How Famed Performer Wendy Whelan Came Back From Her Career-Halting Injury

Interview   How Famed Performer Wendy Whelan Came Back From Her Career-Halting Injury After dancing for Twyla Tharp, Christopher Wheeldon, and the New York City Ballet, Whelan overcomes her biggest challenge yet in the new documentary Restless Creature.
Wendy Whelan
Wendy Whelan Coutresy of Paul Kolnick

Referred to as a superstar, icon and national treasure, Wendy Whelan’s claim to fame began in 1984 after being named an apprentice with the New York City Ballet. Quickly distinguished for her remarkable artistry and talent, choreographers such as Twyla Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky, and Christopher Wheeldon picked Whelan from the company to star in original pieces, creating a ballet supernova. Thirty years later at age 46, having performed strenuous roles injury free, Whelan found herself with a torn labrum and the inevitable question of “what’s next?”

“It was one of the worst times in my life, definitely,” Whelan recalls during a phone interview. “My identity was being that dancer, so I felt like I was losing literally everything and it was terrifying.”

In a new documentary entitled Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan, Whelan’s journey of strength, recovery and determination during her final year at the NYCB is captured on screen. When approached about the film, Whelan was hesitant. “It was a very vulnerable time and I was really kind of out of control,” she recalls. After meeting with directors Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger, Whelan found the courage to say “yes.”

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Wendy Whelan performing physical therapy exercises
Wendy Whelan performing physical therapy exercises Courtesy of Got the Shot Films

Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan opens as she is preparing to go into surgery. “I was in severe pain. I could not do my job at the ballet company… to the degree that I needed to do it or wanted to do it because my body basically just shut down.”

Many suggested that she retire from the ballet, moving on to the next stage in her career. But dance had become more than just a career for Whelan. “I felt like I was just losing everything; everything I had worked for, everything that was a part of myself,” she explains.

After a successful surgery and months of vigorous physical therapy, Whelan was back in the studio with the ballet, preparing for her farewell performance. Not without pain, however, as her body still ached after long rehearsals.

“A lot of times, people think [dancers] are anorexic,” says Saffire. “But there is no way you can perform and have the longevity that she’s had and be anorexic.”

As time went on, Whelan questioned her own identity and worth, trying to imagine life beyond the ballet. With the help of her husband and close friends, she began to discover that there’s more for her in the unknown, and that dance will always light her path.

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“I think what’s inspiring is that she said, ‘I am going to figure out how I can continue to dance, how I can continue to create, and I am going to be determined to do that,’” says Schlesinger.

Whelan adds, “It’s a human story that just happens to take place in a ballet company. I hope that people can take my positive outlook or constant moving forward and seeking help to rediscover myself, and take that and put it towards whatever they may need graveling with. I hope people can look at it as a bigger picture and not just a ballet story.”

Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan opens in theatres on May 24, 2017.

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