’t know—maybe the security of having the toe shoes, ironically.
LS: Also the craft she was trained in since she was three. At age forty-seven…
DT: At what point did you decide to make her leaving the City Ballet the focus of the film?
LS: The story of the film really came through in the edit room when we could look at all the material. When we started, we really didn’t know if she was going to retire during our filming. She didn’t make that decision until March 2014. We started filming in the summer of 2013, so we were looking at what would happen when she got back onstage. Once she made that decision, we said, We’ve got to keep going, we’ve got to follow this, and we’ve got to get access, of course this is the end, or do we start with the end?
AS: There was so much going on. She’d had the surgery; she was now doing Restless Creature and had scheduled shows for that; she was trying to make a comeback and then ultimately retire. There was just so much, so we were following it to see what would happen. Ultimately she kind of answered the question for us when she said, I can’t do these other things—I need to just focus on getting back to dancing ballet, and getting back on the stage of the New York City Ballet.
LS: There was a point where we didn’t know if she was going to get back onstage, because there was also the issue of her surgery. She was so emotional, too: My body! Will it work?
DT: How did that feel to you as filmmakers? Were you invested in an outcome for her?
AS: Not at all. We were just following her. Of course we were hoping that she’d make it through—
LS: Because of her more than the film. You say, Of course she’s going to do it, but we knew that this was just a very very scary time for her.
AS: She was afraid; she didn’t want to fail. She was very afraid of that. She wanted to end it on her own terms. None of us would have been happy if it had all fallen flat, but we knew it was a risk for sure.
DT: Is there anything you regret?
LS: I wish we could have shown more of the dance in the film, scenes we had to cut out because they were taking us in a different direction. There were more moments with the other dancers that were beautiful. The regretting is wishing we could put more material in the film.
AS: With regard to the dancing, during her final performance she danced a total of five pieces, including the final piece that we show in the film. They were pieces from all different points in her career, and we have all that footage, but we ultimately made the decision to leave it out. We had the exclusive on that final piece, which was a one-night only, onetime performance, and we ultimately chose that as the focus for that last night. It was quite an evening, but we had to make a decision.
LS: During those weeks she wasn’t just getting ready and rehearsing for her final performance. She was also dancing in the season, so she was doing other performances. It was like candy. She couldn’t get enough of it. She knew it was coming to an end, and it was nonstop. We just kept thinking, How does she do this?
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