Lessons in resilience

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Dance films, dance series, dance docos. These are all addictive nectar to any hungry dance fan. We can't get enough of stories, real or imagined, about our beloved passion. The journeys of dancers, their triumphs and especially their near career-ending moments are compelling. And we all long for the happy ending where the hero or heroine triumphs over adversity to return to the stage, even more glorious than ever. We want our ballet stories to follow the formula of a ballet libretto – Act 1: happy and carefree with a dark shadow appearing at the end. Act 2: turmoil and drama. Act 3: A triumph and resolution. But, sometimes it is heart-aching defeat.

Royal Ballet Principle and ballet royalty, Steven McRae, is living out his own story; of triumph, extraordinary talent and attack, a dazzling career, a beautiful family and a series of injuries that have stalled, though not ended, his career. Most importantly, McRae wants control over the trajectory of his story.

©Stephane Carrel - Flair production
©Stephane Carrel - Flair production

With a film, A Resilient Man, about to be released documenting his recovery from a snapped Achilles tendon, I spoke to McRae about the film, injury and recovery, life and what he wants to pass on to the next generation of dancers. 

McRae and film director Stephane Carrel had talked about working together but had not firmed up a project until a career-changing incident in 2019 provided an unfortunate "angle". As McRae describes in the film, during a performance of Manon, McRae felt his Achilles tendon snapping and found himself “screaming in pain” in front of the Royal Opera House audience. Apart from anything, as he tells his wife in one of the film's gentler moments, the incident left him feeling “humiliated”. When he is later forced to cancel some of his return performances, after a relapse in his Achilles pain, he expresses feeling “embarrassed”. This and other vulnerable moments in the film are insights into the complex emotions experienced by an artist whose instrument is suddenly and profoundly compromised.

McRae says that making the documentary was an opportunity to showcase how well the Royal Ballet supports its dancers. He is grateful for the positivity and belief of Royal Ballet Director Kevin O’Hare. “It was him who flipped the switch in my head, saying ‘you will get back onto this stage' – and he said that 20 minutes after it happened.”

When the film was being made, neither he nor the filmmaker knew how it would end: would he recover? He took a leap of faith and trusted Carrel even when he didn’t like the way his body looked in some camera angles. McRae tells me that it is important for young dancers to see that everyone has flaws. Interestingly, McRae’s response on seeing the first edit of the film was that it was “too vanilla icecream”, adding “there’s no point showing the shiny version of something".

©Stephane Carrel- Flair production
©Stephane Carrel- Flair production

I was especially impressed by the portrayal of McRae’s dogged approach to rehab throughout the film; session after session, after session. When it came to returning to class and repertoire, the meticulous coaching of Leanne Benjamin (newly appointed Artistic Director of Queensland Ballet), and later, Lesley Collier (long time RB coach), are masterclasses in both precision and nurturing of the dancer.

It’s not over until it’s over

Since making A Resilient Man, McRae has suffered yet more injuries, in particular a full knee ACL reconstruction (meniscus and lateral ligament included). “You have to learn the art of patience and time is the greatest tool to help aid recovery,” he tells me. He reflects that "far too many people are still returning to dance too soon after serious injury".

Changing the culture of dance

McRae sees the documentation of his own slow rehabilitation from both injuries as a way of finding better ways of recovering, while sending a message to the next generation about taking control over their own bodies and injuries. “We obviously have to make big changes in the culture of our industry, but until those changes happen, we need to take back the power,” he declares. In the past “the injury would dictate what was going on with your career and what your career longevity was. Now we have the tools to come back from virtually any injury. It’s not easy of course, but I feel that it’s the most powerful message that I want to convey to the next generation.”

McRae speaks passionately and in detail about elite dance training and how it could be done better to give the next generation the “enjoyable long career they deserve”. For these insights (and what it’s like to be a "mad tapper") you will have to wait for the July/August/Septemner edition of Dance Australia. Meanwhile, go and see A Resilient Man, make it a talking point among your dance peers, parents, teachers and coaches. And treat your body with the respect it deserves.


The release date for 'A Resilient Man' had not been announced at the time of going to press. The BBC has renamed the film 'Dancing into the Light'.

©Stephane Carrel - Flair production
©Stephane Carrel - Flair production
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