Dancers Trending

Breaking Free

ABT’s Sascha Radetsky on overcoming the challenges of an injury

Radetsky in Dutch National Ballet’s production of Balanchine’s Prodigal Son. Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy Radetsky © Balanchine Trust.

Last November, on opening night of American Ballet Theatre’s City Center season, I charged into In the Upper Room’s smoky fray. My war paint was a dusting of base and blush and a slathering of tiger balm, and beneath my costume, my surgically repaired knees were armored in neoprene sleeves. While Philip Glass beat the war drum, I “stomped,” leaped, and shimmied as Twyla Tharp’s dervish genius commanded, and beat back, with ecstatic fury, a barrage of exhaustion and pain. That night, In the Upper Room redeemed months of rehabilitation by lifting me to a dimension beyond physical limitations. That night, I battled my own frailty and won.

An injury steals from the body and gives to the soul. The net gain for one component of the self should be in direct proportion to the other’s loss: The more arduous the physical ordeal, the greater the spiritual strengthening. That’s what I like to tell myself, at any rate. I would have preferred to build character through an endeavor other than double knee surgery—by climbing a Himalayan peak, for instance, or volunteering for the Peace Corps. I think I would have preferred even to sprint barefoot across a bed of hot coals, or sleep a night on a mattress of nails. But I am a dancer, and thus my latest trial was not to be by fire, precipitous mountain, or clustered spike; mine was a trial by plica.

The plica are bands of tissue that crisscross the knee underneath the meniscus. These strips usually dissolve before birth, but some people retain the tissue forever. A couple of years ago, my undissolved plica began to pinch with every plié, rendering day-to-day movements such as climbing stairs or standing up from a chair an unpleasant challenge. The jumping and partnering required in ballet posed a much bigger problem, of course, but I continued to dance while searching for solutions. I took increasingly strong anti-inflammatories and piously adhered to the rituals of icing, stretching, and massage. I received treatment from ABT’s revered physical therapists, Peter Marshall and Julie Daugherty, and cortisone injections from the world-renowned Dr. Phillip Bauman. Before rehearsals and performances, I taped Lidocaine patches to my knees in an effort to numb the plica area.

My tolerance for pain grew, and Peter, Julie, and Dr. Bauman somehow managed to keep me onstage throughout ABT’s seasons. But these remedies were like Band-Aids on a bullet wound, and besides, my stomach could no longer tolerate anti-inflammatories. Reluctantly, I began to accept the reality that the pinching in my knees had instigated a snowballing cycle of inflammation that only surgery could arrest. Last August, after lengthy discussions with my holy trinity of healers, I surrendered my plica to Dr. Bauman’s expert scalpel.

This was not my first foray under the knife. I had undergone three operations on my right ankle early in my career. Every time I seemed to gain confidence as an athlete and traction as a professional, I suffered an injury to that bum ankle. Each of those setbacks was a crucible from which I emerged mentally tougher, and although my career stalled, I gained a deeper awareness of dance’s precarious charms. And I grew weary of being hurt.

After my last ankle surgery, I vowed to push beyond any future injuries, and barring true catastrophe, to never miss another performance. I was like an escaped convict who refused to be sent back to the joint, and I had a good run. In the studio and onstage, I worked around and through labral tears in both hips; pinched nerves; pulled muscles; sprained digits, wrists, and ankles; rotated vertebrae; stone bruises; tendinitis; and plantar fasciitis. Outside of the studio and offstage, I sustained a few mild concussions, 13 stitches to the back of the head, bruises and black eyes, and torn rib cartilage. Peter, Julie, and Dr. Bauman worked their miracles and I didn’t cancel a show for most of a decade—until Achilles tendinitis (in that right ankle) forced me out of a performance of Harald Lander’s Etudes.

Compromise is crucial to longevity. Confidence must be tempered with caution, and a sense of abandon secured by knowledge of the body’s weaknesses. I’ve finally begun to embrace these self-evident truths. I try to be prudent but not timid when taking risks, and to keep negative thoughts at bay. I also do my best to avoid superstition, despite the indiscriminate nature of some injuries. But superstition forever lurks in the pe­riphery of the mind, eager to muddle it up. (I admit I’m even uncomfortable writing about this subject, as if these very words will draw the ire of the injury demons.)

Like ballplayers desperate to keep a hitting streak alive, my colleagues and I inevitably develop rituals intended to ward off injury and ensure a good show, from simple wood-knocks to elaborate pre-show meals and warm-ups. One dazzling ABT ballerina feels most assured on a bellyful of pizza. A famous male principal can’t begin a show without a piece of chocolate in his mouth. Some men rely on a lucky dance belt to cradle them in security and elevate their performance.

Injuries put me in mind of guerrilla attacks, in that they often strike suddenly and with sadistic timing, during moments of great vulnerability or import. When miseries pile up, I’ve found that a bit of perspective helps deliver me from the quicksand of discouragement and self-pity. I seek inspiration from those who have shown grace and courage in grave situations—individuals who shatter our ideas about endurance and excellence. After my first ankle operation, I read up on disparate heroic figures such as the great swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, the unbowed Lakota leader Crazy Horse, and the brash but principled Muhammad Ali. After my knee surgeries, I revisited the saga of Hugh Glass, the early 19th-century frontiersman who, in the aftermath of a vicious grizzly bear mauling, crawled over two hundred miles to safety.

My wife, Stella Abrera, suffered her own form of mauling, and better embodies resourcefulness and resilience than I ever will. She stretched her sciatic nerve a few years ago and had to relinquish her dream role—a well-deserved opportunity that, inexplicably, has not again materialized. Stella now knows how to snuff out the occasional nerve flare-up, through a combination of exercises, self-adjustments, and vigilance. But mostly it is her optimism and vast reserves of fortitude that bear her through these rigors, and she always seems to emerge yet more radiant, as a dancer and human being.

My greatest inspiration will always be my father. He lost his best friend and both parents while still a young man, and later a daughter as well, but he was simply too selfless to ever dwell in sorrow. Remarkably, I never heard him utter a complaint in the 32 years I had with him; his sense of humor and quiet strength would not abide such indulgences. And although my dad was a brilliant and successful writer, he showed me that in the grand calculus of virtues, love and kindness rank higher than professional achievement. Injury might slow my body, but how can it afflict my spirit, when it is fortified with the love of family and friends? I am still learning, and reeling, from my father’s example.

I concede that my journeys through dance and life both occasion compromise. But the turbulence along the way has jostled the distractions out of me, and I am left with a steadfast resolve to fight when necessary. When my plica were removed in August, I pledged to return, at all costs, to perform In the Upper Room three months later—a date prior to full recovery. In the Upper Room is a work of supreme athleticism—an unyielding, exhilarating gauntlet of movement. But the ballet requires more than physical prowess and stamina. It needs heart, and I hoped that I could summon mine to grow large enough to eclipse any knee deficiencies. There is a unique satisfaction born of doing one’s best, but when I offered that ballet a piece of my soul, when I left my guts upon that stage, I experienced something still more profound. For 40 transcendent minutes, I felt liberated from the shackle of injury or any corporeal constraint, as if I were dancing above the stage, as if that “upper room” were indeed a chamber of heaven.

Sascha Radetsky, a soloist at ABT, was a principal dancer with Dutch National Ballet from 2008 to 2010.

Inset: Radetsky as Espada in ABT’s Don Quixote. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy ABT; Biding his time: the therapy room at the Metropolitan Opera House. Photo courtesy Radetsky; Sascha & Stella. Photo by Erin Baiano.

Show Comments ()
Ian Douglas; courtesy Sarah Haarmann. Performing with Pam Tanowitz Dance at The Joyce Theater

Sarah Haarmann stands out without trying to. There is a precision and lack of affectation in her dancing that is very Merce Cunningham. Her movement quality is sharp and clear; her stage presence utterly focused. It's no wonder she caught Mark Morris' eye. Even though she still considers herself "very much the new girl" at Mark Morris Dance Group (she became a full-time member in August 2017), in a recent performance of Layla and Majnun, Haarmann seemed completely in her element.

Company: Mark Morris Dance Group
Age: 27
Hometown: Macungie, Pennsylvania
Training: Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts and Marymount Manhattan College

Keep reading... Show less
Reframing high-stakes auditions as learning opportunities can make you a better auditioner. Photo by Jim Lafferty.

In 2012, freelance contemporary dancer Adrianne Chu made a major career change: She decided to try out for A Chorus Line. "Even though I didn't get the job, I felt like I was meant to do this," says Chu. So she started going to at least one musical theater audition every weekday, treating each as a learning experience. After several years of building up her resumé, Chu's practice paid off: She booked a starring role as Wendy in the first national tour of Finding Neverland.

Approaching auditions as learning opportunities, especially when you're trying to break into a different style or are new to the profession, can sharpen your skills while helping you avoid burnout. It also builds confidence for the auditions that matter most.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
How do you warmup? Photo by Jim Lafferty

For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.

Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.

According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Screenshot via YouTube

It's easy to feel whiplashed thinking about everything Emma Portner has achieved in such a short amount of time. Last fall, the 23-year-old was the youngest woman ever to choreograph a West End production (it was based on Meat Loaf's greatest hits). This was, of course, after she already choreographed and starred in Justin Bieber's viral hit "Life is Worth Living," and before she charmed major media outlets when she secretly married actress Ellen Page. Now, she's L.A. Dance Project's first-ever artist in residence, and she's working on a commission for Toronto's Fall for Dance North Festival.

We caught up with her for our "Spotlight" series:

Keep reading... Show less
This year, IABD launched a new ballet audition for men of color

Last month, the International Association of Blacks in Dance's third annual ballet audition for women of color was expanded to include a separate audition for men.

The brainchild of Joan Myers Brown (founder of both Philadanco and IABD), the women's audition was created to specifically address the lack of black females in ballet. However, the success and attention that audition drew made the men feel left out, so IABD decided to give the men equal time this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Students participated in all aspects of Veränderung, from choreography to costumes. Photo by Uwe Stratmann, Courtesy Tanztheater Wuppertal.

Pina Bausch's unique form of German Tanztheater is known for raising questions. Amid water and soil, barstools and balloons, the late choreographer's work contains a distinct tinge of mystery and confrontation. Today, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch's dancers use questions as fuel for creativity. The company's most recent project introduced a new group of performers to the stage: local high school ninth-graders from the Gesamtschule Barmen in Wuppertal, Germany, in an original work-in-progress performance called Veränderung (Change).

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Training
BalletMet in company class onstage before a show. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda, courtesy BalletMet

Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.

She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.

But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
PC Lydia Daniller, Courtesy Dorsey

I love being transgender. It's an important part of the story of why I choreograph. Although I loved dance from a very young age, I grew up never seeing a single person like me in dance. So how could I imagine a future for myself there?

The enormous barriers I had to overcome weren't internal: I didn't struggle with feelings of dysphoria, and I wasn't locked down by shame.

Keep reading... Show less
via Facebook

The dance community is heartbroken to learn that 14-year-olds Jaime Guttenberg and Cara Loughran were among the 17 people killed during the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.

Guttenberg was a talented competition dancer at Dance Theatre in Coconut Creek, FL, according to a report from Sun Sentinel. Dance Theatre owner Michelle McGrath Gerlick shared the below message on her Facebook page, encouraging dancers across the country to wear orange ribbons this weekend in honor of Guttenberg, whose favorite color was orange.

Keep reading... Show less
Former NYCB ballet master in chief Peter Martins resigned in January in the midst of an investigation into allegations of harassment and abuse. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

A statement released yesterday by New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet reported that an independent investigation was unable to corroborate allegations of harassment and abuse against former ballet master in chief Peter Martins, according to The New York Times. This marks the end of a two-month inquiry jointly launched by the two organizations in December following an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment and violence.

The statement also included new policies for both the company and school to create safer, more respectful environments for the dancers, including hiring an independent vendor to handle employee complaints anonymously. These changes are being made despite the independent investigation, handled by outside counsel Barbara Hoey, purportedly finding no evidence of abuse.

Keep reading... Show less


Viral Videos



Get Dance Magazine in your inbox