Blood, Sweat, and Tutus

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

In retrospect, the skirt was just too damn long.

"I was a little concerned. But they said, 'Can you please try it at this length?' And I said okay — like every dancer does. You try to be very accommodating," says Julianne Kepley with a ready laugh. At 5 1/2 feet tall with wavy blond hair and a compact, athletic build, Kepley looks less like a soloist dancer with the San Francisco Ballet — which she is — than the point guard for a small college basketball team. Her chuckle faded somewhat as her blue eyes settled momentarily on the crutches stacked in the corner. She shook her head and offered a wan smile. "Oh, I should have been a diva."

Instead, she obediently waited in the wings as the orchestra started into Bach's Goldberg Variations for an April rehearsal of "A Rose by Any Other Name." On cue, Kepley soared into the limelight, gliding across the floor in a series of choreographed prances and leaps, projecting the image of effortlessness that can only be borne out via painstaking amounts of effort. But painstaking soon gave way to pain.

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.
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.
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!"

The elegant spell Kepley cast over War Memorial Opera House dissolved when, instead of the springy stage floor, she felt the bunched cloth of her skirt beneath the toe of her right pointe shoe. As Kepley careened forward, time seemed to slow to a crawl. She glanced downwards and watched her knee buckle to the right and then the left — the two directions a knee isn't supposed to bend. The ensuing pain was accompanied by a grinding noise, not unlike the rasping sound of driving with the parking brake still engaged. And then the floor leapt to meet Kepley's cheek as she collapsed into a pile; her right knee, now lacking the support of its anterior cruciate ligament, began to writhe. With a violent spasm it jerked into a 45-degree angle and would not straighten.

Pain is not the ballet dancer's friend, but it is his or her constant companion. The majority of a dancer's day is a high-energy quest to twist oneself into a series of poses and steps seemingly designed to belie the mechanics of the human body. Days without pain are so infrequent that several dancers told SF Weekly they actually find them unnerving. To succumb to pain is not merely undesirable, it's shameful.

So when Kepley opened her eyes, peeked through her fingers, and saw the ballet's artistic director Helgi Tomasson's brown shoes a few inches from her face, she apologized. "I started babbling," she recalls, her slight Southern lilt betraying her Atlanta roots. "I must have said 'I'm sorry' about a thousand times."

Kenny Ryan, the ballet's burly prop master, made his way through the crowd. He scooped Kepley up into his arms and carried her to the office of Michael Leslie, the ballet's full-time physical therapist. Julianne Kepley, 33 years of age and 14 seasons a professional ballet dancer, couldn't help but think about where it had all led: "Basically, I was just a very large prop."

While ballet strives to project an image of ethereal beauty, it is, in fact, a taxing and even brutal endeavor. Toe-dancing for eight or more hours a day wrecks women's feet and hips while men frequently lay waste to their knees while leaping or ruin backs from lifting partners. Dancers who wait in the wings long enough are guaranteed to see something they wished they hadn't:

"I've seen someone fall, twist her ankle and roll off the stage like a tumbleweed."

"I knew one dancer who fractured his tibia on stage and it sounded like a rifle shot."

"I had one friend who for three years took two aspirin right before he went on stage. In the end he had an ulcer burst in a performance. He was losing blood while performing a very difficult 25-minute pas de deux."

After an injured dancer is cleared off the stage, the rest of the company feels a bit like the gazelles in the nature documentary that don't get run down by the lion. Kepley is quick to admit that on many such occasions she muttered "Thank God that's not me" under her breath. And for many, prayer is apropos. A number of San Francisco Ballet dancers are pushing through injuries that may, at any given moment, blossom into something truly horrible. This is an ever-present fear, but it's not nearly so visceral as the dread of taking time to heal and losing a part — and perhaps, eventually, your job. As much as the San Francisco Ballet prides itself on the extensive health resources it provides for its employees, every one of them knows that no dancer has ever earned a promotion by taking time off. "The people who get the farthest in this company are the ones who've hidden more injuries and pushed themselves more than anyone else," concurs a dancer.

If you take time off, dancers say, the parts stop coming. And if you stop getting parts — well, then you're on your way to dancing out the door.

Jason Davis knew it was coming. But he didn't think it would come like this.

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?"

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."

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.

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.

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?"

"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.

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.

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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