Diary of an Injury Part 4 - Getting (Ballet) Specific


Since last I wrote, I have had some much appreciated breakthroughs with my healing. I am no longer wearing my brace, I almost have full range of motion, and the swelling has decreased enough to allow my muscles to start firing properly. I have also gained strength in my injured leg, and  it is now almost as strong as my healthy one.

I have also suffered a big disappointment. In a week and a half, the National Ballet is travelling to LA to perform Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I was meant to dance Alice on opening night. Although I had hoped that with all the work I have been doing to heal I would make it, unfortunately in the end, tissue can only heal so fast. To be able to rehearse properly, I need to have full range of motion with no pain, and 90% strength in my left leg compared to my right. Then, to be stage ready I need to be in what I call “ballet shape.” What I mean by that is that no matter what kind of cross training I do, there is nothing that can train my body for performance other than ballet. And ballet is really, really hard! I feel like I am learning to walk again after I learned to walk again.

With any injury there is a time when I become less enthusiastic about the small accomplishments like being able to climb stairs properly, and more frustrated with how far I have to go. I have to remind myself of how far I have come and not look too far ahead. For a few weeks now I have been back in the studio and starting some very simple ballet work. I asked the Ballet’s principal ballet mistress Magdalena Popa to help me get started. I was so excited to be back in the studio and felt ready to go. To my disappointment, she lay me on a mat and had me do very simple patterning exercises. She gave me an hour’s worth of floor work to do every day, and then had me do a very few simple exercises standing in parallel at the barre. Of course, although the slow pace was disappointing, it is exactly what I needed. And so, every morning I start on the floor and do my homework, and every few days Magda has come and added some new work standing so that I have progressed to a VERY simple barre. 

Through this work, and Magda’s eagle eyes and high standards, I have discovered bad patterning and compensations that I hadn’t realised I had picked up, I have woken up muscles that had stopped working, and I have relaxed some that were in protection mode. I am also, as is my aim with any recovery, trying to improve upon any weaknesses in my technique I had picked up before I got injured. The work is slow and frustrating, but in the end it will make my recovery faster and my long term health much better. My body needs to re-learn the basics after such a trauma. If I can do simple things well, the more complicated movements will not be a problem.

This rule applies at the peak of my health as well. One would think that by now, after all of these years of dancing, I would have perfected a tendu and a plié. The fact is that even when I am at the top of my game, ballet is always hard. The simplest movements are the most difficult of all.

I am reminded of a story I first heard in my history of art classes in high school. I found the following summary at buisinessofsoftware.org.

“Giotto was a Florentine painter, architect and sculpture of immense talent. As the artist who first broke free from the constraints of medieval and byzantine art, he’s considered the first genius of the Italian renaissance.

At the start of the 14th century, word of Giotto’s mastery reached Pope Benedict XI in Lombardy. The Pope sent a courtier to Florence to see who this Giotto was, with a view to commissioning some paintings for Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. The courtier first travelled to Siena to collect designs from other masters. He then went to Giotto’s studio in Florence and asked for a drawing to take back to the Pope. Giotto took a canvas, dipped his brush in red paint, pinned his arm to his side and drew a perfect circle with his hand. He grinned and said "Here’s your drawing". The courtier, feeling mocked, asked for another drawing. Giotto replied "This is enough, and more than enough." Although he suspected that he was being taken for a ride, the courtier took Giotto’s drawing back to the Pope along with the other masters’ drawings. The courtier explained how Giotto had drawn the circle unaided, and the Pope and his advisers realised just how much Giotto surpassed all the other painters of the era. Giotto got the job.

Giotto’s proof of his masterpiece was his free-hand circle. It was a concise way for him to demonstrate his enormous technical skill. Watching him draw the circle, it probably looked easy, but undoubtedly it took years, if not decades, of practice to get that kind of lazy, deft skill.”


                                                           By Giotto - In St Peter's Basilica

This story inspires me to keep going when I am frustrated, and helps me appreciate the skill and beauty found in the basics.

Going forward, for the next two weeks I get to take advantage of another of my favorite coaches, Jackie Barrett. I first met her when I learned “Alice” for the North American premier in 2011. She quickly became a cherished teacher and friend. We started on Saturday, and when she began by having me run backwards in a circle I didn’t have any thoughts that this was too simple. When I felt all the muscles in the back of my legs kick in I knew I was getting somewhere.