Iain Mackay as Albrecht is Giselle with the sort of leap that left him with a six month battle for fitness

THE first omen was the crack, sharp, menacing and loud enough to carry above the Royal Ballet Sinfona. The human body can protest quite theatrically when it is injured, and injured it was, with a deltoid ligament ripped from the bone.

For Birmingham Royal Ballet principal Iain Mackay this season had ended amid the festive cheer at Birmingham Hippodrome and now the healing and the gruelling slog for body and mind has strted to be fit for the next year's programme.

He said: “It was towards the end of the performance of The Nutcracker and I was dancing the role of the Prince. I went to take off for one of the final jumps and I heard a loud crack.

"I was right next to the edge of the stage so I just casually went into the wings. I instantly knew and said to the stage manager at that side of the stage: ‘I’ve broken my foot’ and she laughed and said: ‘Get back on stage you haven’t finished’ and I said: ‘No, I really have’.

“There was only five minutes left so the dancer who had been playing Drosselmeyer (Tyrone Singleton) took on the duties of the Prince for the last few minutes to the end.

“A lot of people who know the show obviously knew something that had happened. I spoke to a lady who is a friend of BRB who sits on the front row and she said that just after the loud crack my face showed something was not right. She said that the smile visibly dropped from my face as I left the stage and they knew something was not right but I don’t think most people had any idea..

Iain Mackay with an effortless lift as the Prince in BRB's The Nutcracker

“I jokingly said I had broken my foot because I was trying to take in what had happened. I wouldn’t say my foot was sore but it felt strange. Backstage I attempted the next step I would have to do and I hit the floor and I realised then that I had done something serious, I hobbled back to the dressing room on one leg, I couldn’t walk and it was pretty painful.”

How serious was soon to become apparent. The following day, a Saturday, Mackay had an x-ray an on Monday as examined by the specialist, James Calder, of Basingstoke Hospital, who has a patient list that includes Premiership footballers and rugby stars

“He said I had obviously torn some of the fibres of the deltoid ligament but it was very rare that it was ruptured entirely because it is so strong and I had quite a good strength in it still. He told me six weeks rest and sent me for an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging scan) just to confirm what he thought.

“He phoned me two hours later with the results of the MRI and said: ‘what jump were you doing because you have actually ripped the ligament from the bone?’. He was quite surprised and said and it needed quite a lot of force to do that. He was actually quite impressed.

“A lot of rugby guys get it in the scrum as they are putting so much force against other guys and have the added weight and force of other players. That was Monday and on Tuesday evening I had the operation.

“They put two screws in to hold the ligament back on to the bone from where it had been attached.”

The six weeks of rest had become six months or so of hard work. A generation ago such an injury would have ended his career, even a handful of years ago it would have been threatened it but advances in techniques and materials have given the 33 year-old dancer a bright prognosis which means he should only lose just a few months – which is still significant in the short career of ballet dancers,  

Isometrics to help build up the strength and flexibility of he damaged ankle.

 With his foot in a cast Mackay had to keep his leg up for two weeks while the bone healed and the screws settled in, followed by six weeks of no weight bearing, which nicely took Mackay over Christmas and Hogmanay (he is Scottish remember) with limited chance to exercise and a conscious battle to avoid weight gain.“It was a nightmare over Christmas. I wanted enjoy myself and to eat and drink lots but I was very aware that my healing was the most important thing. They say the first month is crucial so I was a good boy. The fitness is difficult because there is nothing you can do but after the first month, even with a cast on, I started exercises in the Jerwood Centre which is the dancers’ physio rehabilitation centre in the Hippodrome Theatre.

They are a great team and they adapt exercises to suit your needs. I had my leg in cushions to avoid any pressure on unwanted areas and that is how I started getting back.

“I would love to make it back by June, before the end of the BRB season. I am not sure if that is realistic but it is a goal I have set myself.  I am on the bike and I can swim and I am starting dance based rehabilitation but the problem with male dancers is what we are supposed to do with jumping and turning and the rotation of the ankle is something that is going to take me a long time to get back.

The surgeon told me six to eight months which would take me to August, in the holidays, which is why I would like to get back in June before the end of the season but it is also something where I have to be very aware that I can’t rush. I have to be careful so there are no repercussions.

“It is classed as a reconstruction, because it would not have healed without the screws. The problem is you lose mobility so I may not be able to dance how I danced before."

" Luckily the surgeon is excellent and has done quite a few dancers and he repaired it knowing how much range and movement I have to have in my ankle, which is a lot more than a football player or a rugby player..

Sitting down on the job: Iain Mackay goes through the daily routine to regain fitness

"I have to have a huge range for stretching my feet and the jumping we do. So when he repaired it he put my foot into a position we call a plie which is a bent supporting leg; he repaired it in that position, knowing what my leg was going to have to do.

“I reckon that probably ten years ago, maybe five years ago it would be career threatening but nowadays they are so advanced with what they do that there’s a good chance I will get back to full fitness. The surgeon seemed very happy with it and the way things have gone, so that is positive.”

It is that need for flexibility of foot in dance that means recovery is twice as long for a dancer as for a rugby player or footballer who can have ankles taped and protected, providing support and limiting movement and they can even be subbed at the first hint of a problem. For a dancer that is not an option.

So for Mackay life has become a monotonous routine from 9am to 1.30pm each day. “I drop my son off at school at ten to nine and then get quickly to the Jerwood centre. I have a programme of body conditioning exercises, Pilates, with Jenny (Mills - Rehabilitation and Performance Coach) the body conditioner. I do that for an hour and a half.

“Then I have dance based exercises so I go into the studio for a really easy ballet class, then half an hour on the bike, then squats to build up strength in my thighs to help my ankle, then if there is time I do upper body. So it is quite intense. But it is the best way to get focussed.”

Not that dancing is much easier as Mackay explained: “If I was dancing I would start with classes 10.30am for an hour and a half and then rehearse from 12 until 6.30 pm with an hour for lunch, and then if you are performing you are on stage till 10.30 at night.”

The healing scar of battle covering two screws holding the deltoid ligament to the bone

The difference is that dancing is what he, and the rest of the company enjoy, what they have trained for.

“When you are injured you have to be really strong mentally. That is one of the hardest things. It is something you don’t know how to deal with until it happens. I have been doing this for two months and last Friday I came in and I thought ‘I just can’t do this today’, the thought of going through it all for four and a half hours . . . and then you have to remember why you doing it. Remember you have to be strong.

“When you are working in the studio you don’t have that because you are doing what you enjoy doing, so it is a lot easier.”

And until he is doing what he enjoys again, Mackay can only hope all the hard work pays off.

Roger Clarke

Click here for a video about the Jerwood Centre

An accidental danseur

IAIN Mackay has been a ballet dancer for a quarter of a century, 15 years as a professional after joining BRB in 1999, but although he is one of the stars of the company, he is in many ways an accidental dancer, a passenger of fate.

Mackay was no Glaswegian Billy Elliot. Dance was not a burning desire. “My brother wanted to go, he really liked it, but he didn’t want to be the only boy in the class so I was roped in to keep him company. So that’s where it went from there. My brother is now in the company here as well so I am still keeping him company”

Brother Rory is a soloist with BRB and is two years older although you could have been forgiven for thinking Glaswegian years were equivalent to decades in Birmingham time  after his last appearance as the ancient, decrepit Emperor in The Prince of the Pagodas.

“I remember enjoying it from when I started, I don’t ever remember not wanting to go when I was young. I remember not wanting to go when I was 14 or15. When we had to go to things all day Saturday I remember saying I would rather be out with my mates playing football or out on the bicycle. That is when it got hard, from 13 to 16. At that age you want to just hang out, you discover girls and all that sort of stuff and ballet takes up so much time. You do sacrifice a lot from a young age, like anything you dedicate yourself to, football or tennis or whatever. That was hard. But I am glad I stuck at it. I have a great career.”

Could history be about to repeat itself though?

Mackay is married to former BRB ballerina Silvia Jimenez (pictured right)and the couple have a young son Oscar, four and a half, who has just had his first ballet class . . . and, for now at least, his last.

“He did ask and we took him to a dance class and he seemed to be really enjoying it, looking through the window, and he came out, his face all pink and sweating and we said did you enjoy it and he said: ‘Yeh, it was great, but I think you took me to the wrong class’. I said why is that and he said: ‘Because I was the only boy.’ And he won’t go back.

“My wife asked him a week later on Saturday morning do you want to go to your dance class and he said: ‘No. I’m not going. There are no boys.’ And he hasn’t got a younger brother yet to bully into going with him. So we will see.”

Anyone who is a regular at BRB cannot fail to be impressed by Mackay’s athleticism – and his prowess at lifts – a sort of company JCB.

Laughing, Mackay said: “David (Bintley - artistic director) always says if anyone can do the lift it will be Iain. I have a really strong back, from about the age of 21 I really got into going to the gym. When I first joined the company David said to me I really like you, you’re good you’re tall but you’re a bit skinny, can you maybe get some weight training.

“So they got me in to the physio and got me some weight training and I really liked it and I sort of got my strength and usually when David choreographs anything on me he starts with a lift on two hands then he’ll look at me and he’ll say: ‘You can do that with one hand, can’t you Iain? Have a go’. They use me for a lot of lifting.

Mackay would not be drawn on the dangerous question of whether his extraordinary ability might be challenged by having to lift certain members of the company. “Honestly? I have never had that. Half the girls are so small anyway they are really no trouble to deal with.”

A ligament ripped from the bone might have been seen as mere bagatelle against what could happen with one wrong word there!  

Feature index Home BRB Hippodrome