Breaking Free

March 25, 2012

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.