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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.
Season 2 of World of Dance is almost here! The new season officially kicks off on Tuesday on NBC, and it's bringing a whole new crew of talented dancers with it (plus, some old favorites). Dance pro judges Jennifer Lopez, Derek Hough and Ne-Yo are back, too, with Jenna Dewan serving as the show's host.
Obviously we'll be watching, but just in case you're not completely sold, here's why you're not going to want to miss out:
JLo Might Be Performing
Earlier this week, JLo (who serves as the show's executive producer) posted this insane promo clip to her Instagram. Dancing to a mashup of Cardi B's "Bodak Yellow" and her new single "Dinero," JLo reminded us all of her dance skills while also leading us to believe she might just hit the stage herself for a performance.
Travis Wall draws inspiration from dancers Tate McCrae, Timmy Blankenship and more.
One often-overlooked relationship that exists in dance is the relationship between choreographer and muse. Recently two-time Emmy Award Winner Travis Wall opened up about his experience working with dancers he considers to be his muses.
"My muses in choreography have evolved over the years," says Wall. "When I'm creating on Shaping Sound, our company members, my friends, are my muses. But at this current stage of my career, I'm definitely inspired by new, fresh talent."
Wall adds, "I'm so inspired by this new generation of dancers. Their teachers have done such incredible jobs, and I've seen these kids grown up. For many of them, I've had a hand in their exposure to choreography."
A few weeks ago, American Ballet Theatre announced the A.B.T. Women's Movement, a new program that will support three women choreographers per season, one of whom will make work on the main company.
"The ABT Women's Movement takes inspiration from the groundbreaking female choreographers who have left a lasting impact on ABT's legacy, including Agnes de Mille and Twyla Tharp," said artistic director Kevin McKenzie in a press release.
Hypothetically, this is a great idea. We're all for more ballet commissions for women. But the way ABT has promoted the initiative is problematic.
On the occasion of its 70th anniversary, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba tours the U.S. this spring with the resolute Cuban prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso a the helm. Named a National Hero of Labor in Cuba, Alonso, 97, has weathered strained international relations and devastating fiscal challenges to have BNC emerge as a world-class dance company. Her dancers are some of ballet's best. On offer this time are Alonso's Giselle and Don Quixote. The profoundly Cuban company performs in Chicago May 18–20, Tampa May 23, Washington, D.C., May 29–June 3 and Saratoga, New York June 6–8.
Considering we practically live in our dance clothes, there's really no such thing as having too many leotards, tights or leggings (no matter what our mom or friends say!). That's why we treat every sale as an opportunity to stock up. And thanks to the holiday weekend, you can shop all of your dancewear go-tos or try something totally new for as much as 50% less than the usual price.
Here are the eight sales we're most excited about—from online options to in-store retailers that will help you find the perfect fit. Happy Memorial Day (and shopping)!
Now through Monday, Danskin's site will automatically take 25% off your entire purchase at checkout. Even new items like their Pintuck Detail Floral Print Sports Bra and Pintuck Detail Legging (pictured here) are fair game.
"The sun may be shining brightly, but we are not in a very sunny mood today!" said New York State assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal during yesterday's rally for the Artists of Ailey.
The dancers and stage crew are demanding increased wages and more comprehensive benefits, what they have termed "reaching for the standard" and "fair wages."
Pain is an inevitable part of a dancing life and dancers have a high tolerance for it, according to Sean Gallagher, a New York physical therapist whose practice includes many professional performers. "So when dancers complain, it really means something," he says.
But women and men experience pain differently, and tend to be treated for it differently as well. Female dancers need to understand those differences before they go to a doctor, so they can make sure they get treated promptly and effectively.
Rebecca Warthen was on a year-long assignment with the Peace Corps in Dominica last fall when a storm started brewing. A former dancer with North Carolina Dance Theatre (now Charlotte Ballet) and Columbia City Ballet, she'd been sent to the Caribbean island nation to teach ballet at the Dominica Institute of the Arts and in outreach classes at public schools.
But nine and a half months into her assignment, a tropical storm grew into what would become Hurricane Maria—the worst national disaster in Dominica's history.
Sidra Bell is one of those choreographers whose movement dancers are drawn to. Exploring the juxtaposition of fierce athleticism and pure honesty in something as simple as stillness, her work brings her dancers to the depths of their abilities and the audience to the edge of their seats.