The dancer’s road back from injury is often fraught with frustration and uncertainty. Ballet dancers immerse themselves so fully in their art that any halt of this pursuit often comes as a rude awakening that extracts as much mentally as it does physically from them. “Will I be able to come back?” “Will I have lost everything?” “Will I be able to regain it?” “WILL I BE ABLE TO COME BACK?”
But when an ACL injury hit longtime American Ballet Theater corps member Lauren Post, in the spring of 2016, she chose not to remain in quiet solace. Instead she took to social media, sharing pictures and words of her journey from surgery to scars to the arduous process of rehabilitation. Each post celebrated the small victories of her recovery: being able to sit in a butterfly stretch, her return to the barre, the exercises she did to recover – with her dog Pickles a frequent guest star. They were informative and inspiring, and when Lauren announced that she would be back onstage for the ABT’s 2017 spring season, you couldn’t help but cheer.
Shortly before the spring season started, we had a chat with Lauren about her journey as a dancer, her injury and return to the stage and – of course – Pickles.
C&V SESSIONS WITH LAUREN POST
What did you have for breakfast?
I had chocolate Cheerios with milk and peanut butter this morning, which is a pretty interesting combination. It is basically much dessert!
What was your dance journey when you were younger and how did your training lead you to become a professional dancer?
I’m from a very small town in Mississippi where there is not much ballet – there are no professional ballet companies in Mississippi! My mother who danced when she was growing up knew that if I wanted to pursue a career in ballet, I would have to go elsewhere. She was very supportive. My sister and I both danced and we were very serious.
As we got older, we did summer programmes and it was clear that we needed to go away for the year to get proper training. We both ended up at the Harid Conservatory. We went there because we knew it was a great school, and it was tuition-free. For two daughters, it was the most affordable option.
We went together when I was 13, and she was 15. That very first summer was when I first met [ABT principal dancer] Isabella Boylston. We were roommates – we hit off really well! The training was excellent and it was extremely strict. It was a Russian school and had Russian base training. Boys and girls were in separate wings of the dormitories, alarms were on our doors at night if we stepped out. It was really intense.
Bella and I used to hide in each other’s wardrobe at night! We would stuff our beds and I would sneak into her wardrobe and hide in her closet, and we would have a sleepover – it was totally illegal. We were rebels! It was really fun despite all the rules and it was a great place to be. If I hadn’t gotten into Harid, I definitely wouldn’t get to be in ABT; I needed that training.
It can be hard for young people to stay motivated in a strict environment. How did you stay committed?
We definitely went through some tough times, but I never felt like I lost my motivation. I always wanted to be there, even when it was really hard and I had a bad day, or I was crying. I never stopped having the drive to be there and get better. Having my sisters and my friends was really important. We were all so close, it really was like a family. We had a lot of fun together outside of the studio.
After you graduated from Harid, you danced with Atlanta Ballet and Ballet Internationale. How did these experiences shape you as a dancer?
Well, my journey was a little weird. In my final year in Harid, I had a stress fracture in my foot. I missed the whole audition season because I was in a cast. I didn’t know what to do. Luckily, my sister was dancing in Ballet Internationale in Indianapolis, and they knew me because I has taken classes with them while visiting my sister.
Even though I was in a cast, they told me I could come and be an apprentice once I recovered.
So that was my first job: but the company folded a couple of months later, hence I didn’t really get a feel of what it was like to be in a company. I didn’t even get to perform with them.
I went to auditions and got offers from Houston Ballet and Atlanta Ballet. I ended up going to Atlanta Ballet for a year and a half in their second company. I was 17 at that point, and my boyfriend at that time had a connection with ABT. We ended up flying over to New York for a weekend to audition for ABT, that’s how I got the job. It was a very weird series of events that I never predicted to happen, but I’m glad things turned out this way!
Is ABT a dream company for you?
Yes. At Harid, Bella and I would always watched tapes of ABT and videos of their principals, it was definitely a dream company. Before I left Harid, I auditioned for the ABT studio company because Bella was already in the studio company – she was a little bit older than me and had finished at Harid. They were a little wishy-washy with me, so at that point, I thought that this wasn’t going to work out and I moved on. When I finally got the contract, I was shocked and so happy. I was 19 years old – and now I’ve been in the company for ten years.
With so much experience as a corps dancer in one of the best ballet companies, can you share what are some invaluable traits for those in the corps?
A lot of it is being a quick learner, and being able to retain a choreography, stuff you wouldn’t normally think about in class – knowing how to stay in line, how to feel other dancers and adjust to their movements in order to be a unit, having the energy that connect with other dancers around you is very important.
Was it easy to adjust from ballet school to professional life?
I think it was good that I had Atlanta Ballet before ABT because it helped to ease me in. The schedule in ABT is insane: we rehearse from 10am to 7pm, 5 days a week. When we are performing, it is from 10am to 5pm and a dinner break then a show. In the corps de ballet you dance every night, usually in eight shows a week. It seems like there are never enough rehearsals in ABT and it is always frantic. If I didn’t have the experience with Atlanta Ballet, dancing onstage in the corps there, I would have been really overwhelmed.
Was it ever a struggle for you financially when you were younger and starting out – given that you don’t get paid during off-seasons or breaks and have to pay for your own training during the time?
I always had a roommate because I couldn’t afford rent on my own. You have to be really good at budgeting and saving your money when you are working and try to get as much of other jobs as possible, like babysitting. ABT offers free classes one week before we come back for from a layoff. The rest of the summer, we will have to be paying for our own classes outside. But we have to take class to say in shape and keep up the momentum.
Sometimes company dancers will offer to teach a class to us for free, which is really nice of them. And we get to do those classes in at the ABT studios when it is available. However, during the ABT summer programmes, we can’t use them since it is full of children.
ABT’s season is relatively short compared to other companies. How do you keep in shape during the off-seasons?
We have a lot of off-time, so I try to do outside gigs or projects while I’m off so that I’m still dancing. Even if you are still doing class every day, it’s never really the same as performing and rehearsals. So I’ll try to perform outside as much as I can while I’m off.
I also do a lot of cross-training with a personal trainer, which I never did before my injury – so this is like a whole new world for me! I do Pilates, gym stuff, cardio, running. It is pretty full-on. It is surprising how I feel like I was busier than before I came back for rehearsals, just from all the maintenance I have to do.
What was the injury that sidelined you and how long were you off for?
I tore my ACL on my left knee while I was on stage at the Met performing in Sylvia. It happened really suddenly, and once I realised I couldn’t keep dancing, I just crawled a the piece of scenery and waited until the scene was over so I could be taken offstage. It was a very surreal moment, and I was in shock for a while. It is one of those things you never think will happen to you! But it happened; getting injured is part of the job. I had knee surgery and they had to construct a whole new ACL from part of my hamstring muscle tendon. It was a pretty intense surgery and recovery.
I went back to work 9 months post-op. I was doing a lot during those nine months. It took me a long time just to be able to bend my knee, and walk without crutches. I started doing baby barre around 5-6 months after the operation. I realised how much we take for granted when we are healthy. When you have an injury like this, you go back to square one. At first, I couldn’t can’t even do a plie or a tendu, it was so hard, and the idea of jumping or turning was unfathomable.
Did you have the confidence that you’ll be able to come back again or was there the fear that you would potentially have to stop dancing again?
I had that fear, although my surgeon was very confident that I would recover because ACL injuries are very common. There were moments where I doubted if I would be able to dance again but everyone around me were very supportive and helped me stay positive.
I think that everybody who has an injury like this has these doubts, and sometimes it is hard to imagine that you’ll ever be able to do it. But somehow, you do! Reminding myself of that was important.
I grappled with fears of not being able to dance again because ballet is a large part of my identity. Luckily, I had my husband, who is so supportive of me and always there. One of my best friends, [ABT corps member] Isadora Loyola had a really bad knee injury before I got mine and was going through rehab the same time as me, which was such a blessing. We helped each other through some of those bumps in the road and kept each other sane! I also had a really good PT team. So I felt that I had all these people that kept me positive and on track. I could tell them my concerns and they had an answer.
I reminded myself that millions of people went through what I was going through, and I had to just tell myself that if they could do it, I could too. I think the mind is really powerful and if you can convince yourself of something, your body just follows.
Did it give you any time to explore other aspects of yourself or your interests outside of ballet?
I had a little bit of time during rehab. The first couple of month after surgery was when progress was the slowest. I spent a lot of time travelling and spending time with my family.
Gemma Bond, a dancer and choreographer, hired me to be her rehearsal assistant when she created a new ballet for Atlanta Ballet, so that was a new thing I’ve never done. I helped her run rehearsals and choreograph and I kind of took on the role of a ballet mistress – that was interesting! I also learnt to crochet. I didn’t do anything ground breaking, but it was nice.
Did you try making anything for your dog? Like a sweater, or something cute?
I haven’t tried a dog’s sweater yet, but my niece has gotten a lot of stuffed animals, I’m good at those!
How did you find your therapy team?
I used a physical therapist that some my friends had used -the group is called PhysioArts and people raved about them. At ABT, we have on-site PT and they are great, but they are working with 90 dancers and are extremely busy. I felt I needed some one-on-one time, so I went to PhysioArts.
They were incredible and I don’t think I would have been able to recover as quickly if I hadn’t been seeing them. I’m so thankful for everybody there.
What did you do to prepare yourself physically to go back on stage?
We started out really slow. In the beginning, I was just trying to bend my knee – it took me weeks to work up to be able to bend my knee to a 90-degree angle after my surgery. I had to learning how to walk again – at first walking with a straight leg and then slowly bending it. I couldn’t really do much in the gym for a while, so I spent a lot of time in the pool. I swam even before I could kick: I would float my legs and just swim with my upper body. Slowly, until I could swim like a real person. Then there was a lot of stuff that was done in the gym before I could go back to the studio, like bicycling and elliptical.
Once I started in the studio, it was a balance of little barre movements, then slowly ramping up and working to centre and eventually jumping. And then working on doing all of that on pointe!
Was it a lonely process?
It would have been a lot lonelier if not for Isadora, my rehab buddy. We were almost going through the same process at the same time, and we could do a lot of things together.
How was it like when you came back when you finally stepped back into company classes and rehearsals? Did your body feel the same or was it different?
My body felt different and my knee still feels different from my other knee. I’m not sure my two knees will ever feel equal, but I definitely feel stronger in certain areas where I wasn’t before. In other areas, I’m still working to get back to where I was.
Sometimes I feel we are so hard on ourselves. I don’t feel like I’m back at 100% again and I’m sure that will take time, but I’ve had some friends tell me that I’m dancing stronger than before, and that is really nice to hear! But there is still a lot of work to be done.
At the same time, it’s also getting more comfortable. When I first started going back to work which was just rehearsals, grand allegro felt crazy – it did not feel comfortable at all! Grand Allegro is hard on the body, but now it feels so much better. It’s good to notice those little incremental changes and know you are going in the right direction. You have to celebrate those small victories.
Have you gained more knowledge on how to take care of your body? You mentioned that you changed your physical routine now.
Absolutely! I didn’t do anything before my injury, in terms of cross training. Now, I do pilates every week; I work with a personal trainer; I do strengthening exercises everyday, even if it’s just for twenty minutes. I also try to do cardio on top of that. Those are things that I never did before. It feels like a whole new schedule and whole new way of working.
How do you find the energy to do all that on top of your rehearsals for your season?
I don’t do cardio everyday, because that would be too much. If I have a lighter work day, I’ll try to fit it in. My trainer also helps to keep me motivated. I once complained to him that I didn’t have enough time to do it all, and he told me to wake up earlier!
What is recovery like for you, in terms of your rest?
I always take at least one day in a week off, which is usually Sunday. I don’t do any physical activity that day. I’ll sleep in, hang out with my husband, friends, and dog.
Do you use any tools to help your body recover?
I should roll more, but it is not fun!
I feel you on that one!
It is just painful, and annoying. But I know I should do it more, I’m trying to work on that.
I take a magnesium drink that I’m obsessed with, which is really good for your muscles. It’s called Natural Calm, and I swear by it. That’s about it. And I try to get massages. Massages are key, both deep tissue ones and relaxing ones.
What are you doing now to keep yourself healthy, both body and mind, while you are preparing for the big season?
I’m just doing what I have been doing, the same regimen. I’ll have to adjust my schedule a little because there will be much more dancing once the Met season starts. I’m going to have to try not to drink too much wine because I feel like that helps! And also try to get enough sleep.
Most importantly, I’ll have to listen to my body. When you ramp up your regimen, it is when you want to push. But during the season, you have to listen to your body and know when to back off and rest. It is the long game – the season is 2 months, so you have to pace yourself.
How do you do that – pace yourself when you have PT and rehearsals, and have to deal with tiredness and soreness?
It is hard but I feel like you have to just do it. My trainer is pretty good in knowing when you are at your breaking point and not pushing you past it. He was a former dancer as well so it helps. You just do it and when you are not performing, that is the time when you can push a little more. When you are performing, that’s when you have to back off a little.
Tell me! Who was responsible for the cross training movement that seems to be is going on in ABT right now?
I don’t know who started it, and it was just a random thing that happened, which is really cool! Once people start seeing each other training in the gym, they will want to join in too.
With the upcoming season, what are you involved in? Is there anything exciting that you are looking forward to in particular?
I think I’m doing Odalisque from Le Corsaire this year. I was supposed to do it last year, but I got injured. We’ve been rehearsing and I’m hoping I’ll get to debut that this year. I’m also doing Whipped Cream, Ratmansky’s new ballet – I’m one of the Tea Flowers and I’ll be supporting the principal woman and a lot of cool partner work, so that should be fun. Mozartiana, a Balanchine ballet, which will comes at the end of the season. It was one of Balanchine’s last Ballet that he made before he died in the 80s. It is really nice.
I have mixed feelings about Le Corsaire, but I’m excited to do it. Maybe because we’ve just done it too much, some times it feels silly to me. I mean it is silly, but it can be fun too.
You’ve also had a had in creating roles. What was the process like of creating the Silver Fairy in the Sleeping Beauty, and adapting it to an older style of ballet ?
It was really hard at first. Ratmansky wanted all the legs low, the attitudes short, and B-plus where our feet where in demi-pointe instead of the regular pointed foot in the back. There were a lot of strange little nuances that took a while to get into our bodies. We all complained about it a lot but in the end, I think it looked really great.
It is funny because after going through that process, we would start doing these things in rehearsals for other ballets. He was really good at shaping us into that style. I heard some critiques, and I know some people didn’t like it. But I thought the whole thing together brought everyone back to another time and it was really moving.
When I was creating the role of the Silver Fairy with Ratmansky, it was so an incredible, exhausting experience. But it was very rewarding in the end. Ratmansky is extremely demanding, but at the same time he’s so pleasant and kind. He doesn’t even know that he is killing you inside because he says it with a smile! He is a joy to be around.
How are you enjoying being one of the Tea Flowers in Whipped Cream, his newest creation?
That’s a little different. I missed the whole choreographic process because I was out with my injury. I feel a little overwhelmed and I’m trying to get all the details at the last minute. He is still just as demanding as he was before, but the ballet is awesome.
If you have the chance to see it, I think you should because it is really a fun one. It is beautiful. There is so much dancing. Visually, it is stunning, but there is also some hardcore ballet happening, so it is a really good mix of everything.
The Tea Flowers get really pretty tutus, but the some of the guys are dancing around with huge cookies on their head!
Before we end, we have to talk about your dog, Pickles.
She is a Shih Tzu mix, and 7 years old this year. She has a really big personality and a mind of her own. She’s not like your typical small cutesy dog – she’s very strong willed, discerning and smart. She loves the ballet. She sits in the front of the studio and watches all the movement happening. When there is a dramatic scene, she is totally into it, she understands. I think she is kind of like a tomboy – she definitely knows what she wants and knows how to get it!
We can bring our dogs to the studios and there are so many dogs now. When they were still puppies, there were some accidents. But they’re are all very well behaved now that they are grown up. There are no messes and everyone gets along. During our 5 minutes breaks, all the dogs wrestle in the middle of the studio. ABT loves animals!
I remember when Pickles was still a puppy, she was following me down the hallway and she just bolted into the studio where Kevin McKenzie, the director, was rehearsing a variation with Paloma Herrera . Pickles ran into the studio, and I was horrified because I was relatively new to the company, and Pickles had totally disrupted their rehearsal.
But Kevin just picked her up and cuddled her. They were not upset at all! I thought wow, that is not how most of artistic directors would react.
And finally, how would you like to be remembered as a dancer?
I’ve always looked up to dancers like Julie Kent, who is more of a lyrical dancer, and so full of emotion. That is something I aspire to be.
In terms of personality, I hope to be remembered as someone who is very dedicated, focused and grateful. I think it is easy in the corps de ballet to lose that, and become slightly bitter, or feel like you could be doing something better. But it is important to remember how amazing our job is, which company we are dancing for and how luck we are to get to do what we do everyday. It’s important to maintain that sense of pride, respect and gratefulness for the art form.
Black swan or white swan?
What is your preferred pointe shoe brand?
What’s that you find particularly helpful or useful for ballet.
If you could dance a male role in any ballet, which role would it be and which female would partner you?
I think it would be really fun to be Espada from Don Quixote, and my partner would have to be Isabella!
If you were challenged to a dance off, name 3 people who would be in your dance crew and why.
James Whiteside, he has amazing moves. So does Jeffrey Cirio. And Gemma Bond because she is just really funny when she dances, and she would choreograph something killer for us.
What is your favorite pizza topping?
Who would play you in a movie about your life?
I really like Carey Mulligan with her little bob hair.
Header image originally by Dylan Coulter