Blood, Sweat, and Tutus

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

Indeed, this year Scribner was elevated from the "corps de ballet" to a soloist position, one rung below the company's top designation, principal dancer. It's a sign of approval from Tomasson, a chance to dance standout roles, and, not insignificantly, a healthy raise in pay. Over a 42-week season, San Francisco Ballet's union contract stipulates corps members earn between $1,028 and $1,341 a week depending upon seniority, soloists earn a minimum of $1,427, and principals draw at least $1,847 – stellar wages in the dance world. But would Scribner have been tapped if he'd sat out Eden/Eden? "That's a good question," he ponders. "Maybe not."

Tiit Helimets has already gotten all the promotions he can. The long-limbed, 30-year-old Estonian is a principal dancer at the San Francisco Ballet, ostensibly on the top of the heap. But the ambitious, borderline-obsessive drive it takes to succeed in ballet doesn't subside once you reach the pinnacle — now the goal is to stay there.

So when Helimets had surgery to scrape scar tissue off his knee tendon — he was unable to bend his leg by that point — he estimates it took him 18 months to "recover." But in four months he was dancing Giselle. How? Easy — "I was just faking it ... Clearly I didn't do any jumps in class, so management would see me jumping in rehearsals and I'd get the shows." In short, if management wasn't watching, Helimets wasn't jumping.

Jen Siska
Says San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Tiit Helimets, "As long as you can hide your injuries, you are a success!"
Bill Cooper
Says San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Tiit Helimets, "As long as you can hide your injuries, you are a success!"

Last season, doctors informed Helimets that his third and fourth vertebrae were stuck to each other, putting pressure on the discs in his back. Fluid from the discs oozed onto the nerves in the small of his back, sending shooting pain down his legs.

"What [the doctors] said to me is rest. You have to rest and it will go away. I said, 'Oh, it's better now,'" recalls Helimets, with an explosive laugh. "I just lied. And after the season finished, I took the whole six weeks and did nothing. And [the pain] went away."

Helimets grins and raises his voice, theatrically, so it echoes through the dance studio: "As long as you can hide your injuries, you are a success!"

An eclectic array of luminaries stares down from portraits adorning the walls of Active Care, a physical therapy center on Geary Boulevard. There's the outfit's most illustrious rehabilitated invalid, former 49er Jerry Rice, the majority of the 1989-90 Run TMC–era Golden State Warriors, and even a stuntman in a 10-gallon hat fleeing from an enraged bull. Also gracing the wall are action shots of scads of leaping San Francisco Ballet dancers — Active Care administrative assistant Adriana LeBaron estimates at least 40 rehabbed there in the last year alone. One dancer who isn't leaping anytime soon is upstairs, stretched out on an examiner's table — Julianne Kepley.

Resting for a moment between exercises, Kepley is an island of stillness in a room full of chaotic motion. A gathering of rehabilitating humanity surrounds her, limbs flailing and wicked, red surgery scars waxing and waning as pumping legs power stationary bicycles, treadmills, and God knows what other Marquis de Sade–worthy exercise devices. Lisa Giannone, the physical therapist Rice credits with saving his destroyed knee, focuses on Kepley's. The dancer is three weeks out of surgery, and Giannone latches on to Kepley's atrophied right leg and kneads through the swollen joints with broad, unsubtle movements, flushing pockets of swelling away from the incisions. Like all ballet dancers, Kepley is a connoisseur of pain, but this is a new and disagreeable sensation. After Giannone moves on to another patient, Kepley leans forward, takes a deep breath, and whispers, "This is the most unpleasant part of my day." And so it shall be, for many months to come.

In a stuffy downtown rehearsal studio, Tina LeBlanc is living Kepley's dream. After warming up methodically for two hours at the barre, LeBlanc and Helimets swirl serenely across the vinyl floor, putting the final touches on a five-minute pas de deux they'll soon perform at a gala in Orlando, Fla. And yet, one year earlier, LeBlanc — a principal dancer since 1992 — was in worse condition than Kepley, having snapped her ACL in front of an audience of 3,300 at the 2007 finale of "Don Quixote."

Before a crowd packed to the rafters to take in the last show from former San Francisco Ballet wunderkind Gonzalo Garcia before he departed for the New York City Ballet, LeBlanc crumpled midway through the first act and couldn't get up. Garcia deftly whisked her off the stage — which is more than he could do for the ballet's dumbstruck secondary characters.

"I just thought, 'Shit, she really hurt herself,'" recalls Scribner, one of six toreadors who had been gallivanting through the scene. Then he realized that he and his colleagues had been standing around for the past five seconds — and not dancing. Scribner shot a glance upstage at Damian Smith — "one of the highest-ranked dancers on stage, a real pro — so everyone looked at him, 'What the hell do we do?'" When Smith broke into an improvisational jig, the company followed for one minute — one endless minute — until the music ceased and the curtain came down.

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