Sascha Radetsky danced as a soloist with American Ballet Theatre, a principal with the Dutch National Ballet, and a guest principal with companies such as the Pacific Northwest Ballet and the Berlin Staatsballett. He now serves as Director of the ABT/NYU Master's in Ballet Pedagogy Program, Ballet Master with the ABT Studio Company, and ABT Company Teacher. He has written for Vogue.com, Dance Magazine, Pointe, Dance Spirit, Newsweek, and the programs of the Paris Opera Ballet and the Royal New Zealand Ballet. He starred in the films Center Stage andCenter Stage 3, in the Starz television series Flesh and Bone, and Hallmark Channel's A Nutcracker Christmas.
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-Hey. U up?
-Ya. I'm at the ballet.
-Oh ok. Talk later.
-Nah, it's cool, it's a slow part right now.
Nope, it's not cool. Put your phone away. In the hushed darkness of an auditorium, light explodes from that screen like shrapnel, blasting those around you out of their viewing experience.
Lurking on dancers' social media pages, among the video clips of superhuman pirouettes and the photos that immortalize them above the stage in grand jeté or crouched on a windowsill wearing lingerie, pointe shoes and a sultry expression, is the occasional political post.
It's hard not to have a political opinion in the age of Trump. And on social media, opinions are easy to express. We might have to thumb the history book all the way back to Abraham Lincoln to find a more polarizing president (alas, the two leaders' similarities decisively end there).
I like to think of myself as a maverick, bucking trends, trotting down my own path. I'd rather camp in a snowy forest than bronze on a sunny beach. I prefer B.B. King to Beyoncé. I have yet to see Hamilton.
Still from La La Land. PC Dale Robinette.
But over the weekend, I did see the film that waltzed home with an armful of Oscars (if not, in the end, Best Picture): Damien Chazelle's La La Land. And, a bit reluctantly, I found myself aswoon in the jade pools of Mia's (Emma Stone) eyes, stirred by Sebastien's (Ryan Gosling) heartfelt idealism, rooting for the two dreamers to triumph in their respective art forms and, especially, in their romance.
I let go of my cynicism and gave in to the film. And I loved it.
Sure, Mandy Moore's choreography could have delivered more sophistication and polish, but not without bona-fide dancers—and lesser, or at least less-accomplished actors—in the leads.
Still from the opening scene of La La Land. PC Dale Robinette.
The score—whimsical classical, swelling ballads, jazz ranging from big band to bebop, and A Flock of Seagulls flyby—was subtly, earnestly affecting. A measure of restraint seemed to bind the music and dancing and buoy their collective potency; as Seb's forebear Thelonious Monk famously observed, What you don't play can be more important than what you do.
Although Mia's final song veered precariously into the sentimental, after exiting the theater, I didn't feel like anything had been shoved down my throat, the way I do when I watch a superhero movie, or a current White House press briefing. On the contrary, there was a hint of jaunt in my gait, and I felt light as air. I may or may not have performed a dorky little soft shoe for my wife when she emerged from the Regal Union Square Stadium 14 ladies' room.
Some people have expressed reservations about La La Land's embrace of nostalgia. But I'd venture that our intellectual wingspan is broad enough to honor historical periods' redeeming features, however trivial—in this instance, the mainstream popularity of dance and jazz—while still recognizing their grave failures.
Questions have also been raised about the responsibility of artists in turbulent times such as our own, about the ethics of creating apolitical, escapist works when the here and now call for urgent action. But La La Land guilelessly celebrates the arts, and thus the film is a political statement, if a faintly self-indulgent one. Regardless, is offering a two-hour egress from reality such a dereliction of duty? Maybe we'll return refreshed, inspired, our jaws set and shoulders leveled to tackle the issues of today.
I'm convinced that the La La Land quibblers are part curmudgeon. Give them a dozen roses, they'll grasp the petals and sniff the thorns. I'm several parts curmudgeon myself, so I can spot the species.
But I did watch and thoroughly enjoy several of this year's Best Picture Oscar nominees: Manchester by the Sea (poetic, in its way, and duly sad), Moonlight (beautiful, relevant and deserving of its win), and Hell or High Water (saw it twice because it's plain badass). Comparing them is like comparing a Braeburn apple to a Florida orange to a Texas prickly pear; they're all diverse and worthwhile flicks.
Still from La La Land
None, however, have lingered with me like La La Land. None of them compelled me to dust off a Coltrane or Bud Powell masterpiece and gather my girl up in my arms for a swing around the living room. None made me loath to let go of her afterwards.
La La Land is all shimmering stars, silhouetted palms, sunsets burning grandly over sweeping Los Angeles skylines. The eyes, and all the senses, are fed a feast: the film's photography, writing, sets and costumes, music, singing, and yes, dancing, are the ingredients of a sublime meal.
The passions get their fill, too; above all, La La Land is a love story, although the film doesn't require the backdrop of a sinking ocean liner or whizzing bullets to make you feel the stakes. It just needs a little song, a little dance, a little surrender from the so-called mavericks among us.
It was 6 am on a Saturday, the sun was pulling up a warm summer morning, and the birds were singing just for me. I was “wrapped." I had finished filming “Flesh and Bone" and retired from American Ballet Theatre. I felt like a creature released into the wild, freed into the next phase of my life. Now I could take a breath. Now I could eat carbs.
We'd shot the gritty ballet-themed series over four months, from April to August of 2014. Until my final performance in July, I also danced with ABT. A typical week saw me working Monday and Tuesday on the TV show, Wednesday through Saturday with the ballet company. Sunday was for the gym, for massage, for writing a series of vogue.com columns about my last season as a professional dancer, for running lines and for preparing for Monday, which would kick off with a 4:45 am pickup (warm-up class commenced at 6) and stretch deep into the night. No man should wear a dance belt for as long as I did on those days.
Radetsky with Sarah Hay in a scene from the show. Courtesy Starz.
The “Flesh and Bone" set was a city within a city, a boomtown of trailers and trucks sprouting overnight on the streets of Manhattan or a soundstage in Queens. It drew a range of industry specialists, from sound engineers to gaffers to the Pomeranian wrangler (whose cloud of canine fluff played the role of Princess). Our job as dancer/actors was to put our best pointed foot forward every time the slate snapped shut and the cameras rolled. A given scene involved multiple takes per camera angle, and each angle required a new setup for lighting, sound and props, a fresh set of marks for everyone, continuity checks/touch-ups for wardrobe, hair and makeup, and rehearsals to sync our timing and movements with the crew's. If the scene called for dialogue, which it often did, we danced to the dull pulse of a metronome instead of music. Our show runners were consummate pros, and went to great lengths to capture the dance sequences with efficiency and concern for our physical well-being. But filming takes time. Given the number of moving parts involved, the pace was inevitably slow and repetitive—the reverse of the adrenaline blitz of a live performance. A quick montage of class exercises, for instance, took hours to shoot. We kicked a few weeks' worth of grands battements that day; the Rockettes had nothing on us, except maybe more convincing smiles.
My fellow dancers on the show hailed from a range of ballet companies, but under the guidance of our terrific choreographer, Ethan Stiefel, we coalesced into a single troupe. The strenuous conditions led to some frayed nerves (and teary eyes), but they also bonded us together. Most of us were thankful for this opportunity to bring dance to new audiences and to document what otherwise lasts only in memory after the curtain falls. We were jostled out of our comfort zones and into collaboration with other types of artists, swept into a heady mix not just of dancers, choreographers and musicians, but also of accomplished writers, photographers, actors and visual artists. Imagine Greenwich Village in the Sixties, or the Moulin Rouge of Belle Époque Paris, only with more nudity.
To shoulder my workloads at ABT and “Flesh and Bone," I had to trim away all distractions. I shut down my social life, and extra-curricular activities largely ceased. I streamlined in a literal sense, too: I hit the gym whenever possible, if only for a manic 20 minutes at the end of a day. Before filming began, I cut sugar, grains and starches from my diet, and eventually phased out cheese and juice, as well. My meals, of lean protein and veggies, were modest in portion, and snacks, of nuts and some fruit, were occasional. I often indulged in a glass of wine, but I didn't drink a beer for five months (that one was tough, but I've since made up for lost time). I was part caveman/part monk, and all nerd.
"Flesh and Bone" premieres on the Starz TV network November 8. Courtesy Starz.
I had danced on camera before, in the film Center Stage. I was 22 when we made that movie, still an ABT corps member, just a sweet-sweaty whippersnapper working on his double-double tours. Then, too, I remember the stuttering pace of shooting, the dancing at extreme hours. But such particulars don't faze you at that age; your body is wondrously resilient, and endless dances yet await you, like flavors arrayed in an ice cream shop. This time around, the stakes were different; the end of the arc was near. A sense of urgency animated my every plié.
There were a couple of late nights on the “Flesh and Bone" set when, numerous takes into shooting a dance scene, with my audience reduced to the stoic black eye of a Steadicam lens and the kinetic joy of moving through choreography long ebbed out of me, my inspiration faltered. But then it would surge back, from places of responsibility and gratitude. I've been fortunate to do what I love, among people I love, for many years, to bookend a rewarding career in ballet with a movie and now a TV show. I could certainly hustle up a few more sauts de basque and press lifts for the camera. Maybe I just needed a carrot to chase—or something heartier, to be precise. Get it together, dude. You can frolic in the sunshine and sleep like a bear and eat vast stacks of pancakes very soon, I'd assure myself, my mouth watering. n
Sascha Radetsky is currently writing fiction as a fellow at the NYU Center for Ballet and the Arts.
Does anyone still consider tattoos the exclusive province of sailors and outlaw bikers? The inked are everywhere among us, loudly baring their personalities or quietly concealing them, Clark Kent–style. These days, a Burmese python might have slithered under your internist's lab coat or a Japanese koi fish could be trapped beneath your professor's tweed. Your mom might sport your name on her biceps, not the other way around. And the Giselle whose fragile heart gave out last night at the Met? She could be the girl with the dragon tattoo.
Dance and tattoos both date back to prehistoric times, and both have come a long way since. Ötzi the Iceman's 5,300-year-old charcoal etchings resemble contemporary skin art about as much as a Copper Age fertility dance might resemble Balanchine's Theme and Variations. Ötzi's 50-odd tattoos were efforts to ease the hunter's arthritis, an affliction to which dance—healing or shamanistic numbers aside—could only have contributed.
Today's motivations for dancing and getting inked seem more closely linked; if dance is an outward expression of our innermost emotions—the “hidden language of the soul," as Martha Graham called it—then the tattoo is as well. Dancers use their bodies to interpret that language just as the tattooed use their skin, only the latter medium doesn't require a theater, peculiar female footwear, or unfortunate male undergarments to function.
That said, my own dalliances with tattoos have been aimed more at charting meaningful moments in my life than at rendering my body an art gallery. I see tattoos, with their permanence and modest rites of pain, as small sacrifices, pieces of myself surrendered in recognition of experience. To me, they are tributes, totems, artifacts, admonitions, and filigreed scars. They are love letters and revelations. They are yawps, barbaric or otherwise, sounding over a living, writhing world.
I got my first tattoo 14 years ago, at age 22. I'd always wanted one (or several). I remember admiring, as a kid, the Northwest Coast Native American–style thunderbird that fanned defiantly across the back of Anthony Kiedis, lead singer of The Red Hot Chili Peppers. That bird was beautifully and powerfully drawn, its wings seeming to manipulate Kiedis' every movement. It also evoked some of my greatest heroes: free spirits like Crazy Horse and Geronimo, who, in accordance with their respective spiritual directives, would paint themselves and tie talismans to their bodies before battle. I saw tattoos as an extension of that custom—as talismans that couldn't untie, as war paint that wouldn't fade. If I got inked, I'd be prepared for anything.
Of course, tattoos have now gone so mainstream in Western society that the more radical choice is probably to remain without one. Their rebel cachet has sunk as their popularity has surged. But they aren't widely accepted in dance, despite the growing number of dancers who have them. Unless a ballet features pirates (ABT's tattooed men and women love Le Corsaire) or Maori warriors, or is created by someone who is especially ink-friendly (Stanton Welch doesn't make us cover our skin in his ballet Clear), many choreographers with whom I've worked don't allow exposed tattoos in performances, and for good reason: They can be distracting in contemporary works and inappropriate on the classical stage.
I (obviously) believe that dance and tattoos can coexist, with the simple caveat that dancers conceal their artwork when necessary. When that line between individual expression and professional responsibility is clearly demarcated, I can't find a conflict. Certainly, dancers wishing to festoon themselves with sprawling tattoos might want to carefully consider their venues and genre of performance. Are revealing costumes, sustained physical contact, and period storytelling involved? Does the theater lack an orchestra pit to separate stage from audience?
Those who answered yes to these questions should probably hold off, say, on sleeving out their arms or getting a back mural—lest they cast us all in a negative light. There is no holy grail of cover-up; no foolproof time machine–cream that can buff liberally illustrated skin back to neonatal form. I know; I have quested after such treasure for 14 years. What I have discovered are cover-ups that are effective if color-matched to the skin and patiently applied. PAX acrylic adhesive-based body paint is one; Skin Illustrator alcohol-based paint is another. These products aren't cheap, they're sensitive to humidity, and often require mid-show touch-ups, like normal stage makeup. But used correctly, they work well.
I have given myself over to dance while trying not to let it narrow my range of experience. It can be a wobbly balance to strike. Some of my favorite pursuits—motorcycling, martial arts, backpacking—involve elements of risk. But by venturing into their rich and invigorating realms, I hope I've become a fuller artist. Tattoos are comparatively benign, and powerless to affect my dancing. Still, some in the dance world just don't approve of them, even if responsibly concealed. Every so often I'm cornered into mounting tired, self-evident defenses of my artwork: how it carries personal significance, how it has no bearing on anyone else, how what I do with my own skin is my choice, just as what others do with their clothes, noses, ears, hair, toenails, navels, or nipples is theirs.
Tattooed and not, we are all transient creatures that strive and evolve and inevitably—like the sun and stars—decline. Why squander any moment of that exquisite arc on scorning our superficial differences? Tattoos don't alter what's beneath the skin—those parts that we all share, by which our worth is really measured. If Giselle wants to wear a dragon under her peasant dress, who cares? The audience can't see it. Live and let live. Besides, maybe Albrecht is into ink.
Above: Sascha Radetsky, Photo by Renata Pavam, Courtesy Radetsky
By Sascha Radetsky
Franklin with Danilova in Giselle. Photo by Constantine, DM Archives.
A clip from the 2005 documentary Ballets Russes shows Frederic Franklin, as the Sultan in the ballet Scheherazade, leaping from the top of a staircase onto the stage. Despite the distance of his fall, Freddie executes a landing the envy of any gymnast or feline, springs to his feet, and continues cavorting gleefully. He never skips a beat and betrays no fear, exuding only joy. It is essential Freddie, compressed into an eight-second clip of film. This one-of-a-kind vitality and sincerity rendered him a beloved presence in the ballet world well past his ninth decade of life.
Freddie helped carve out a place for dance in America, and for male dance in particular. I imagine him as a Johnny Appleseed of ballet, sowing its seeds wherever he ranged. Born in Liverpool, England, Freddie—like many of us—was the only boy in his ballet classes. As a teenager, he danced in London musicals and in Josephine Baker's Paris cabaret. He eventually joined Leonide Massine's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, where he forged an iconic stage partnership with Alexandra Danilova. As danseur noble with the company, Freddie performed over 45 leading roles, and worked with legendary choreographers such as Massine, George Balanchine, Michel Fokine, Bronislava Nijinska, Frederick Ashton, Ruth Page, and Agnes de Mille—who described her original Champion Roper (of Rodeo) as “strong as a mustang, as sudden, as direct, and as inexhaustible."
When war erupted in Europe in 1939, Freddie and the Ballet Russe sailed for America. After navigating German naval mines for 14 days, their ship arrived in New York City, and that same evening the troupe performed to great ovations at the Metropolitan Opera House. In between New York seasons, they roamed the nation, presenting ballet to small-town crowds new to the art form. The company's glamour and growing fame soon swept it west to Hollywood, where several Ballet Russe dancers, including Freddie, starred in feature films.
In addition to being a first-rate dancer and partner, Freddie was a ballet master, director, coach, choreographer, and artistic advisor. He and ballerina Mia Slavenska briefly formed the Slavenska-Franklin Ballet, a company that performed, among other repertoire, modern dancer Valerie Bettis' well-received adaptation of Tennessee Williams' “A Streetcar Named Desire." Freddie co-directed The Washington Ballet and helped found the short-lived but critically acclaimed National Ballet in Washington. He assisted young companies like Cincinnati Ballet, Oakland Ballet, Tulsa Ballet, and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, staging ballets and shaping their repertoires. He staged several Giselles, including a version for Dance Theatre of Harlem set in New Orleans. He recreated Fokine ballets such as Scheherazade and Polovtsian Dances, works otherwise rarely seen outside of Russia. He also staged American Ballet Theatre's current production of Coppélia.
Freddie sparkled with energy, and until the age of 95, he appeared in character roles with ABT and other companies, often drawing lengthy applause from audiences that recognized him as the biggest star on any stage. His many honors, including a 1985 Dance Magazine Award and the title of Commander of the Order of the British Empire, could not have come to a humbler artist.
Behind Freddie's smiling blue eyes surged an expansive yet lucid memory. He witnessed the Great Depression, two world wars, the women's and civil rights movements, the Space Race, and the Cold War. And even in this era of iPhones and intergalactic telescopes, he seemed able to recall everything. (He indulged in a nightly Gatorade-and-vodka, and we wondered if that tasty potion, when fused with the molecules of his organism, synthesized into the Fountain of Youth.)
Freddie was a rare artist and a bona-fide dance pioneer, but he was something still more impressive: a once-in-a-generation human being. He looked at life in a positive light, and could align others—at least momentarily—to this worldview with just a greeting, anecdote, or embrace. He could cheer a young dancer disappointed with a performance, compel the overly serious choreographer to smile, or elicit laughter from the most temperamental ballet star. Freddie's warmth could thaw even the coolest substance.
Utterly devoted to William Ausman, his partner of 48 years, Freddie not only showed us how to dance and how to treat others; he showed us how to love, deeply. Although he has now taken the ultimate leap, his effect on those of us who knew him is indelible. In a way, this enlightened man fortified our faith in humanity, as one Freddie Franklin among us could balance out an army of inferiors. Yes, there is darkness in this world. Then again, our Freddie lived in it too.
Sascha Radetsky, a soloist at ABT, was a principal dancer with Dutch National Ballet from 2008 to 2010.
Franklin demonstrating the Bartender while staging Ruth Page's Frankie and Johnny for Cincinatti Ballet in 1980. Photo by Sandy Underwood, DM Archives.
See more photos of Franklin from the DM Archive at www.dancemedia.com/v/8382.
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.
With his elegant line and unaffected stage presence, Sascha Radetsky long held his own among American Ballet Theatre’s cadre of male stars. A soloist in the company since 2003, he stood out even in the most bravura passages, as well as for his courteous partnering, particularly when he danced with his wife, the heart-stoppingly beautiful Stella Abrera. Radetsky shone in roles like Benno in Swan Lake, but also displayed an effortless mastery in high-powered work like Twyla Tharp’s new Rabbit and Rogue. And among teenage girls, he retained his crush status long after the 2000 release of the cult ballet movie Center Stage. When he joined Dutch National Ballet last September, he left behind a host of disappointed critics and fans. Now a principal, he will have the opportunity to dance leads in classics like Giselle, as well as carve his mark on new work.
I didn’t burst from the womb straight into a pirouette, twirling my baby blanket like Espada’s cape. I didn’t forgo diapers for dance belts, and for a long time I preferred OshKosh to Capezio. No, I wasn’t born to dance. But I’ve devoted much of my life to dance, and it’s become my beautiful—and capricious—companion. Like the blissful trysts and bitter quarrels of a tempestuous love affair, my relationship with this art form has flickered and flared throughout the years. At times my eye has wandered, and I admit I’ve considered breaking it off with ballet. But I can’t do it; it’s got what I need. I can’t resist its immeasurable charms.
Being a dancer is a pretty nice gig. I’ve been able to travel the world (with per diem). I’ve dodged bats on a stage in Austin and mingled with the ghosts of gladiators on a Roman stage in Athens. I’ve performed for presidents and princesses, geishas and gangsters, in venues as varied as casinos, stadiums, and centuries-old opera houses. I’ve Nutcracker-ed my way through the heartland of America, from sea to shining sea and beyond, a gypsy-cavalier for hire. Have costume, will travel—to all the gritty and glamorous corners of the globe. Along the way, I’ve met some brilliant artists and inspiring human beings, such as my wife, Stella Abrera. We’ve been on a hundred honeymoons, Stella and I, and with luck dance will send us on a hundred more.
At its best, dance just feels good, for everyone involved. Granted, it’s no fun to sprain an ankle, bulge a disc, or pull a calf muscle—and it hurts still worse when career hopes collapse and dreams drift out of reach. But there are precious moments in the studio and onstage when the struggles prove worthwhile, and the frailties of body and spirit are forgiven, even forgotten. Because of the vicissitudes of this line of work, because of the injuries, arduous training, and vastly subjective aesthetics, even modest triumphs resonate deeply. And like other art forms, dance can potentially allay the anxieties, banalities, and sorrows that plague our daily lives, and can remap the frontiers of our abilities. It is a tonic administered in an exquisite challenge: How precisely can you execute those virtuosic steps, how deeply can you delve into that complex character, how tenderly can you attune to this breathtaking music—and to the needs of your partner? Are you wholly in the here and now, and willing to fuse your mind, muscles, and guts into a single leaping, turning, feeling, daring entity? Are you willing to strive for something special on that ephemeral stage, something magical and glorious, something possibly doomed to fail? If so, you—and your audience—will feel better than good. You’ll feel ardently alive.
Missteps or misfortune have sometimes subdued those feelings, but my appreciation for this craft and my core values are only the stronger. I’ve sowed oats in other fields of life, and I look forward to cultivating those interests. But for the moment ballet is what nourishes me, and its beauty and richness, power and freedom make for hearty fare. I can’t say it’s my destiny to dance, but it is my true pleasure, and I’m grateful for what I’ve been given: cherished memories, lifelong friends, the perfect challenge. It’s a good gig.
Photo: Angela Sterling, Courtesy Dutch National Ballet