Counterargument to SF Weekly’s cover article, “Blood, Sweat, and Tutus”
A few days ago, a rather sensationalistic article was published in the SF Weekly, titled “Blood, Sweat, and Tutus:Tear your knee, wrench your back, pirouette, and bow: dancing at the San Francisco Ballet”. It was an article that addresses the sensitive issue of dancers getting injured, and their fears of being fired from an ever-watchful administration. In short, although the article brings up valid and important points, I felt that the article could have been written in a more practical manner to point to possible solutions, instead of sensationalizing the situation and pointing fingers at causes that may not necessarily the reason for the situation.
In an ideal world, a company would be overflowing with funds. There would be money to hire lots of dancers to cover lots of roles, so dancers don’t have to dance as often but get lots of breaks. If dancers get injured, the company would have more than enough money to keep them on and pay them full time until full recovery. No one would ever be let go, and there would be money to hire more dancers if dancers are injured.
But as we all know, we live in a capitalistic society that favors the bottom line over idealism. The problems are worsened by the unfriendly financial environment for arts organizations, where funding is never enough. In many occupations, an employer has a right to let an employee go if he or she cannot fulfill the duties of the job. Some exceptions exist – as a friend brought up, police officers are guaranteed a desk job or payments for the rest of their lives if they are injured on the job. The big difference between the police department and a ballet company however, are that police departments are guaranteed funding through tax money. Arts organizations are not. Is it heartbreaking? Yes. Is it compassionate? No. Should it even be happening? No. But given its reality, what other choice does a company have?
The competitive nature of the field that drives dancers past their physical comfort zones isn’t the fault of any one administration, but of the field itself. Competition is always tough in a field where there are more people who want to dance than there are jobs. It’s even harder for people who fight their way up to the top of the elite status of principal dancer. In the article, dancer Quinn Wharton states that he continued to dance because “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”. But is this not the nature of all competitive fields? In the field that I know best, my own, a comparable situation might be to getting an all-too-rare interview at one of the top medical schools in the country, such as Harvard or UCSF. If I had been unable to attend that interview, whether the reason was injury, job related or not, I would sacrifice a huge irreparable stepping stone to my career because there are thousands who are more than willing to take my place. I know too many stories of sabotage, including spitting in another person’s experiment to screw up their lab results, in the pre-med world. Competition is tough, but sadly and heartlessly no less severe than other equally competitive fields.
Part of the problem that San Francisco Ballet has been put under the spotlight is not due to the fault of its administration, but as an accidental result of its meteoric rise in prestige as a world class ballet company. Dancers, even really great ones, want to dance with the company. More competition brings more pressure, which leads to trying to stand out from the crowd and pushing past comfort zones, and leading to more injuries. Can anyone blame the company for being too good, or too popular, or too prestigious?
Don’t get me wrong. No one should ever have to dance or function through a disc herniation. No one should be denied medical care because they fear for their job. No one should ever be told that they’re being let go without the truth (as the dancer who was let go in the article for being told that he wasn’t “versatile”, although it was obvious that it was because of his injury). No one should be let go in an impersonal flippant manner, without acknowledgment and respect especially for a situation beyond their control. Administrations should be challenged and questioned by the public that they are doing everything possible to prioritize the health and well being of their dancers. In addition, articles like this can be helpful to question traditional ways of thinking. In the medical profession, it was articles such as this that revealed the horrendous state of affairs that set healthy laws like setting limits on residency working hours to 30 hours at a time and no more than 80 hours a week, so that a patient’s life will not be in the hands of a sleep deprived doctor. Articles like this can bring about positive change if done in a practical way. But I didn’t think that posting pictures of toe shoes covered in blood and painting the SF Ballet administration to be a lone bloodthirsty lion roaming to pick off wounded gazelles in a herd helped anything because it reeks of a partiality to a foregone conclusion. The causes run much deeper than a single organization – I don’t think anyone really believe that this problem only exists in SFB and if not worse, at other prestigious dance companies and all throughout the dance world.
Solutions? Of course it’s tough, given the facets of this situation that are unchangeable and multifaceted, including competition, capitalism, limited resources, and multiple organizations from unions to dancers to the administration to the government. The most obvious solution is increased arts funding and keeping vocational rehabilitation and disability funding through the state. However, the solutions need to go deeper than the obvious, including not only preventative medicine but also prevention in ending of careers. A big help would be to provide education and alternatives for dancers if their careers end earlier than expected, so dancers have options to follow other desired career paths.
If you object to the way that injured dancers are treated and want to do something about it, the most immediate way I see of anyone helping out is to buy a ballet ticket. Give money to an organization so that you can support medical care for dancers and their careers and other programs such as education for them. Vote for state funding for the arts and vocational rehabilitation and disability. Pointing fingers at an administration constrained by finances, union laws, and audience demand for healthy present dancers doesn’t accomplish a lot.
Reading the responses to this article, I also see that I’m not the only one who feels that this article was a bit one-sided and overly dramatic (click on “show/hide comments”).
Anyways, I also recommend that you read the article (albeit with a grain of salt) also for the fun stories that are included. Tiit Helimets dancing the lead of Don Q while simultaneously drunk and high off of eight cups of coffee? Hilarious! (although probably unnecessary for the article’s point.)
My deepest heartfelt wishes extend to Julianne Kepley and other dancers who are out due to their injuries at the SF Ballet. Many speedy returns for her recovery and her soon appearance on the War Memorial stage.
Julianne Kepley before her knee injury. Photo from the article by Herbert Migdoll.