Still Suffering for Their Art: Ballet Turns to Cutting-Edge Sports Science

October 29, 2019

For centuries ballet dancers have suffered pain and injury to master their art. The Royal Ballet in London is now using cutting-edge science to fight back, and lift the dance form into the future, as Mark Bailey discovers.

Hidden among the rehearsal studios at the world-famous Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden – where the Royal Ballet performs famous shows such as The Nutcracker and Swan Lake – is a glass-panelled training room, called the Mason Healthcare Suite, where dancers are rewriting the rules of ballet. In between their relentless daily rehearsal schedules, star dancers such as Claire Calvert and Matthew Ball now strengthen their muscles against injury by lifting heavy metal weights. Some apply electromyography sensors to their legs to identify which muscles they need to target in order to boost their jump heights on stage. Others apply compression and cold therapy leg wraps to repair muscle tissue after shows. All their daily activities are carefully monitored on computer software called Smartabase, also used by Liverpool Football Club and the US Army.

“Ballet shows the maximum potential of the human body’s physical capabilities.” Nicolau Barrote, Populous project manager. Credit: Nicolau Barrote

“This is a completely new concept in dance,” explains Greg Retter, clinical director of ballet healthcare, who heads up the team of 17 experts in sports science, strength, nutrition, psychology and rehabilitation now on hand to support the 97 dancers at the Royal Ballet. “Science is commonly used by sports athletes today, but adding that mentality into dance has been a challenge because dancers see themselves as artists. We are trying to say: ‘Actually, you are athletic artists’. Having a base of strength, cardiovascular fitness, psychological wellbeing and good nutrition is what frees the dancers to create artistic excellence on stage.”

The Mason Healthcare Suite opened in 2013 in a quest to reduce injuries and extend the careers of ballet dancers. Research has shown that professional dancers suffer an injury rate comparable to American football players – mainly in their shoulders, backs, knees and feet. With the help of high-tech tools such as force platforms, electromyography units, oxygen-uptake masks, heart-rate monitors and video analysis, Retter’s team began to analyse for the first time the unique demands placed on dancers’ bodies. The results amazed them. During a performance of The Nutcracker, the dancer who plays Clara must complete 196 bone-pounding jumps. Some male dancers land with 6,000 newtons of force – the equivalent of eight times their bodyweight. Now, thanks to the new scientific training methods, there has been a decline in dancers’ injuries and an improvement in their strength and fitness.

For centuries ballet dancers have suffered pain and injury to master their art. The Royal Ballet in London is now using cutting-edge science to fight back, and lift the dance form into the future

The changes at the Royal Ballet are part of a broader wave of dance science research in the UK overseen by the National Institute of Dance Medicine and Science. One of the institute’s founding partners, Professor Emma Redding of the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance, believes that science can change the culture of ballet. “We are already seeing radical changes in strength training but science could also influence how we teach new generations because we keep discovering surprising things about the way elite dancers jump and move,” she explains. “In the future, dancers might even question some choreography as they understand its impact on their bodies.”

Although some dancers fear that science might somehow dilute the purity of their artistic expression, the scientists insist it will only make them better dancers. “I use the analogy of a Formula 1 race car,” concludes Redding. “Science helps the car go faster but it also makes it safer, stronger and more durable. Can’t science also make dancers’ bodies stronger and healthier? And perhaps even get them to do things they haven’t done before? This is a new field and the possibilities are only starting to be understood.”

In recent years ballet has branched out to non-traditional venues such as London’s O2 Arena and the Philippines’ Philippine Arena, both designed by Populous.

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