People Who Make NY Special

Wendy Whelan Is a Restless Creature

The NYC-based prima ballerina pirouettes her way to the big screen in the documentary “Restless Creature.”

Photo by Yi Chun Wu

Like other professional athletes, ballet dancers don’t expect their life en pointe to last past their 30s. In fact, the typical career for professional ballerinas and dancers is a mere 15 years. So Wendy Whelan’s professional path as an in-demand prima ballerina for more than 30 years is practically supernatural. She joined New York City Ballet in 1984, was promoted to principal dancer in 1991, and sold out shows until she left the company in 2012 to work on her own more experimental choreography.

Her work has inspired generations of dancers and now it has inspired filmmakers. The documentary Restless Creature, showing at Lincoln Center and The Film Forum through Thursday, June 8, shows how Whelan combines her otherworldly talent with dogged determination and grit to test the limits of her body and spirit. What Should We Do’s wellness editor, Amanda Taylor, spoke with the sinewy star about her life in dance, being an artist in New York City, and her favorite slice (yes, she eats pizza!).

What Should We Do?!: I heard you speak at the Film Forum, which was so great. You shared that initially you were reluctant to make this movie. Are you glad that you did? What have you learned about yourself as a result?
Wendy Whelan: It’s true, I was reluctant to make this film at first. But in making it and showing myself deciding to step away from life as a ballerina, I have found a new fearlessness and openness in myself. I was always professionally considered fearless and open, but I have found a new level of confidence and fearlessness in my personal life. I have found a balance that wasn’t quite there before.

WSWD: You just completed 10 master classes, a mini course, and two public conversations as the inaugural Lida Orzeck ’68 Distinguished Artist-in-Residence at Barnard College. What do you most enjoy about teaching?
Whelan: I enjoy the exchange of information that I find in teaching. I learn so much about myself when I teach, and I enjoy making these new discoveries. I really love the energy that gets stirred up with the students and professional dancers whom I get the opportunity to coach. Sharing information and developing new ideas with others is something I will never tire of.

WSWD: What do you like most about living in New York City?
Whelan: I like the cultural history of NYC, the architecture, and the energy. I like the fact that the city never sleeps, but I also like the escapes—the beautiful parks within the city and the great places that surround it, such as the Hudson Valley and Long Island.

WSWD: How do you unwind?
Whelan: I unwind by going upstate to the Hudson Valley…and catching up on my sleep.

WSWD: What are your favorite nightspots?
Whelan: I don’t go out a ton, but I tend to stay in my neighborhood when I do. I like Vanguard Wine Bar, Ed’s Chowder House, and Cafe Luxembourg. I enjoy the atmosphere and food in these places; they somehow feel off the beaten track even though they are each so popular.

WSWD: Favorite NYC pizza?
Whelan: I love pizza, but don’t eat it very often. I used to get the squash pizza from Grandaisy Bakery. I sometimes get the really thin-crust slices from Farinella Italian Bakery.

WSWD: If you only had an hour in NYC, what would you do?
Whelan: I’d take a dance class or a yoga class. I might also make a great picnic and hang out in and around Central Park.

WSWD: What are your wishes for NYC?
Whelan: My wishes for NYC are that it would stay affordable enough for artists to still find ways to live and thrive here; I hope it doesn’t continue toward becoming too ridiculously expensive and too commercial. I wish the mom-and-pop stores could stay in business and that we don’t continually become surrounded only by big, generic businesses. I hope the personality of NYC can stay alive and that it doesn’t get lost or washed away.