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A ballerina's nightmare: 'Am I more than just a dancer?'
Tiler Peck, a New York City Ballet principal dancer, on stage at Lincoln Center in New York, Jan. 27, 2020. Peck, who suffered a debilitating neck injury, will perform in "Swan Lake" in February. Celeste Sloman/The New York Times.

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- One morning last spring, Tiler Peck woke up, but she wasn’t the same Tiler Peck. She didn’t recognize herself. She couldn’t.

“I was afraid to use my eyeballs to look because I was in so much pain,” she said.

On April 23 — she has been keeping a journal — she was diagnosed with a severe herniated disc in her neck. Doctors couldn’t pinpoint exactly how it happened. During the past five or six years, Peck, a New York City Ballet principal, had experienced a stiff neck from time to time, but this was different.

“It wasn’t like I danced and felt something,” she said. “I just woke up and I had so much pain down my right arm I couldn’t do anything. I’d never been in that much pain in my life.”

Just before City Ballet’s spring season, she had an MRI scan. She was packing her bag to go to the theater when her doctor called and asked her if she was sitting down.

“He said, ‘You have to promise me you won’t go into work today,’” Peck said. “I just could tell by the tone. I said, ‘I’m going to be able to dance again, right?’ And he said to me, ‘Well, we’re just going to take it one day at a time.’ It was one of the worst days of my life.”

Although she has performed in two dances at City Ballet since November, her return to the stage is still a cautious one. It has involved six doctors, five of whom advised surgery.

“They were all telling me different things,” she said, “but basically the scary thing was that they made me feel like if I was walking down the street and somebody were to nudge me, I could never walk again.”

Peck, 31, isn’t a fragile ballerina prone to injury. A member of City Ballet since 2005 and a principal since 2009, she is almost preternaturally self-assured, possessing an astounding technique that is made all the more radiant by her silken musicality.

Her injury, which prohibited her not just from dancing but from much ordinary movement, has made her reprioritize her life. “When you’re told that you might not dance or even walk, you start to think, Oh my God, what is there?” she said. “What am I? Who am I? Am I more than just a dancer?”

From April to August, the most exercise Peck had was riding on a stationary bike for 10 minutes without resistance. “For someone who’s so used to being physical?” she said. “I couldn’t even do life things.”

When she was first told that she needed to stop dancing, she called Marika Molnar, the physical therapist and director of Health and Wellness at City Ballet, whom she has worked with since she was 15.

“She went with me to every single doctor,” Peck said. “I needed someone to be on my side. She kept saying: ‘I know your body better than anyone. They don’t know. Your body just knows how to fix itself. They can’t feel that.’”

Peck said her gut kept telling her not to have surgery — one doctor, pushing for it, asked if Molnar would be responsible for Peck if she were to become paralyzed afterward.

Peck also worried that the surgeons she spoke to, who were opting for disc replacement or fusion, didn’t fully understand her profession; the use of épaulement, or the position of the shoulders, head and neck, is imperative to a ballet dancer. “They’d say, ‘Oh, it’s just one segment, so if you get a fusion, you won’t even notice that you don’t need that,’” she said. “But I’m not a football player. I need to be able to use my upper body.”

Finally, she met with Dr. Frank Cammisa, who specializes in the surgical treatment of spinal disorders. He told her that there was a good chance of her spine healing on its own. He advised taking off the summer — beyond not being able to dance, she didn’t really move her head for six months — before getting another MRI, which she did, in August. (She will have another in March.) It showed improvement. Peck could start moving again. She wasn’t taking pain medication so she could report all of her symptoms — the tingling and pain — to her physical therapists.

She and Molnar worked carefully but consistently, every day if not twice a day, focusing on movements that don’t put excess stress on the neck. “I like to take care of the environment of the body so that no matter where your injury is at least the rest of you is taken care of and it’s not just pinpointed to one specific area,” Molnar said. “So we slowly moved in until we were able to do some head and neck movements. She just started jumping.”

In November, Peck performed the Sugarplum Fairy in “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker”; in January, she was the female lead in “Allegro Brillante,” a fleet, virtuosic gem of a Balanchine ballet. It was a challenge, but it paid off. As she put it, “I was like, I’m really dancing.”

Molnar doesn’t want Peck near new choreography that could put her at risk; she is also enforcing two days of rest between performances. Peck may be dancing again, but these are still early days.

At the start of this month, Peck was preparing for her next challenge: “Swan Lake” and the dual part of the swan queen, Odette, and her evil doppelgänger, Odile. (She is scheduled to dance Wednesday and Feb. 22.) “I’m going to try 10 fouettés today,” she said at a recent rehearsal, referring to the whipping turns — traditionally, the ballerina performs 32 — that Odile performs in the ballroom scene.

Fouettés can be traumatizing for dancers, but until now they haven’t posed much of a challenge for Peck, always the most polished and vibrant of dancers. (She once told me that she considered the fouetté a rest step.)

Jonathan Stafford, City Ballet’s artistic director, was watching the rehearsal. Obviously, he knows her. “Let’s just keep it at 10 though,” he said. “Don’t get in there and be like, Oh I feel good.”

Peck performed a single fouetté followed by six doubles, in which she rotated twice around. With a shake of the head, she forced herself to stop, adding with a giggle, “I think it’s fine.”

Although she was cutting her fouettés short and skipping her jumps, there was something transformative about her dancing. Her neck looked longer. Her back had both a newfound delicacy and expansiveness that made her arms appear more willowy. And she even looked taller. “I have to have better posture all the time,” she said with delight.

Molnar has noticed the changes, too: “She’s a beautiful mover,” she said. “It was always kind of free flow and now I would say she looks so much more sophisticated. I don’t know what it is, but it’s just so elegant.”

Molnar may be the unofficial president of Peck’s recovery team, but she is not its only member. When she first received her diagnosis, Peck was treated by a chiropractor who put her in touch with a sports psychologist. A condition like Peck’s affects more than the body; when a visit to a doctor was upsetting, her symptoms — including tingling in the face — would flare up.

Now, she sees an energy healer, Rob Jokel, once a week. Before, she said, that would have been unthinkable: “If someone told me they went to an energy healer I’d probably be like: ‘What is that? That probably doesn’t work.’ But I was like, I’ll try anything, the weirder the better.”

She said that an important part of their sessions is just talking, which made her uncomfortable early on; he would become silent. “But it was his way to see what my energy did when I talked about things,” Peck said. “It could be a person I brought up. We didn’t just talk about the injury.”

For Peck, it meant dealing with life issues, including the 2017 breakup of her marriage with Robert Fairchild, a former City Ballet principal. “A lot of what he said to me was that I had to connect more with my heart than with my head,” she said of her sessions with Jokel. “I think, too, maybe with what happened with Robbie was that I had just kind of shut off and this was a way that I had to reawaken that part of me. It became this whole-person experience.”

During her time off, Peck focused on offstage projects like acting (she appeared in episodes of “Ray Donovan” as well as in “Tiny Pretty Things,” a forthcoming Netflix show). She worked on her dancewear collection for Body Wrappers and choreographed a refined, sculptural ballet for six at the Vail Dance Festival. She said choreographer William Forsythe told her: “This is the time when you really know if you can choreograph or not — it’s when you can’t dance. Just use it.”

She also wrote a children’s book, “Katarina Ballerina,” with her friend Kyle Harris that will come out in May. And she wants to write another book about the experiences surrounding her injury. “It can be such a lonely road,” she said. “It’s so hard to describe a weird tingling feeling in your finger without somebody being like, ‘Oh that’s just your imagination.’”

Above all, she was left with an important question: When dance is taken away, what’s left? Her injury has taught her that she needs to be more open — less calculated and more spontaneous in both her dancing and her life. In rehearsals, those qualities were apparent as she worked on “Swan Lake.” This will be her second time performing the ballet with the company, but just as important as the first. That time, she learned she had the part a week after she and Fairchild had separated.

Then, as is now, it was fitting: “Swan Lake” requires a ballerina to be vulnerable. “I felt like I was able to bring so much of that to my white swan and now to be able to bring this to my white swan?” she said. “It keeps coming up at the most perfect times. It’s just kind of weird.”

But right about now everything is a little weird to Peck, who has worked hard to heal, she said, “her mind, her body and her heart.”

For much of her recovery, she kept quiet about her injury and distanced herself from City Ballet and the dance world. “What I came to realize is dance is just one part of who I am,” she said. “I just needed the time to focus on me. I really think that’s what’s healed me in the end.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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