In 2007, I entered the stage as Romeo and I honestly thought that I was living the dream. I was on the Royal Opera House stage dancing alongside one of the world’s greatest ballerinas, Alina Cojocaru.
I had been in the company for two years at this point and I was trying to learn as much as I could that was physically possible. My work load suddenly multiplied and my body didn’t accept it. After performing a number of Principal roles relatively quickly, my Achilles’ tendon partially ruptured.
I was devastated of course! I was cast to dance more great roles that season and scheduled to work with some great choreographers, but all of this was taken away instantly as I was forced to step off stage for almost a year. January 2008 to December 2008 would be the period of time I had to be away from the stage.
A dancer’s initial reaction to injury is usually anger, frustration and sadness. We dedicate our lives to our profession so to have it taken away from you is not only physically debilitating but mentally too. I did not deal with the realisation of my injury very well at first. I was borderline depressed and didn’t quite know how to cope. However, when a surgeon said that I may not ever dance again unless I listened and did exactly as he prescribed, I quickly toughened up, switched my head into recovery mode and said to myself, this is a new challenge and it’s up to me to tackle it.
After a trip back to Australia to visit my family, I returned to London to embark on recovering, rehabilitating and returning to the stage with the aim of being better, stronger and smarter than I was a year earlier.
Being forced to step off stage gave me time to learn more about the profession. I watched so many performances, rehearsals, classes as well as taught a number of classes myself. This gave me a moment to genuinely slow down and take everything back to basics.
As I started my rehabilitation classes with my coach, Lesley Collier, I realised that I was being given a second start. A chance to come back stronger, with a newfound knowledge that would help prolong my career. Lesley was instrumental in getting me back onto the stage and I still work with Leslie today as my coach at the Royal Ballet. Key to any dancers’ development is learning to focus on what you can do to make yourself better. What someone else is doing might not be right for you.
A dancer strives for perfection on a daily basis. However, during my time off stage, it became evident to me that this perfection does not exist. Of course, I go into the studio each day with the aim of improving and pushing myself to be the best I can, but I now accept that there will always be something that I would like to do better. No performance is perfect but there are moments that I enjoy and cherish. It is these moments that I have learnt to focus on straight after a performance; the next day back in the studio is the time to work on what can be better.
In order to try to prevent or reduce the risk of injury, I try to maintain a healthy balance of work, rest and play. Recovery time is crucial, though allowing your body to repair is not always possible as dancers usually work 6 days a week. In this case, I try to plan what days I need to really push and focus on the more physically demanding work. Stepping off an aeroplane and going straight into a day of rehearsals, or even a performance, is not smart but sometimes necessary. In these circumstances, my knowledge of dealing with an injury and rehabilitation is instrumental in keeping me safe.
Now that my focus in life has shifted and is primarily aimed at my daughter, I have learnt also to become more efficient in the way I work in the studio. In order to continue to achieve what I would like to achieve, I now try to minimise the amount of time I am in the studio. However this time, in my opinion, is now more productive, proactive and positive.
Learning to trust myself was probably the greatest lesson I learnt whilst returning to the stage. We as dancers train our entire lives in order to step on stage and there has to come a point where we say to ourselves, ‘I have worked hard, I have prepared for this moment, now I will go out on stage and do my best at this very moment in time… The result will be different every time but I trust myself enough now to do the very best I can!’
Steven McRae, 2016
All photos of Steven are by Rick Guest taken from his new books The Language of the Soul and What Lies Beneath. More photos by Rick Guest can be seen here and his books can be ordered through his site.