Blood, Sweat, and Tutus

Tear your knee, wrench your back, pirouette, and bow: dancing at the San Francisco Ballet.

The short, wiry dancer was playing with his young daughter, Ariana, when the doorbell rang in his apartment. It was a letter from the San Francisco Ballet — certified. Davis scowled and signed for the postman.

Davis had no illusions about the transitory existence of a ballet dancer. In his 11 years with the company, he'd managed to tear both patellar tendons and finish his career with an astounding three left-knee ACL surgeries in a 19-month period. In short, he'd had more knives in him than Julius Caesar. So the notion of the company wanting to go with a dancer who could, well, dance — he got that. And yet, after more than a decade with the company, he was dismissed via a terse form letter. No handshake. No call to the boss' office. Not even a call on the phone.

"It might all look pretty when you're running around up there to music, but it's a business, man," says Davis, now 33 and a dance instructor in Portland, Ore., as he reflects upon the day he was handed that letter in 2003. "We're just meat, really, at the end of the day. And if you can't work — well, where's the next one?"

Julianne Kepley flying high in the days before her gruesome knee injury.
Herbert Migdoll
Julianne Kepley flying high in the days before her gruesome knee injury.
Duncan Cooper's stubbornness cost him 95 percent of the cartilage in his knee; he warns students at San Francisco's Lines Ballet that the same could happen to them.
Duncan Cooper's stubbornness cost him 95 percent of the cartilage in his knee; he warns students at San Francisco's Lines Ballet that the same could happen to them.

At the San Francisco Ballet, there will always be a "next one." Since Tomasson took the company's reins in 1985, it has vaulted to become one of the nation's two or three elite operations; arguably it is in the world's top five. While pushing through injuries is the risky pastime of dancers everywhere, the San Francisco Ballet has 80 dancers on payroll and yearly operating expenses just under $39 million in 2007. So its performers are especially aware that if they can't do the job, the company has the personnel and resources to find someone who will.

Dancers also remember what happened to Davis. "In the end," says a longtime company instructor, "they just couldn't cast him. So ..." and he draws his finger neatly across his throat. (Like many San Francisco Ballet employees interviewed for this story, the instructor was wary of speaking critically about the company for attribution.)

It is the desire of every dancer in the company to avoid such an epitaph. As a result, fractures, contusions, and the occasional pointe shoe inundated with blood are often viewed as mere trifles. No one wants to be labeled "soft" or injury-prone. No one wants to lose a part. No one wants to stop.

"So, I couldn't bend over to put my shoes on," explains dancer Quinn Wharton as to what finally curtailed months of pushing through searing back pain, later diagnosed as a herniated disc at L5-S1. "That was the major problem."

Wharton, 21, is a tall and muscular man with a resemblance to the actor Ryan Phillipe. After missing the tail end of 2006 with fractured bones in his foot, Wharton was pleasantly surprised last year at the parts that began coming his way — world-class visiting choreographers began casting him in meaty roles earmarked for senior dancers. Wharton's colleagues noticed. "You're doing great," they would tell him.

But he sure wasn't feeling great. Wharton's life began to resemble a wicked O. Henry tale: In essence, he traded his body for the opportunity to dance the parts of his dreams, but the latter wasn't attainable minus the former. Yet the idea of stepping down and ceding his big breaks to the throngs of dancers nipping at his heels would be as instinctually unthinkable as a dog refusing steak.

When Wharton landed the part of Tony in West Side Story, it was more than just the notion that when you're a Jet you're a Jet all the way that kept him dancing through worrying pain. His 2006 foot injury had forced him to leave a part in a ballet with the same choreographer who was handling West Side Story — "When [a choreographer] gets it in their head that you're injured all the time, they don't want to use you. So I didn't want to go out." Anyone can get injured once. But twice — that's a pattern.

Wharton made it through West Side Story. In the ballet version of the musical, incidentally, Tony doesn't die — but Wharton's back did. In October he was diagnosed with the herniated disc and hasn't danced since. There is no timetable for his return.

"He had all the opportunities, but he felt like he couldn't tell them he needed to stop," said a veteran male dancer. "Now he's hurt himself badly and that, theoretically, has set him back even further." Yet if Wharton had gone to management and begged out, continued the dancer, he would certainly have lost key roles and, quite probably, his standing within the company. "So if I'd have been in Quinn's shoes, I might have done the same thing."

Wharton's colleague Garen Scribner didn't escape West Side Story unscathed either. Yet just five days after sustaining a concussion during a brawl scene — and against medical advice — he was back onstage dancing in Eden/Eden.

"I think I showed my work ethic and how committed I was to doing a part," says Scribner, a lithe dancer with closely cropped brown hair. "And hey, I got promoted."

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