When tears, tears and falls kill a dancer’s career (or not)

She had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee. Another dancer had to drag her off stage.

Fast forward a few years, and Post is sitting in a movie theater, watching Jennifer Lawrence’s thriller “Red Sparrow.” She was there mainly to see her best friend, ABT principal Isabella Boylston, who is Lawrence’s dance stunt in the film. Lawrence starts out a Bolshoi ballerina and ends up a Russian spy/sex worker – all because of a horrific onstage injury.

This is the part where Post felt his insides churning.

“Heartbreaking,” she said. “I could barely look at him. It was hard.

For dancers who have suffered catastrophic injuries themselves, the agony of Lawrence’s character, Dominika, feels all too real. It takes place in the opening minutes of the film, so it doesn’t mean anything that calamity is cutting Dominika’s dance career short.

It goes like this: As Dominika poses for her adoring audience at the climax of a ballet, her dance partner (real ballet star and actor Sergei Polunin) comes up behind her in a leap forward and lands on his outstretched leg. Crash, snap, scream. . .

Injuries are part of a dancer’s life, just as they are for athletes. Yet the kind of sudden unemployment is rare, given improvements in training and treatment. A dancer who suffers a spectacular fracture on stage does not need to automatically hang up her tights.

“Now we can fix almost anything,” says New York orthopedic surgeon and dance specialist William Hamilton, “except the knee.”

This also applies to Russian ballerinas. In fact, the miracles of recovery are exemplified by a Russian ballerina: iron will Natalia Makarova.

In 1982, Makarova, who had left the Soviet Union in 1970, was performing in the musical “On Your Toes,” at the Kennedy Center Opera House, when stage equipment fell on her mid-performance, slashing her head. and break his shoulder blade. The horrified audience heard the ballerina moan through her body mic before being rushed to hospital.

Two months later: Makarova was back. She opened the show on Broadway, just in time. (She later won a Tony for it.)

Accidents happen on stage, and they can be horrific. “Red Sparrow” isn’t wrong about that. The dramatic smash in the film reflects something we don’t often think about when watching ballet – the reality that dancing can be dangerous.

“We’re not perfect,” says Michele Wiles, a former ABT star. As Wiles learned in 2005, one dancer mistake can have disastrous consequences. She was 25 and making her debut in the title role of the ballet “Sylvia” at the Met. In the first act, as her partner lifted her above his head, something went wrong. He lost control and they both crashed on stage.

“We fell flat on our stomachs,” says Wiles, who did not name the partner out of respect for his feelings. “There is no blame. Maybe just a lack of repetition.

Somehow they got up and ran off stage. Wiles’ fall from such a height seemed so heartbreaking that colleagues backstage frantically tried to drag her out of her costume so she could see a doctor. But Wiles had other plans. She did not abandon her beginnings.

“I finished the show,” she jokes, “and I didn’t become a spy.”

Wiles woke up the next morning with little more than a bruised hip. But there were more problems to come. The accident happened during a particularly pressured year when she danced a lot and eventually earned a promotion to director, the highest rank in a ballet company. It had a cost. By the time the ‘Nutcracker’ season rolled around a few months later, Wiles had accumulated a number of physical traumas, including a stress fracture in her lumbar spine, and she was sidelined. during six months.

This is often what can end a career or take part of it away while a dancer goes through rehab: long-simmering issues like arthritis, tendinitis and chronic wear and tear. Continuous and long-standing illness is a greater danger than a single accident.

Robert Weiss, artistic director of Carolina Ballet in Raleigh, was in the audience when Wiles dropped into “Sylvia.” He says what happened to him is a good example of why there aren’t many career-killing injuries.

“You’re in great shape, you’re young and you’re healthy,” he says, “so you can avoid injury from something like that.”

Weiss knows a thing or two about the worst stage injuries, when adrenaline and shock mask all but a popping sound. It’s the sound of a career in jeopardy – the sound of a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Weiss was a director of New York City Ballet when he heard the pop while he was performing and thought the boards had snapped beneath him.

When Washington-based modern dancer Alvin Mayes heard the pop, he thought it was a gunshot and wondered if he had been hit.

When NYCB Director Jennie Somogyi heard the pop, she thought she had her legs tangled with her partner’s.

“I looked down and saw that both of my feet were on the stage,” she says, “but I felt like one of them was in the air because I couldn’t feel the scene.

“I lost my hearing, lost my peripheral vision and realized I was in shock.”

For all three dancers, the broken tendon derailed their careers. Mayes never danced professionally again. Weiss and Somogyi did, but only after long recoveries.

Weiss’ injury is legendary in ballet circles; the snap of his tendon could be heard in the audience. It happened on NYCB’s fall season opening night in 1978, when co-founder George Balanchine was backstage watching Weiss and ballerina Merrill Ashley perform in one of his new ballets, “Ballo della Regina”. Weiss heard a loud pop during the ballet’s finale, as he skimmed the stage in a series of delicate leaps.

“I looked down and the ground was still there, but I couldn’t move,” he said. “Balanchine always stood in the first wing from the right of the stage, and he knew what had happened. He waved me off stage. So I hobbled. »

Balanchine got him a stool. Meanwhile, Ashley walked through her steps alone on stage as if nothing had happened.

“Merrill is as strong as an ox,” Weiss said admiringly. “There is a whole series of pirouettes supported at the end of the ballet, and she did them all by herself. In fact, she finished the ballet without me.

Famous Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev, a friend of Weiss, was in the audience and he rushed backstage. Hamilton, the NYCB orthopedist and consultant, also ran to help.

At that time, a broken Achilles was a career killer. But Weiss was lucky. A Danish doctor who specializes in Achilles repairs among European dancers was visiting Hamilton, and he was also in the audience that evening. The two doctors accompanied Weiss to the hospital, and Hamilton immediately operated on him, with the Danish specialist at his side.

Dancers’ recoveries have improved dramatically since then, Hamilton says. “There have been a lot of advances in dance medicine. If you fix them right, 90% can come back if they work hard. »

Weiss was away for a year and a half, then danced for another year before retiring to direct the Pennsylvania Ballet.

Like Weiss, Mayes didn’t feel any pain when he broke his Achilles, but he did have a jolt of fear. It was about 15 years ago during a rehearsal at Dance Place in northeast Washington, at a time when crime was not uncommon in the area. That’s why gunshots were the first thought that came to Mayes’ mind. After the operation, he continued to teach and eventually saw the injury as a godsend.

“It helped me learn how to get ahead in teaching,” he says, “and how to get students to do things that I can’t do, technique-wise.”

Before her Achilles rupture, Somogyi had already lost a year of dancing due to injury – she had broken a different tendon a few years earlier. So, for the second time, she went through the surgery/rehabilitation/uncertainty nightmare and returned to the stage. Then it happened again: A few months after coming back from the Achilles tear, she was dancing to “Swan Lake” and heard another loud pop.

She knew exactly what it was.

“Welcome to my retirement party,” she later joked with friends as she sat in her dressing room with her foot in a bucket of ice. Another operation, another sabbatical, another slow recovery – but Somogyi returned to the stage for a third time. She danced the most dramatic roles, those without many jumps, and retired a few years later at 38. She now runs a ballet school in Easton, Pennsylvania.

What’s crazy is that Somogyi has otherwise had a problem-free career – no tendonitis, bunions or bad hips.

“I’ve had fewer injuries than anyone I’ve worked with,” she says. “I only had three, but they were catastrophic.” And they all happened on stage, which Somogyi is laughing at now.

“I’m like, can’t this happen in a rehearsal studio? Does it have to be in front of thousands of people? Well, at least I’m still going. I’m getting big!”

What about Post, the ABT ballerina who blew her anterior cruciate ligament on stage? She underwent reconstructive surgery, during which a piece of her hamstring was used to repair the knee. She worked through a grueling rehab program that kept her busier than she had ever been as a dancer. Nine months later, she returns to the stage. She’s dancing at the Met now, wrapping up the spring season there with ABT. Neither her knee nor the partially sacrificed hamstrings feel the same as before, she says, but in some ways she feels stronger, having learned to move with better alignment as part of her recovery.

So, in the real world of dance, with its perfectly trained athletes and ever-improving science, how realistic is the “Red Sparrow” scenario of a ballerina’s career ending with a bizarre injury?

“I guess if he had landed on his leg with all his weight, he could have broken his bone in many places,” Weiss says. ” It’s a possibility. Many circumstances would have to come together in the wrong direction.

“Theoretically, you could say, ‘Yeah, that could happen,'” Hamilton explains. “But we could solve this problem now. A bone is easier to repair than a joint.

Leave it to a ballerina to pinpoint the key issue.

“The male dancers aren’t very strong,” Somogyi says, laughing at the thought, “so I don’t know if they would break their bones.”

Colleen D. Ervin