The Resonance of a Restless Creature

For any dancer who has even entertained the idea of transitioning into life beyond the stage, the prospect of an anxiety-ridden identity crisis is an unsurprising reality. I say unsurprising because creatures of art tend to tie up their identities with their passions. They dedicate their lives to their art, sacrificing most remnants of normalcy to make their dream a reality. Then, separating themselves from this dream is next to impossible.

It’s been a year since I retired as a ballerina to pursue my long-forgotten education. Last weekend, I received cathartic affirmation of my decision in the form of a documentary.

Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan (2016), directed by Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger, follows one of the most celebrated ballerinas of our time, Wendy Whelan, through the emotional rollercoaster of her final (30th!) year dancing with New York City Ballet. Wendy is a dancer who embodies the essence of grace and strength. She emits genuine beauty from the inside out, from the street to the stage. She dances, speaks, and lives with a je ne sais quoi that cannot be taught but merely shared.

As I sat there, watching her brave and honest journey, I could not help but acknowledge the swirl of emotions that I felt resonating from my very (still recovering) toes: affection for an art form that we’ve spent our lives perfecting combined with curiosity and fear of life beyond it. The film touches on the inherent patriarchy woven into the profession of ballet from its very beginning, nodding to the lack of control dancers have over their careers and bodies. The irony here is that for (super)humans who spend their lifetimes learning to control their every movement, we’re left with little to no control over the direction and display of our potential. Most artistic directors are male and are the ones making the casting decisions that make or break a career. This flagrant reality stands in stark contrast to the glamour that’s typically associated with performing as a Swan, a Sylph, a Willie, a Flower, and a Snowflake.

I’m not sure why the profession of dance has progressed in so many ways choreographically but remains tied to archaic conventions of administrative jurisdiction. It is beyond frustrating to reflect on the lack of communication afforded to dancers world-wide, and it is next to impossible to accept that this dilemma is mirrored in Wendy Whalen’s legendary career.

We can’t forget that within us, we have the power to vouch for our value, to challenge professional stigmas, and to shake the bonds of outdated tradition. I can’t stop thinking about this delicious quote I read recently in Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas: “Songs of the singers rise naturally from the lives of the livers.”

As I re-dedicate myself to my education, I find comfort, strength and resonance in Wendy’s story. By exposing the emotional binaries that all dancers (humans) face, but that few choose to share (fear/bravery, doubt/courage, defeat/resilience, weakness/strength), Whelan reminds me of the power of voice, and its capacity to be shared in mediums beyond dance. We have the freedom to simply use our voice, to write, to create films, to reflect, to connect, and to converse. To share our story so that it might resonate with (at least) one other person in this great, big world, who might then, feeling self-assured, pay it forward.

the {voice} of a restless creature brews within each of us.

                  let's sing our songs. –s.e.


Shelby Elsbree is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in English & Philosophy at Columbia University. After 7 years as a professional ballet dancer for the Royal Danish Ballet & Boston Ballet, she has returned to New York City to focus on her education and ever-broadening perspective of life beyond the stage.
You can follow her chronicles on dancing, dreaming, traveling, and story-telling on her blog, Tutus & Tea ( An earlier version of this review was published on her blog. 
Instagram: @selsbree // Twitter: @tutusandtea

Restless Creature
Directed by Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger
Executive Producer: Diana Dimenna
Release Date: May 24, 2017