In 2013, acclaimed ballerina Wendy Whelan underwent reconstructive surgery that left her hobbled, both physically and emotionally. For Whelan, it wasn’t just her career with the New York City Ballet that was at stake; it was also her artistic voice.
“It was terrifying to lose that mode of expression that I was so in touch with, that I so loved, that I so cultivated for my whole entire life,” she says.
Whelan, who was 46 at the time, feared that she would never dance again. But after months of rehabilitation and physical therapy, she returned briefly to the company she had danced with for more than three decades.
Whelan took her final bow with the New York City Ballet in October 2014 — an experience she likens to shedding skin. “Everything I experienced as an adult happened as a member of New York City Ballet,” she says. “To leave it as an adult [after] going into it as basically a child was scary, really scary.”
Now, nearly three years after leaving ballet, Whelan continues to perform contemporary dance. She says she feels liberated in her new life: “I’ve been strapped in — physically strapped in to pointe shoes, strapped into a leotard and tights, my hair’s been strapped up — for my whole entire life. … I was terrified to be unconstricted, and now I don’t know another way I’d rather be.”
The documentary Restless Creature chronicles Whelan’s injury, recovery and final performance with her company.