The Jennifer Lawrence movie "Red Sparrow" starts with a horrific ballet injury onstage. For dancers who have suffered catastrophic injuries of their own, the agony of her character feels all too real.
Lauren Post, a corps de ballet member of American Ballet Theatre, caught her foot in the hem of her costume one night and tripped. Just like that, in the middle of a ballet, in front of thousands of spectators at the Metropolitan Opera House, Post found herself in a dancer’s lowest circle of hell.
She’d torn the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee. Another dancer had to drag her offstage.
Fast-forward a couple of years, and Post is sitting in a movie theater, watching the Jennifer Lawrence thriller “Red Sparrow.” She was there mainly to see her best friend, ABT principal Isabella Boylston, who is Lawrence’s dance double in the movie. Lawrence starts out a Bolshoi ballerina and ends up a Russian spy/sex worker – all because of a grisly injury onstage.
That’s the part where Post felt her insides curdle.
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“Gut-wrenching,” she says. “I could barely watch it. It was rough.”
For dancers who have suffered catastrophic injuries of their own, the agony of Lawrence’s character, Dominika, feels all too real. It takes place in the movie’s first few minutes, so it’s giving nothing away to say that the calamity cuts short Dominika’s dance career.
It happens like this: As Dominika is posing for her adoring audience at the climax of a ballet, her dance partner (real-life ballet star and actor Sergei Polunin) comes up behind her in a flying leap and lands on her outstretched leg. Crash, snap, scream …
But is it plausible?
Injury is part of a dancer’s life, as it is for athletes. Yet the kind that means sudden unemployment is rare, given improvements in training and treatment. A dancer who sustains a showstopping fracture onstage needn’t automatically hang up her tights.
“Now we can fix almost everything,” says New York orthopedist and dance specialist William Hamilton, “except the knee.”
That goes for Russian ballerinas, too. In fact, recovery miracles are exemplified by a Russian ballerina: the iron-willed Natalia Makarova.
In 1982, Makarova, who had defected from the Soviet Union in 1970, was starring in the musical “On Your Toes,” at the Kennedy Center Opera House, when a piece of scenery equipment fell on her mid-performance, gashing her head and breaking her shoulder blade. The horrified audience heard the ballerina moaning through her body mic before she was rushed to the hospital.
Two months later: Makarova was back. She opened the show on Broadway, right on schedule. (She went on to win a Tony for it.)
Accidents happen onstage, and they can be horrifying. “Red Sparrow” isn’t wrong about that. The dramatic smashup in the movie reflects something we don’t often think about when we’re swept up in watching a ballet – the reality that dance can be dangerous.
“We’re not perfect,” says Michele Wiles, a former ABT star. As Wiles learned in 2005, dancer error can have disastrous consequences. She was 25 and making her debut in the title role of the full-length ballet “Sylvia” at the Met. In the first act, as her partner lifted her high above his head, something went awry. He lost control, and they both crashed to the stage.
“We fell flat on our faces,” says Wiles, who wouldn’t name the partner out of respect for his feelings. “There’s no blame. Maybe just a lack of rehearsal.”
Somehow they scrambled to their feet and ran offstage. Wiles’s fall from such a height looked so harrowing that colleagues backstage were frantically trying to get her out of her costume so she could see a doctor. But Wiles had other plans. She wasn’t giving up her debut.
“I finished the show,” she quips, “and I didn’t become a spy.”
Wiles woke the next morning with little more than a bruised hip. But there were more troubles ahead. The accident happened during an especially high-pressure year, when she was dancing a lot and eventually earned a promotion to principal, the top rank in a ballet company. This came at a cost. By the time “Nutcracker” season rolled around a few months later, Wiles had accumulated a number of physical traumas, including a stress fracture in her lumbar spine, and she was sidelined for six months.
That’s often what can end a career, or take away a chunk of it while a dancer goes through rehab: such long-simmering issues as arthritis, tendinitis and chronic wear-and-tear. The continuous, long-standing ailment is a greater hazard than a single accident.
Robert Weiss, artistic director of Carolina Ballet in Raleigh, North Carolina, was in the audience when Wiles fell in “Sylvia.” He says that what happened to her is a good example of why there aren’t many injuries that kill careers.
“You’re in great shape, you’re young, and you’re healthy,” he says, “so you’re able to prevent getting injured from something like that.”
Weiss knows something about the worst onstage injuries, when adrenaline and shock mask all sensations but a popping sound. That’s the sound of a career in jeopardy – the sound of a ruptured Achilles’ tendon.
Weiss was a New York City Ballet principal when he heard the pop as he was performing and thought the floorboards had snapped beneath him.
When Washington-based modern dancer Alvin Mayes heard the pop, he thought it was a gunshot and wondered whether he’d been hit.
When NYCB principal Jennie Somogyi heard the pop, she thought she’d gotten her legs tangled up with her partner’s.
“I looked down and saw both my feet were on the stage,” she says, “but I had the sensation one was in the air because I couldn’t feel the stage.
“I lost my hearing, lost my peripheral vision, and I realized I was in shock.”
For all three dancers, the snapped tendon derailed their careers. Mayes never danced again professionally. Weiss and Somogyi did, but only after long recoveries.
Weiss’ injury is legendary in ballet circles; the snap of his tendon could be heard in the audience. It happened on the opening night of NYCB’s fall season in 1978, when co-founder George Balanchine was in the wings watching Weiss and ballerina Merrill Ashley star in one of his newest ballets, “Ballo della Regina.” Weiss heard a loud pop during the ballet’s finale, as he was skimming across the stage in a tricky series of jumps.
“I looked down, and the floor was still there, but I couldn’t move anymore,” he says. “Balanchine always stood in the first wing of stage right, and he knew what had happened. He motioned me to get off the stage. So I hobbled off.”
Balanchine got him a stool. Meanwhile, Ashley spun through her steps alone onstage as if nothing was amiss.
“Merrill’s as strong as an ox,” Weiss says, with admiration. “There’s a whole series of supported pirouettes at the end of the ballet, and she did them all by herself. She actually finished the ballet without me.”
Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev, a friend of Weiss’, was in the audience, and he rushed backstage. Also racing to help was Hamilton, the orthopedist and a consultant to NYCB.
In those days, a ruptured Achilles was a career-killer. But Weiss was lucky. A Danish doctor who specialized in Achilles repairs among European dancers was visiting Hamilton, and he was in the audience that night, too. Both doctors accompanied Weiss to the hospital, and Hamilton operated on him right away, with the Danish specialist at his side.
Dancer recoveries have vastly improved since then, Hamilton says. “There’s been a lot of progress in dance medicine. If you fix them right, 90 percent can come back again if they put in the hard work.”
Weiss was off for a year and a half, then danced for another year before retiring to direct Pennsylvania Ballet.
Like Weiss, Mayes didn’t feel pain when he busted his Achilles, but he had a jolt of fear. It was about 15 years ago during a rehearsal at Dance Place in Washington, D.C., at a time when crime wasn’t uncommon in the area. That’s why gunfire was the first thought that came to Mayes’s mind. After surgery, he continued teaching and eventually saw the injury as a boon.
“It helped me learn how to go forward with teaching,” he says, “and how to get students to do things that I can’t do, in terms of technique.”
Before her Achilles rupture, Somogyi had already lost a year of dancing to injury – she’d snapped a different tendon a few years earlier. So for a second time, she went through the nightmare of surgery/rehab/uncertainty and made it back to the stage. Then it happened again: A few months after coming back from the Achilles tear, she was dancing in “Swan Lake” and heard another loud pop.
She knew exactly what it was.
“Welcome to my retirement party,” she joked to friends later as she sat in her dressing room with her foot in a bucket of ice. Another surgery, another year off, another slow recovery – but Somogyi came back to the stage a third time. She danced the more dramatic roles, ones without a lot of jumps, and retired a few years later at 38. She now runs a ballet school in Easton, Pennsylvania.
The crazy thing is that Somogyi otherwise had a trouble-free career – no tendinitis, bunions or bad hips.
“I’ve had less injuries than anyone I’ve worked with,” she says. “I’ve only had three, but they were catastrophic.” And they all happened onstage, something Somogyi laughs about now.
“I’m like, can’t it just happen in a rehearsal studio? Does it have to be in front of thousands of people? Well, at least I’m always going for it. I go big!”
What about Post, the ABT ballerina who blew out her ACL onstage? She underwent reconstructive surgery, in which a piece of her hamstring was used to fix the knee. She labored through a grueling rehab schedule that kept her busier than she’d ever been as a dancer. Nine months later, she made it back to the stage. She’s dancing at the Met now, finishing up the spring season there with ABT. Neither her knee nor the partially sacrificed hamstring feel the same as before, she says, but in some ways, she feels stronger, having learned to move with better alignment as part of her recovery.
So in the real world of dance, with its exquisitely trained athletes and ever-improving science, how realistic is the “Red Sparrow” scenario of a ballerina’s career ended by a freak injury?
“I guess if he’d landed on her leg with all his weight he could break her bone in a lot of places,” Weiss says. “It is a possibility. It would have to be a lot of circumstances coming together in a bad way.”
“Theoretically, you could say, ‘Yeah, it might happen,'” says Hamilton. “But we could fix that now. A bone is easier to fix than a joint.”
Leave it to a ballerina to put her finger on the key issue.
“Male dancers aren’t very hefty,” says Somogyi, chuckling at the thought, “so I don’t know if they’d be breaking bones.”