Blood, Sweat, and Tutus

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

When Tomasson sauntered backstage to check for "covers" — understudies — he realized there weren't any. Essentially, the ballet was driving without a spare. Helimets and his wife, former principal dancer Molly Smollen, got the phone call halfway through dinner. Helimets figured he wasn't really needed, so he knocked back his drink and Smollen's too — but when he got to the theatre, Tomasson told him to suit up and dance with his wife.

"I said, 'Helgi, you know I've had a drink.' And he said, 'It will be a great show. Don't you worry,'" recalls Helimets. "People were rushing back and forth bringing me coffee — because I was really drunk." He downed eight cups. Even between scenes backstage he sipped a mug. "I did not want to lose it. I did not want to crash." He savors the memory: "It was probably my best show."

It would take more than strong coffee to heal LeBlanc. Nine months of grueling rehab followed. Now, as she stretches her foot high above her head like a 5-foot-1 Juan Marichal, she offers the kind of answer you'd expect from a ballet dancer asked a simple question like, "How's the knee?"

Julianne Kepley reflects on the hours of difficult, tedious rehabilitation that, for the present, have replaced dancing.
Joe Eskenazi
Julianne Kepley reflects on the hours of difficult, tedious rehabilitation that, for the present, have replaced dancing.

"Oh, I don't even notice it anymore. It's taking a back seat to the tendonitis in this ankle."

Reports of dance injuries from ballet's primordial days are sparse — though, in 1544, a politically stilted ballet titled "La Defense du Paradis" did induce Catholic audience members to storm the streets of Paris and spill Protestant blood. Four and a half centuries later, however, carnage is limited to the stage.

In a 1975 study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine, Dr. James "Nick the Knife" Nicholas — the former team physician for the New York Jets, Rangers, and Knicks — conducted a battery of 18 "neuromuscular, physical, mental and psychometric" exams on a bevy of athletes. He ranked ballet as the most physically and mentally taxing activity among 61 sports; pro football came third. Ranked No. 2: bullfighting.

As the former head physician for both the San Francisco Ballet and the University of Washington football team, James Garrick is not surprised — though he's never worked a bullfight. Spotlighting a three-year period in the 1990s, an analysis he co-wrote for the same journal documented 104 San Francisco Ballet dancers sustaining 309 significant injuries, six of which ended the dancers' careers. Garrick's definition of the word "injury" was limited to those requiring expenditures for outside medical care; he estimates that including the injuries treated by in-house doctors would have doubled the total.

Compiling similar injury statistics for the present day would be impossible without the cooperation of the San Francisco Ballet — and the company declined to assist in virtually any way with this article. Requests to interview Tomasson and other ballet personnel were refused and, midway through the reporting of this story, dancers said they were sent an e-mail stating, in red text, that they were forbidden to speak to the media without permission from the ballet's public relations department. "Injuries are a sensitive subject for us," explains Kyra Jablonsky, the company's associate director of public relations.

The ballet did, however, give permission to interview the company's current head physician, Dr. Richard Gibbs. He claimed that the in-house system he installed in 1994 — which features doctors on site donating their time and emphasizes preventative care — has shrunk the company's worker's compensation costs and reduced its injury rate by 40 percent. The ballet declined to document this claim.

Word of every dancer's injuries may not be reaching Gibbs' ears, however: Garrick says he still sees San Francisco Ballet performers at St. Francis Memorial Hospital, where he runs the Center for Sports Medicine and a dance injury clinic. One male corps dancer told SF Weekly that when he partially tore the rotator cuff in his shoulder, he had the problem diagnosed and then rehabilitated himself at outside facilities, on his own dime, rather than let management know he was hurting.

Contrasting the tally of worker's comp claims from the 1990s and today is problematic, as sweeping changes in California laws have drastically reduced filing totals statewide. Records obtained from the Department of Worker's Compensation indicate that in the past dozen years, disputes requiring adjudication by a judge or other third party have arisen in 40 injury claims filed by San Francisco Ballet dancers. Yet with the state eliminating vocational rehabilitation and slashing permanent disability payouts, severely injured performers are left with limited recourse. Five years ago, a dancer suffering from "lower limb gait displacement" — a limp — with "documented advanced arthritic changes in the hip, knee or ankle" requiring semi-sedentary employment would have been eligible for a 60 percent disability. And now? Seven percent.

San Francisco Ballet performers are privileged, however, to be both insured and unionized — a claim the vast majority of Bay Area dancers can't make. The American Guild of Musical Artists' contract with the company guarantees dancers yearly employment of at least 42 weeks and forbids the termination of an injured performer. But both the hiring and release of dancers falls within the subjective judgment of artistic director Tomasson. So while a justification of "you're injured" is unacceptable, an explanation along the lines of "you're just not fitting in" is.

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