It's been a harrowing few weeks for a lot of us, regardless of what part of the world you live in. Between floods, mudslides, hurricanes, wildfires, terrorist attacks, economic unrest, standoffs over nuclear arms with foreign leaders or homegrown acts of terror that have left millions of people shaking their heads in dismay, the events of the last month or so can leave the most casual dabbler in the arts running for their paintbrush and canvas. But for those of us without the skills to create traditional art, we can take solace in the comfort of enjoying the wonderful art created by those we admire and respect.
And that's exactly what I've been doing over the last few weeks.
Now I should be clear, I'm not one to avoid reality, but I completely understand the need to see to one's psychological health, especially when it feels a little too much. We're only humans, and although we are strong creatures, we are vulnerable ones too. My preferred tonic: music, film and dance. That's right. I use the solace of art to help me soldier on through weeks of frustration, emotional fatigue and uncertainty. Here's how it helped...
On August 22nd, my need to shut out the national debates on a host of sociopolitical issues, if only for one evening, led me to the Highline Ballroom for a concert featuring one of the greatest living American guitar virtuosos, Jonny Lang. I could go into how long I've been a fan of Mr. Lang (::cough:: 19 years ::cough::) or how his music has helped pull me through one of the worst episodes of depression in my life (His version of Edgar Winter's "Dying To Live" moved me to tears, dance and revelation), but instead I'll just tell you that seeing him perform live for the first time since 2013 made me a happy little fangirl who once again reaffirmed her love for this soulful rock beast.
Typically, I don't take photos or videos at concerts because I always worry about what I'm missing while I'm trying to get my camera ready or focus in on my subject. But the Highline doesn't have proper seating like an arena, so the audience stands near the stage and ogles to their heart's content. After 10-15 minutes into his set, I joined the mob and snagged a few photos and videos. I hope Lang forgives the intrusion, but rarely have I been so close to him while he was performing, so it seemed like a missed opportunity to not capture it.
With a new album, Signs, released 3 weeks later -- in the US, that is -- Lang didn't promote too many new songs off, but from what I could hear from the other Jonny denizens and devotees, concertgoers were happy to hear so many of their favorites and probably forgot that he had a new album on the horizon. (Not me though. "Make It Move" is now one of my Top 10 Jonny Lang favorites. ;-) From "Don't Stop For Anything" to a cover of Stevie Wonder's "Livin' For The City" to "Red Light" to his encore of "Lie to Me," Lang delivered the right panacea for what ailed me and so many others' on that rainy Tuesday night.
After 90+ minutes on stage (and a brilliant opening act), I gathered all that energy, hope and elation Jonny had transferred to me through his voice, lyrics and guitar, and headed home on cloud 9. I didn't even care that it was raining cats and dogs at the time. As a matter of fact, I think the showers just made the evening more perfect. Now how about that?
A few weeks passed and I continued to ride the high of Lang's concert -- compounded by a wonderful day out at the Afropunk festival and a concert at the Allentown fair with my Mom, but the events of the day drew my attention more and more with each news cycle. With more political strife, natural disasters, more natural disasters, and even more natural disasters, let's just say, even Jonny's music needed a little help to get my mind to focus and my motivation to stir. Enter Roxy Cinema to remind me to take heart...
On September 8th, on a mild, but buzzing New York evening, I sauntered over to the Roxy Hotel and the little cinema they keep in the basement to enjoy a new documentary feature called Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan. Why was this outing more significant than you'd expect? Because the filmmakers and their divine subject, Wendy Whelan herself, were there to share a little Q&A time after the screening.
The film is a journey through Whelan's last two years at the New York City Ballet as principal ballerina, and the surgery and shift in focus that accompanied it through this emotional time. For some reason, it didn't properly occur to me until the film began that I wasn't simply learning the story of one of the most dynamic dancers in the world of ballet, but I was also learning the story of a 47-year-old ballerina. All of my life, I never heard of a successful and active 47-year-old ballerina.
When I was growing up, the presumed age for a dancer's career retirement was around 35 years old. Part of the reason for this age cap was due to stigma and cultural assumptions about what dancers' bodies (especially ballerinas' bodies) can do. But some of it was also based on the very real truth that most of us can't physically do at 40 what we could do at 20. Thankfully, great artists like Whelan are there to disprove such concepts, and give hope to those middle aged dreamers who fear their best days are far behind them. (Believe it or not, it isn't just the young who can use someone to look up to.)
What I loved most about RestlessCreature are those little moments that not only give you insight into the life of arguably the most successful American ballerina of her generation, but also those evergreen messages of respect for the art and the artists who pursue it. The private contemplation of never being able to dance again, either due to injury or ageism. The unending support of her fellow dancers, neighbors, friends, fans and, of course, her husband. The postponing of her independent contemporary ballet tour so that she could focus on healing from her surgery and giving the NYCB all of her attention. All of it is echoed in Wendy's dedication to recovery and taking her final bow with the company on her own terms. "Ballerinas are probably God's best athletes," says her surgeon. And the film affirms that message loud and clear.
After the credits rolled, the audience then got to sit back and enjoy the playful stories and laughter of the film's producers, Linda Saffire (who has a great laugh btw) and Adam Schlesinger, and the incomparable woman herself, Wendy Whelan. Thanks to the Q&A, we learned that Restless Creature was never intended to cover Whelan's injury or retirement. It was simply pitched to be about the career and life of a living legend of ballet. Little did Whelan know at the time that the 2 years of footage would capture her working through some of the most emotionally harrowing moments of her life.
Now 50 years young and starring in her own independent works, Whelan is a new kind of inspiration. On a personal note, when she talked about not finding her voice until she was in her 30s, I was completely floored. To think someone who's been a member of one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the country -- if not the world -- since she was 17 years old didn't feel comfortable with her sense of self or how she wanted to express it until she was well into her 30s made me feel ... a little less lost. Not that I would ever compare our lives in any way, I want to thank Ms. Whelan for sharing that.
Another boost came from the documentary, which also gives us behind-the-scenes glimpses of star choreographers Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky in action, the NYCB rehearsal space and routine, the grandeur of a prima ballerina's last performance's curtain call, and the stubborn and sometimes bawdy demeanor of a woman who's known as one of the most graceful creatures on Earth. The film is a unique and much appreciated chronicle of the human personification of lightning in a bottle, and I felt incredibly blessed to not only see it in such a beautiful space, but to share the room with the legend whose story it tells.