Blood, Sweat, and Tutus

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

Since 2000, half a dozen dancers have complained to the union that they were being squeezed out because of injuries; grievances included short contracts being offered to an injury-prone dancer, attempts to lower the salary of an oft-hurt performer, and outright dismissals.

In 2003, corps member Jonathan Shockley was "non-reengaged" — his contract was not renewed — shortly after he informed management his tendonitis surgery had not been successful and he would require another. Shockley claims Tomasson's rationale was that he was not a versatile enough dancer. "I'd never heard anything like that from them before," Shockley recalls. The union negotiated a settlement facilitating his exit.

One year later, two injured female dancers were non-reengaged, prompting the union to take San Francisco Ballet to arbitration. One of the dancers, former soloist Catherine Winfield, had a bone contusion in her foot that would prevent her from ever going en pointe again. She was told she was "a bad fit." The second dancer — a young corps member who also "didn't fit in" — is still performing professionally and, as news of her filing a union grievance could be a barrier to future employment, SF Weekly has opted not to print her name.

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.

Following a year of hearings, the union won on some, but not all, of its arguments. The dancers were not rehired but the arbitrator ruled that the ballet could not opt out of its obligations to injured performers by merely cutting them. As a result, all San Francisco Ballet dancers are now entitled to some health benefits and access to rehabilitation for 18 months following an injury, even if they are dropped.

It was far from a joyous verdict for Winfield, who likened the decision to call in the union to hiring a divorce lawyer. "This," she says, "is not the way you'd like to leave a career."

Upon entering the studio, eyeglasses fog up and one's nose is tickled by a pungent odor reminiscent of the YMCA laundry room. Duncan Cooper's high-pitched, rapid-fire cadences ricochet off the rafters as three dozen teenage students at Lines Ballet in downtown San Francisco flitter about the room with varying degrees of grace.

But when one male dancer too many imperils his back by improperly lifting his partner, Cooper grimaces as if the body being damaged were his own. He halts the class and gathers the students.

"I had three knee surgeries by age 21. I have 5 percent of the cartilage left in my left knee," he says. Cooper's voice grows louder and more severe. It seems eons ago that he jokingly compared a male dancer struggling with a lift to a U-Haul driver hoisting a piano. "I was at the San Francisco Ballet and I was getting all the roles I wanted. The last thing I wanted was to give them up. But you have to know your rights as an artist to say enough is enough – no matter who the director is."

That's a speech none of Cooper's teachers ever gave to him. But would it have made a difference? Ballet dancers aren't in this business for their health, and harbingers of what's to come literally limp through the building: Former San Francisco Ballet dancers turned management like Ricardo Bustamante or Jim Sohm shamble through the halls with aching backs or atop plastic hips.

Cooper remembers the day in 1995 when he looked up the steps at the Van Ness Muni station and realized that, at age 22, he couldn't make it up. He asked out of his contract and took a year off. In 1996 he was hired as a principal at the Dance Theater of Harlem and, somehow, lasted for eight years on one leg. And yet he has no regrets.

Injuries "gave me a newfound respect for why I dance, a newfound commitment. If you want to walk away, hey, the door's right there. This isn't a prison camp. It's one of the greatest dance institutions in the world. It's not going to be a happy story for everybody. This is not a 1950s movie where everything ends up great. How many of us fade away into the sunset?"

Fading, however, is not on Julianne Kepley's radar. In addition to rehab work at Active Care, when her colleagues began rehearsing for the 2009 season this month, Kepley hobbled to work with them for morning exercises. Landing a role — any role — by January is Kepley's raison d'être, the rationale behind thousands of hours of painfully lifting, flexing and, ever so gradually, rebuilding her knee.

"Oh, I'll be around the studio," says Kepley with a grin. "And if I have to stop in at the artistic office and say 'hiiiiiii,'" – she waves her right arm like a children's TV host greeting all the boys and girls – "Well, then that's what I have to do to make sure I'm not forgotten about."

She breaks into laughter, but this is no joking matter. As the San Francisco Ballet moves on without her, the 33-year-old ballerina with the bum right knee is hoping to postpone her swan song for just a few more acts.

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