“I’ve always felt like a different kind of ballerina,” says ballet legend Wendy Whelan, and she is: When I mention to her that I danced for eight years with Oregon Ballet Theatre in Portland, Oregon, she immediately namechecks local ice cream shop Salt and Straw. Not many ballet dancers I know identify cities by their ice cream. Whelan is the subject of Restless Creature, a new documentary in theaters today. The film follows her through a serious hip injury, recovery, and her 30th and final season with the New York City Ballet in 2014. She spoke about retirement, sexism, and how the ballet world has (and hasn’t) changed since she joined the company in 1984.
You let a film crew follow you around during a very personal time. What was that experience like?
I didn’t want to do it at first, but the executive producer was a patron of the ballet and tons of the arts in New York, and she thought maybe we should do something to document the new project I was doing, Restless Creature, the contemporary work. So I said, “Well, I’m having a lot of pain. I’m at a crossroads in the company, I don’t know where I’m going to end up.” And she said, “Exactly. That would be so interesting for people to see.” I didn’t know how I’d come across in the end; I didn’t feel in control of my emotions at the time, because so many emotions were coming and going. It was scary to say how I really felt. Sadness, anger, fear, shame. Those were the big words at the time, and I was feeling those for a couple of years. To expose these feelings in front of a camera felt so foreign. Ballerinas don’t show those things. Ever. That’s just not what we’re taught to do. And a lot of people were like, “Do you feel like you can trust these people?” And that was a big fear: Are they gonna make this into something that I don’t want it to be? I didn’t want it to be a drama with New York City Ballet, and it could have easily gone that direction, just because of these feelings and the way I was expressing them. I didn’t want that, and I know that they knew that, but it took time for me to really trust them. Until I saw the film, I was praying that they were really on my side in that way. But I made the movie because I wanted to tell a different type of ballet story. I’ve always felt like a different kind of ballerina.
You are very much a different kind of ballerina.
I just felt like I had a different approach to my work, and I have a different approach to my style and my look; why not have a different approach to my ending? So much is made about the beginnings of ballet careers, the rosebud, and then once the petals and leaves start falling off, is it beautiful anymore? Some people think it is, some people don’t. The expectation is to focus on the very beautiful parts, not the ending.
I watched this with my fiancé, who has no experience with the ballet world, and the part that really got to him was when you talked about the meeting you had with Peter [Martins, artistic director of New York City Ballet] where he says he doesn’t want you to do certain roles anymore — he doesn’t want you to do The Nutcracker — and essentially plants these doubts in your mind. My fiancé was almost confused. He said, “She’s clearly at the top of her field; even I can tell that she’s one of the best of the best. How can it be that she’s so vulnerable?”
That is me. That was my reality. A lot of my career, and my drive, and my passion, and my striving to be better and better was built on insecurity. Sometimes you can hide that, and sometimes you can build a big, strong callus around it and not let it get you. But for me, this meeting with Peter was the first time that I was really hit in the center of that insecurity. I heard him and really processed what he was saying: You’re not what you were, and I don’t want to see you like this. And I don’t want the audience to compare you to the younger dancers. I had never thought about it like that, in that way, from that voice who is the preeminent boss.
The artistic director is the end-all be-all of authority figures as far as dancers are concerned.
Exactly. So it hit me like an arrow in a really vulnerable spot.
A lot of attention has been given to the lack of female choreographers. But where are the female artistic directors? Why aren’t there more women in creative leadership positions in ballet companies?
There are more and more. It’s happening, a little bit. Lourdes Lopez, Julie Kent, Patricia Barker … I often get calls when a spot opens up, but I don’t see myself in that position. I believe myself to not be a director because of the system. Having a male artistic director is a tradition that’s passed down, and it becomes ingrained and it’s like, “Oh, fuck off.” It’s a fake system. It’s hard to break it down unless you talk about it, and I think talking about it will slowly open it up, but even a feminist ballerina like me can still realize that I can be biased at times without knowing it. These unconscious biases are strong, and they need to be talked about. So from these new discussions, actions will take place. And the actions have to come from the people in charge, and if they’re all men, they have to open their minds and and teach people by their example. They are in a position of responsibility, and it’s a huge responsibility. It’s bigger than just ballet. It’s a social responsibility.
In the first part of the movie you say, “If I don’t dance, I’d rather die.” I think at some point every dancer has felt that way as well. But the film follows you through an evolution of sorts, as this sentiment loosens and your attitude changes.
I got outside. I saw the world. The bigger world. Being in the ballet world is a segment of a world, and more than that, it’s a segment of the dance world. So it’s just this tiniest thing. Even though, when you’re in it, it feels like the only world, and you have to commit yourself to [it] in order to dance at the highest level and be able to meet the challenges of it. It takes so many hours of your day, and the rest of your life shrinks a little bit, for better or worse. But when you get outside of the ballet world and you realize how small it is, you’re like, whoa. My husband really put it well. When I was going through this process, he said to me, “You’re an artist first, a dancer second, and a ballet dancer third.” Once he helped get me to this realization I could look at everything differently. And I’m going to say now, I’m a human being first, an artist second, a dancer third, and a ballet dancer fourth.
Certain people have certain ways of focusing on things, and some arrange their lens to a pinhole in order to focus only on their goal. Others have a giant lens and they take in the whole panorama. I was that pinhole kind of person. I needed to be like that to succeed and get to the place where I ultimately got to. Nowadays, a lot of dancers are going to college at the same time they’re dancing and they’re having successful dance careers. I could not have coped with all of the challenges of both school and a job, but lots of dancers can.
There certainly seems to be a shift taking place in the dancer identity. It used to be that you just danced, period. And once you were done dancing, then you could do everything else. But observing other dancers, it seems like the ballet and the non-ballet parts of life are starting to bleed together a little more.
I feel that way too. When I joined New York City Ballet as an apprentice in 1984, all the dancers, for the most part, were handpicked by him, and maybe one of them was going to college at the time. It’s just not what was part of the deal. Then he died and different board members started talking about setting up arrangements and scholarships to help dancers go to college, if they wanted to, on their free days. And that’s when I started to see, in the mid-’80s, dancers not just dancing but going to college as well. I was like, “How in the heck are you able to do both?”
Or the dancing moms! There are so many dancing moms now.
Yes. I’d say there are so many more dancing mothers and students than when I first joined the company. That’s where this culture has really evolved.
What are the best parts of not being a ballet dancer anymore?
I can sleep in if I want to! I can skip class if I want to. But I also love consistency, so I miss that as well. I just want to do something that I love to do. And I want to survive at it. I want to have a career that I really love. And if it’s dancing, I need to find what that sort of dancing is. Or if it’s teaching, or whatever it is. I just need a goal. I just need to have something that pulls at my heart.
When you retired, were you nervous that you wouldn’t be able to find something like that?
Yeah. I’m in that process. I’m trying everything. I’m still dancing, but I’m also trying to explore the non-dancer side of me. I have yet to really find that. Maybe in three years I won’t be involved with the dance world. I think that would be interesting. I’ve gotten to a place where I honestly don’t know if I want to work in a ballet company. I don’t know if I want to be in the ballet world. I think I might have grown out of it. I might not want to go back into that petri dish of a life that is so, so intense.
This interview has been edited and condensed.