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Blood, Sweat, and Tutus 

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

Wednesday, Jul 23 2008

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.

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.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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