Jennie Somogyi talks about her return to New York City Ballet
Principal dancer Jennie Somogyi talks about returning to New York City Ballet after tearing her Achilles tendon
Thu May 16 2013
Photograph: Paul Kolnik
Jennie Somogyi talks about her return to New York City Ballet after tearing her Achilles tendon during a performance of Christopher Wheeldon's Polyphonia. The principal dancer has only had two injuries in her career—but both have been whoppers. This season at New York City Ballet, she's back onstage at the David H. Koch Theater (at Lincoln Center).
Jennie Somogyi has only sustained two injuries in her career with New York City Ballet, but both have been whoppers. The first occurred in 2004 during a performance of George Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2: She tore a tendon in her left foot. It was serious; doctors weren’t sure if she would return to the stage at all. The second happened in January 2012. While performing Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia, Somogyi suddenly stopped, turned to her left and limped offstage. This time, it was the Achilles tendon in her right foot. “Both of my injuries, I have been told, are really rare in dancers,” she says with a wry laugh. “I’m forging my own path.” Somogyi, a musical, gloriously lush ballerina, is back, and we’re all the better for it. She spoke about her return to the stage.
Time Out New York: I was there when you were injured.
Jennie Somogyi: Oh, no. [Laughs] Sorry!
Time Out New York: Just before you went down in Polyphonia, I was thinking how beautiful and serene you looked. What happened?
Jennie Somogyi: I heard and felt it at the same time. I honestly thought that my partner had kicked me—that it was just a partnering snafu, and that his leg hit mine. That was the force that I felt: It was as if he kicked me. When I went to step into the next step, I couldn’t move. This was all happening in nanoseconds. I thought my leg was hooked behind me, and that I was somehow entangled in his leg, because I went to move and nothing happened. I kind of remember trying to move my hip out of the way, and when I did that I looked down, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw him. I was like, He’s too far away; I’m not connected to him. At that point, I started to go into shock. I lost my peripheral vision. I lost my hearing. I remember looking down at my leg and thinking, That’s my leg? Because I don’t feel it. I don’t really remember the walk off. But then I just kind of rolled in the wing. I knew it was bad. Dr. [Phillip] Bauman had been in the audience, so he came back and he told me what it was.
Time Out New York: He knew right away?
Jennie Somogyi: Yeah. [The tendon] rolled down my leg, so… [Laughs] Joaquín [De Luz] came over, and I think he thought I twisted my ankle or something. He had been warming up backstage. He was standing with ice on my leg, and I remember looking at him—I know him very well and we’re friends—and thinking, I’ve never seen this expression on his face before. I found out later that he saw [the tendon] roll down. When it snaps in half, it has to go somewhere, and I guess he had seen that happen to someone else before, so he knew what it was and didn’t want to tell me. Dr. Bauman came back and told me. I kept saying, “Are you sure. Because it doesn’t hurt!” But because it was snapped in half, there was no signal being sent anywhere; that’s why I was not in any pain.
Time Out New York: Do you have any idea why it happened?
Jennie Somogyi: I had an extra bone in that foot that I’ve had my whole life; it just sort of floated in there and didn’t really cause any problems. But the day before, it had moved. I felt like it was irritating my Achilles. I have never had any Achilles problems. I’ve never had tendinitis. I went to physical therapy that day and said, “I feel like I’m severing my Achilles.” I’m pretty sure that that’s what happened. Needless to say, when they fixed my Achilles, they took the bone out, too.
Time Out New York: Do you have it?
Jennie Somogyi: No! But I wanted to see it! They sent it away to the lab, so I did not get to see it.
Time Out New York: What a horrible question. What was I thinking? [Somogyi laughs.] How soon did you have surgery?
Jennie Somogyi: I had it two days later.
Time Out New York: Is it the same injury you had on your other foot?
Jennie Somogyi: No. It’s a different tendon. There are rumors that it was the same thing, I know. It’s a totally different tendon, different foot. The first was an overuse thing. It was bothering me and nobody was diagnosing it; it was a misdiagnosis. I took myself for MRIs and nobody caught it then. This was just random. I have great luck.
Time Out New York: Well, it’s so crazy, because you’re so strong.
Jennie Somogyi: It’s so funny, because I feel like people think I’m always injured. In 20 years, I’ve had two injuries. It’s just that when I got them, they were major.
Time Out New York: And dramatic.
Jennie Somogyi: Yes, they were both during a show. I think I’d rather get hurt that way. They say, “Go big or go home.” I went big, and I went home. But it would be more depressing if I had walked down a street and snapped my Achilles. At least I was doing something that warranted such a reaction. I’ve always been a nervous performer. Once I get going, I’m okay. It’s the getting me out there. [Laughs] Also, I think if I had a long-term injury, I would never opt to have surgery. That’s just not in my nature. I feel like maybe [my injuries] were supposed to happen this way, so they were fixed instead of dragging out for years. Some people have chronic issues.
Time Out New York: How are you now?
Jennie Somogyi: The interesting thing about the Achilles—well, nobody tells you when it first happens. I was really upset that night. Mostly because I had a three-year-old at home, and I was thinking, How in the world am I going to take care of a three-year-old without being able to walk? My whole life was upside-down. And thinking, Am I going to be able to come back from this? Was that my last show? But they kept saying to me that night, “This is going to be a piece of cake compared to what happened to you last time. This is going to be nothing.” And now that I talk to others—athletes or people that I know who have had this happen—it’s actually pretty amazing how far and how quickly I’ve come, because it seems that people never really regain their muscle tone in that leg. They always have one skinny leg. I have a little bit of that atrophy still, but not like some people that I’ve seen that are five, six years out of surgery. So I’m really happy with what I’ve accomplished in a short period of time. It’ll keep getting better. Obviously, I’m still, in a sense, compromised. It was a major injury.
Time Out New York: What does it restrict you from doing?
Jennie Somogyi: It’s sort of what I went through last time. I have to approach things differently. There’s not the same abandon when I’m trying something for the first time. It’s much more of a cautious process. On that side, when I’m on pointe, I feel a little Bambi. That’s normal. I just have to keep adding onto my schedule. But as far as steps, I feel good. It’s just a strength issue, because there was so much atrophy and muscle-tone loss. So I’m being optimistic that it will keep progressing.
Time Out New York: Is it new to be shaky? To have that Bambi feeling?
Jennie Somogyi: Yeah. I’m used to going for it and having to hold the rest of me back. I have to be smart. Do I want to take that risk right now after I just did all this work to come back? I’m just trying to be smart about things. It’s part of being a professional: knowing where to push and where not to.
Time Out New York: What was your rehabilitation like?
Jennie Somogyi: I was in a hard cast. Once I got out of that, in the beginning of March, I could start. I actually went to a place in Pennsylvania [where Somogyi lives] that had great equipment. They work with athletes. I wanted someone who was familiar with sports P.T. With my daughter, it was easier for me to go there. And I also needed to be driven around, because it was my right foot. [Laughs] The first few months I was a prisoner at home—it was really awful. I would have to get my mom to give me rides to physical therapy. It was so embarrassing. It took months to get back to walking. So I went from crutches to the boot to the one crutch and to the no crutch. I was ahead of the game. At one point, I was a month ahead of where I should have been, so I started to feel a little better about getting back here.
Time Out New York: Were you always thinking about that?
Jennie Somogyi: It was always in the back of my head: At what level am I going to come back? Is this silly? Am I being crazy thinking that this is going to happen? But I approached it the same way that I did with my last injury, which was: Goal No. 1 is to walk. Goal No. 2 is to do activities that normal people do. I tried to not think about dancing right off the bat; I wanted to keep building my confidence. When they were saying, “You’re doing really well,” and I was reading up on things, I was like, Okay. This is possible. I could attempt this. And then I started to shift gears: What do I need to do in my P.T. to get me to be able to dance? That was sort of fun, because the clinic had never dealt with dancers. It was a shared learning experience. I would explain to them what I needed to do. I would show a video of me dancing; I brought in a pointe shoe. I would explain to [my physical therapist] where I felt weak, and he would come up with something new that I would do to strengthen that area so that I could get on pointe. It was great, because I felt like I had a lot of input.
Time Out New York: Why did you want a sports therapist?
Jennie Somogyi: What we do is outside of the norm. I wanted someone to have some sense of the level that I need to function at. I didn’t need to just walk or to just run; I need to jump. I felt it had to be someone who dealt with athletes if I wanted to move along at the pace that I needed to. I may have gotten the same results not doing that, but I’m sure it would have taken longer. He was able to push me—when you get injured there is a part of you that’s not conscious, but you’re very protective. I’ve noticed that I don’t like to be in crowds. And I don’t have an aversion to being in crowds, but it was my body protecting itself because I was vulnerable. He would know when it was just me being overly cautious. It was a traumatic injury. When I first jumped, my hands were dripping in sweat. I was so paralyzed. I was so afraid to try it, and he was like, “You’re going to be fine.” I needed somebody to know when it was just me, what I was actually capable of doing as opposed to getting in my head. …
Time Out New York: Are you still working with him?
Jennie Somogyi: No. Once I was able to start rehearsals, I stopped my physical therapy. I was there for almost a year.
Time Out New York: How did you leave things with the company?
Jennie Somogyi: Everybody felt really bad. The timing was ugh. I was 34. I have a young child. You kind of have an idea of what you’re going to do—a schedule—and this was just a wrench in the plans. They pretty much just gave me my space. They called me about dancing Red Angels for [the touring company] New York City Ballet Moves. That became my goal. I was happy with [Red Angels] because it wasn’t something classical. I could play around with it. There’s not a right or wrong.
Time Out New York: What was your physical state when NYCB contacted you?
Jennie Somogyi: At that point, I was walking. It was in the fall, and I was just starting to be able to wear a high heel. But in the back of my mind, I thought, If I can’t do it, I can’t do it—let’s see what happens. Once I had that date in my head, that’s how I am. I have a goal, and I execute. I know what I need to do to get to that goal, so I think it was good that it wasn’t, “Whenever you feel better…”