Richard Watts | ArtsHub | Monday 12th October 2015

Sooner or later, dancers and circus artists will hurt themselves. But what is the cost when the show goes on despite broken bones or overuse injuries?

Promotional image for the Casus production Knee Deep.

The simple act of trying and failing to turn a door knob was the first real indication for Casus Circus co-founder and ensemble member Emma Serjeant that a recent wrist injury she’d suffered was more serious than she’d realised.

‘I was taking a high level of anti-inflammatories, and I was training on it all the time because I didn’t really get much of a break, and because I was noticing that if I had a day off it was incredibly sore the next day; so I just kept it mobile, basically … At no point did I think “Oh, this is not good.” I just thought it was a sprain, and I know that [sprained] wrists and fingers take ages. And we were in a pretty gruelling schedule so I didn’t give it a second thought until that door-handle moment when I went “Hang on a minute, something’s really not right”,’ she told ArtsHub.

It turned out that Serjeant had been performing with a broken wrist for more than two months. Soon after replacing herself with another acrobat, Serjeant and the Casus team suffered another setback.

‘Four shows after putting another performer into the show, the other performer actually dislocated her shoulder, which was catastrophic for us because we were [on tour] in France. And I was in the hospital with her going “Alright, I’m holding your dislocated shoulder while they can’t get it back in, and I’ve got a wrist brace on and we’ve got a sold-out 600 seat venue to perform in tomorrow. What am I going to do?”’

Injury as a fact of life

For circus, dance and physical theatre performers, injury is, sooner or later, inevitable.

As Zara Gomes, Director of Performance Medicine at the Queensland Ballet puts it: ‘There are some people who are fortunate enough to get through their career without any major injuries, but for many dancers they would have at least one major injury at some point in their career. And certainly everyday niggles or small things are definitely very common and, I would say, part of the territory.’

Elizabeth Old, Associate Artistic Director at Adelaide-based company Australian Dance Theatre (ADT) is equally fatalistic.

‘Even if we look at something else that’s high-risk for injury like sport – and they have a lot more money than the arts do – they still get injured. So it doesn’t matter how much care, training, whatever, it’s just part of performers’ lives,’ Old said.

A 2004 study showed that for most dancers, the cumulative toll of injury meant many of them were forced to retire in their early 30s despite intending to dance for at least a decade longer. Thankfully for performers, minor injuries – such as overuse of a tendon due to a particularly intense rehearsal – are easily treated, according to Gomes.

‘It’s quite easy to trace what their injury is coming from, it’s not stopping them from doing anything, but we need to give them some strategies and some strengthening and some things to be careful with in rehearsals or in class to help them overcome that problem. And in most cases with those smaller things, with some hands-on treatment and the right kind of advice and exercises for them to do in and out of rehearsals, then we can definitely get on top of it and fix it,’ she said.

More serious injuries will require a modified workload.

‘For example, repetitive jumps on the left leg might be hurting their left ankle, so they’re having to pull back and not jump as much because of the pain. So that’s what we would call modified workload, where the dancer is still dancing but they have to modify things because of pain or because the injury is a bit more serious and we need to adjust things so that they’re not making it any worse,’ said Gomes.

Adaptability and flexibility

Flexibility is just as important off-stage as on, according to Old.

‘We place a lot of care around the dancers’ training, and so we adapt the dancers’ training depending on our repertoire. For instance there’s one piece in the rep called in which the dancers have to run around the back of the stage constantly – they only ever enter from one side of the stage. So during that piece they run an enormous distance; they have to be very cardio-strong. So if we’re doing G we get them to up to 25 single leg calf raises a day so their calf muscles are given extra strength, and do aerobic training as well as learning the piece. If we do a work that has a lot of breakdance tumbling we do extra tumbling training.

‘We kind of cater the training to what the demand is of the dancers, and encourage the dancers just to be very, very fit. And the reason I’m saying that is the old school of thought was that dance training provided a dancer with everything they needed, as in their daily classes that they have every day for an hour and a quarter or an hour and a half at the start of every day.

‘And the old school [belief] is that that provided their training. But we know now that it doesn’t provide an eclectic or broad-enough training; they need to do other things as well, so we really encourage the dancers to supplement their training,’ Old said.

Yoga, meditation and Pilates are all part of the modern dancer’s repertoire.

‘Our physio is the same physio that Port Power use so he’s very experienced with diagnosis and saying, “Yes this dancer can dance but they should be pain free,” or “No, absolutely they have to go off”. We’re a small company so we only have physio once a week and we have a very small number of dancers. So if someone’s injured, all the other dancers compensate,’ said Old.

‘So the ADT dancers have to and are very tough, and they are very good at working with injury – which is quite a big ask. It’s a lot of emotional pressure to be able to manage yourself when you’re injured and try to still perform but be as pain-free as you can.’

Queensland Ballet is also flexible where their dancers’ health is concerned.

‘There is a bit of shuffling, if you like, of dancers around the place that happens if someone is injured,’ said Gomes.

‘Obviously the bigger the company the more dancers of a similar ranking or similar level who would be able to learn the role and step in if needed. Certainly at Queensland Ballet … they try and always have more than one cast. So there would be always one or two, hopefully three casts for each, particularly for the major roles. Especially if there’s quite a number of shows – if you’re doing 18 shows in a row obviously you can’t do it all with the one cast, though in the past that did happen.’

Even when an injury is so severe that a performer cannot perform their role, Gomes tries to keep them on stage.

‘My philosophy is it is better for the dancer to keep on dancing if it’s possible. So we try and keep them on stage, because once someone’s gone offstage completely it is obviously upsetting for them, and if they’re out of the performances altogether it can be quite depressing. So we try and keep them in as much as we can do in whatever capacity they can manage. Obviously we don’t want to aggravate the injury so it’s that juggle,’ she said.

‘If someone is suddenly off for a number of weeks or months it’s really tough, because they feel quite isolated from everyone else and really, they feel that very acutely. So even if they’re just doing a walk-on role, if they can’t actually dance and they’re just doing more of an acting role, we try and encourage them to do that because then they’re still part of the production. And generally they’re very keen to do something; they don’t really want to sit at home.’

The show must go on

In a small circus company like Casus, particularly on tour, there are fewer options when a performer is injured. Faced with her own injury, and a replacement performer with a dislocated shoulder, Serjeant was forced to take drastic action – including pulling an all-nighter to ensure that a virtual stand-in would be ready for the next night’s show.

‘We ended up making a three-person version of the show and adding some video elements, some old video to the show … an old video with me in it, and we used a split focus where I almost became a ghost on stage – it was quite a wild idea and we had to cut a video at that point, I think we pretty much stayed up all night,’ Serjeant explained.

‘Some of the acts were filled out with the video going on in the background and the performers improvising and sort of moving with the video, playing with the video element of the show, and that kind of teased it back out. And then we didn’t lose the female energy on the stage as well … and we actually got a standing ovation at the end of the show, which was interesting!’

Knowing that cancelling the show would damage the company’s reputation, Casus continued their tour in this manner.

‘I think it was about 13 shows we had to do like that. We tried to convince the theatres to postpone the show until the following year … but a lot of places had already sold out the performances, so it was too hard for them to change. And we learned that by cancelling shows you get a bad reputation. You’re much better to try and figure out some way of doing it.’

Following the performances of their perforce-hybridised show, Casus took a two-week break, at which point it was decided Serjeant’s wrist required surgery – though it would be some time before surgery was possible, given that the company had to get through seasons in New York and Chile first.

‘It had gone past the point of being able to be repaired – the calcification in my wrist, you could actually see the bony prominence sticking out of my wrist. Because what happens is your body sends calcium to fix the area that is traumatised, so if you keep working on it, it sends more and more calcium to try and fix it, and so I’d developed this big bony lump basically, that was stopping my wrist from being able to go flat on the floor, and so in order for me to do a handstand I had to get rid of that bony lump. And so I had a bunch of cortisone, took a bunch more painkillers, and just worked my wrist to the point where I could get it flat – it was immensely painful.’

All up, Serjeant performed another 30 shows before she could come home to Brisbane for surgery.

‘So I was performing knowing that my wrist was rooted, basically, that my wrist was not in a great state and I was going to need an operation and that I was damaging it every day. It was really hard for me,’ she said.

Learning from injury

Nonetheless, the experience has – in some ways – been a positive one for Serjeant and her fellow Casus members.

‘Injuries are fascinating. With injuries there’s a level of emotional trauma going on, particularly if the injury happens on stage – all the other people are instantly affected … And now we’ve changed our philosophy – injuries are not an if but a when in our line of work,’ she said.

Casus don’t expect injury, but the company now has additional backup systems in place for when injuries occur – including having people they’ve already trained with on call, all around the world.

‘I’d done 400, 500 shows with these people [the core company members] and no-one else – so we know each other’s bodies incredibly well, we know each other’s nuances, we know when we’re going to catch each other, we’re just completely in tune. And when you put another person into that mix, all of those things completely change, and so the risk of injury is increased significantly,’ said Serjeant.

‘Generally what happens is one injury happens and then you get a chain of injury because you’re not familiar with those other people, unless you’ve been working and training with them for a long time.

‘Now we have great backup systems: to have people training with you that aren’t on tour, spare people around the world to just call on, and that’s how we do it. Because we’re not a company that can afford a spare person just hanging out doing nothing,’ she laughed.

IMAGE CREDIT: Promotional image for the Casus production Knee Deep