This past Saturday, I went to see a documentary about former New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Wendy Whelan, the acclaimed ballerina known for being the greatest American ballet dancer of our time. I remember seeing her perform in “Dances at a Gathering” on the stage of the Hong Kong Cultural Center during the Hong Kong Arts Festival back in 2011. She was dancing the green girl. Her unique body shape and the way she moved made a deep impression on me. She’s like no other ballerina I’d ever seen. I was subsequently amazed at how long she had been with the company, retiring at the age of 47—way past the average retirement age for ballerinas worldwide. But that’s about all that I knew of her then.
Before going to the screening, I didn’t expect the kind of emotional shock that I would experience by watching the film. I thought it was going to be about the mental struggle that Wendy had to go through in coming to terms with the prospect of retiring after a long and luminous career at the top of today’s cut-throat ballet world. It was that, but it was more than that. A lot more than that.
The following is going to be a spoiler if you haven’t seen the film yet. So be forewarned before you read on.
The film opened up with a quick lead-in to a hip surgery that Wendy underwent a couple of years ago. The audience was brought directly into the operating room to witness this major surgery, complete with…. blood and gore. That was enough of a shocker for some of us. Then the film crew continued to follow Wendy’s journey of rehab and her daily life afterwards. We saw how she was gradually removed from the daily ballet routines that she was so accustomed to for almost 30 years—the endless cycle of daily ballet class, rehearsals and performances. Suddenly, she was out of the loop, feeling completely cut off and at a loss. She experienced anxiety, with thoughts such as: “If I’m not able to dance, I’d rather die” ruminating in her mind.
The journey of rehabilitation through physical therapy was tedious. There was always a sense of doubt that underpinned the whole process. Would she be able to get back on stage? Or would this surgery spell the end of her dance career?
In Wendy’s mind, this could not be the end. She was so determined to go back on stage, that she did everything she could to get better. After about 9 months she went back to take company class, but not without setbacks. On some days, she had to limp her way out of the studio and take a cab home instead of walking down to the subway station. One can only imagine the excruciating pain she underwent.
While I sat in the theater, wearing tapes and a brace to hold my fractured rib together, I totally forgot about my recent injury, feeling the pain in Wendy’s hip and entire body…. as well as her emotional pain.
Wendy is—and has always known—how strong of a dancer she is. She feels lucky that she never had any dance-related pain or injury throughout her long career, except for a short bout. Even though she was diagnosed with a serious scoliosis in her teenage years, her body responded well to the corrective braces her doctor made her wear, and she was totally fit for the rigorous training at the School of American Ballet when she entered it at the age of 15.
So when she was suddenly beset with this hip pain, she was beyond puzzled.
In the film, she talked about how it all started. One day, she went to a meeting with NYCB Artistic Director Peter Martins. In the meeting, Pater Martins asked if she had thought about stepping down from her leading role in The Nutcracker. This was an unexpected question, to which Martins added a crushing side note, saying: “I just don’t want people to see you in decline.”
To Wendy, this was like a bombshell dropped from the sky. All of a sudden, in the days and weeks after this conversation, pain cropped up in her hip, until one day she couldn’t continue with the daily dance routines anymore. Something had to be done. And this led to the eventual surgery and rehab. The film subsequently depicted the detailed process of her strategizing about what steps to take next. We witnessed the genesis of her new dance project, “Restless Creature,” in which she started working with four male contemporary dance choreographers to create a new dance style and space for her to express herself beyond the strict confines of ballet.
The journey was surely not a straight path, and the film is so well done that we were brought alongside Wendy every step of the way, experiencing the emotional upheavals that went on deep inside, behind her stoic face and attitude toward the biggest tribulations in her life.
The film ended with a total triumph on stage when Wendy gave her farewell performance to round off her 30 years with NYCB—her 30 years of love affair with ballet and everything to do with it—especially the partnerships with dancers and choreographers, which she cherishes the most. I was glad to see such a detailed footage of her farewell performance, as I didn’t get to witness it myself at that time.
The entire documentary takes on such an intimate style, making us the audience feel as if we were right there walking or sitting beside Wendy, shuffling between places where a professional ballerina in New York City would visit day in and day out, around Lincoln Center and the backstage—places that I personally have frequented myself, being a balletomane. I felt that I was there with her the whole time.
After the screening, I noticed some commotion in the auditorium next to the theater. To my surprise, Wendy and the director of the film, Adam Schlesinger, were there to give a Q&A. I didn’t know if I needed to purchase a ticket for that or not, but I just stepped right in, knowing that it was an opportunity not to be missed. I felt that luck was truly on my side, as I initially bought the ticket for last Thursday’s screening but due to my fresh injury, I couldn’t go. Luckily I was able to swap the ticket to Saturday for exactly the right showtime in order for me to catch this Q&A. Such beautiful serendipity! Perhaps it was really meant to be. Wendy’s story and her being inspired me to no end.
It was an amazing Q&A, with Wendy talking with a small audience of around 30-40 heart to heart, and the director filling us in with some of the details of the filming process. I had a chance to ask Wendy a question—I still can’t believe that it happened but it did! My question was: “How has the filming process influenced your emotional healing after that pivotal meeting with Peter Martins?”
It took a few seconds for Wendy to gather herself and answer my question. Apparently it was a super emotional one for her. She recounted how that meeting was supposed to be one where she would ask Peter Martins for advice on how to do some of the administrative work in the company as a way for her to learn the ropes of a different role in preparation for her retirement in the distant future. But the meeting didn’t pan out as she expected. Instead, Peter asked her to decide when to bow out of The Nutcrackers and said those words that crushed her inner sense of self worth. “What do you mean by saying not wanting the audience see my ‘decline’?” she thought.
After the meeting, Wendy said, pain started to surface from the foot, up the calves, to the thigh and all the way to the hip within the span of a month. It was as if those words had a way of waking up all the hurt that lied dormant inside for years. To me, as someone who has personally experienced serious illnesses as a direct manifestation of my emotional malaise (and later on being able to connect the dots after I became a health coach), I immediately understood and appreciated what Wendy meant. Those words elicited emotional charges in her and manifested as debilitating pain. Those words created self-doubt in her, which she never had as she sailed through her career as an invincible dancer with the world at her feet for three decades. This self-doubt opened a wound that was there all along, a wound that Wendy courageously discussed with us during the session.
“I realized that I had been using ballet as my crutch. A crutch for my insecurities,” she confessed.
Whoa. Just whoa. For a ballerina of her statue, I would’ve never expected this. But then I also understand the psychology of the “strong one.” It’s not uncommon to find extraordinary people who are extraordinary in what they do as a means to overcome a mirroring weakness that they have identified early in their lives. For example, you can find extremely shy and sensitive individuals becoming extremely good comedians or public speakers. It is in the journey of overcoming the so-called weakness that such individuals arrived at the peak of their chosen vocation. It’s like a challenge for themselves, and they get such a rush and sense of fulfillment in the pure process of overcoming. And such is the case with Wendy.
What touches me the most is her willingness and courage to be openly vulnerable. She came across to me as such a humble human being.
To answer my question, she said that the film had helped her to be the best of herself and be strong for the audience throughout her rehabilitation. She had cried but twice in the film, and those first takes were used directly in the final version. She expressed how cathartic it felt to be able to cry. All along her career, she said, she had not cried. She had to be strong. And it was as though all the tears came rushing out from the hip. It was crying silently through the pain. And finally, the film gave her a voice—a true voice to express herself, as opposed to the silent expression of ballet—as ballerinas aren’t “supposed” to be heard on all levels. Wendy was almost tearing up at this point, and me too. Tears came to the edge of my eyes as I listened to her intently. What a moment to experience Wendy in her authenticity and vulnerability!
Speaking of authenticity, when asked what she looks for when she goes to see a ballet performance by her ex-colleagues, she said she would be looking to see if they are authentic and honest, as she can detect immediately if they are wearing a mask or just being themselves.
When asked if she goes to watch NYCB performances often, her answer surprised all of us. “No,” she said, “I can’t really afford the tickets.” She said that as a former dancer, she does not get the perks of watching the shows for free. She isn’t even allowed backstage freely. Honestly, it feels a little sad to hear that.
I look forward to watching Wendy perform in her contemporary dance projects going forward. She told us of her hip replacement surgery a year ago and it took only a few months to rehabilitate. She was actually on her feet the next day, and the rehab was a cinch. An audience member was hesitate about getting a hip surgery and she gave him a great deal of encouragement.
I myself also got encouraged about my own healing. Having witnessed her long suffering during her 9-month rehab about the initial hip surgery, I now feel that my own little injury is nothing in comparison. I feel hopeful and look forward to dancing again.
To see a trailer of “Restless Creature,” click here.