Rush to judgment
Was Boston Ballet responsible for the death of Heidi Guenther?
by Jeffrey Gantz
I must have seen Heidi Guenther perform with Boston Ballet on a number of
occasions. I wish I could say I remember her. That's often the lot of ballet
dancers who are corps members: even the critics scarcely notice you. It's why
those dancers are so eager to graduate from the corps and become soloists and
Back on June 30, while spending the summer with her mother, Patti Harrington,
in San Francisco, Guenther collapsed and died. The company is in shock; it's
also under a microscope. The Boston Globe ran a front-page story last
Thursday with the headlines "A dancer's death raises questions," "Boston Ballet
had told woman to lose weight," and "Dancer, told to lose weight, dies
unexpectedly." The first paragraph stated, "A 22-year-old Boston Ballet dancer
who had developed an eating disorder after the ballet told her to lose weight
died unexpectedly last week while home on summer break."
At a packed press conference Thursday afternoon -- called hastily, and
obviously in response to the Globe story -- Boston Ballet
representatives stated that the company had most recently told Heidi Guenther
not to lose weight, and that they had no idea she might have had an
eating disorder. Friday morning the company's director emeritus, Bruce Marks,
appeared on The Today Show. The Globe ran more front-page stories
Friday and Saturday ("Ballet defends weight policies"), acknowledging that
company staff members had worried Guenther was too thin but also asserting that
"while the ballet company says it is concerned about a number of dancers who
are too thin, it has never directed any to seek help." The Herald
chipped in with "Pressures, priorities and a dancer's death" and "Slender is
dancers' watchword." Just back from Europe, the company's new artistic
director, Anna-Marie Holmes, replied to the Globe that "I took as much
care as I could have. But I couldn't force her to get help. There's only so
much you can go into someone's personal life."
Ballet in general, and Boston Ballet in particular, is likely to be under a
dark cloud for some time to come. For many companies, a woman can't be too
light or too thin: just a few weeks ago, former dancer Lea Thompson
(Caroline in the City) told TV Guide how American Ballet Theatre
had advised her that at 5'5" and 96 pounds she was "too stocky" to be
considered for ABT. Questions are now being asked about what ballet companies
demand of their female members, and what steps they take to protect their
Over the past week, Boston Ballet has had to defend itself against the
implication that it was responsible for Heidi Guenther's death? Is the
Two things are essential to understand. First, we do not know why Heidi
Guenther died. A story in Monday's USA Today reminded us that every year
some 6000 to 8000 young people die of unexplained heart failure. This past
Tuesday, the Herald reported a history of heart ailments in Guenther's
family; her father, Richard Guenther, revealed that her grandfather died of a
heart attack at the age of 37, her grandmother survived a heart attack, and an
aunt in her mid 40s suffered a heart attack last year. According to the
Globe, Guenther "had complained in recent weeks that her heart felt like
it was racing, that she could feel it pounding heavily in her chest." It's
possible that this death had nothing do to with any eating disorder.
Second, it's not certain that Guenther actually suffered from an eating
disorder. The company has discovered that earlier this year she told friends
she believed she had some kind of eating problem. But current principal Kyra
Strasberg stresses that Guenther was full of energy and showed none of the
common signs of eating disorders. And during the weeks Guenther spent at home
this summer, her mother told the Globe she saw no sign of a problem.
Yet she was extremely thin -- at the time of her death the 5'3" dancer
is estimated to have weighed just 100 pounds. Did Boston Ballet order
her to lose weight? According to company balletmistress Dierdre Myles, back
when Guenther was 18, she, "like many girls that age," began to gain weight.
Two years ago (not last year, as initially reported in the Globe), at
the end of the season, Guenther was told she should lose about five pounds.
When she returned to Boston Ballet, at the end of the summer, she was, Myles
recalls, "just right." And what weight was just right? Myles estimates, "110
There is, of course, no standard for what a dancer should weigh. Some 5'3"
ballerinas would be just right, or even underweight, at 115 pounds. But
Guenther was not a muscular individual. Given that the 5'4" track star Jackie
Joyner competed at 115 pounds, it makes sense that Guenther's optimum dancing
weight might have been 110, not 115 or 120.
Last September, at a start-of-the-season weigh-in, Guenther was found to have
lost six pounds. In her January review this year it was noted, "Be careful not
to get too thin. Please do not lose any more weight. We are concerned and hope
you are eating well." Thereafter Devon Carney (former BB principal and current
summer-dance-program director) and other staff members expressed concern;
Carney recalls saying something like "Hey, you're looking pretty thin there,
Heidi." According to the company, she replied that everything was okay. Myles
concludes, "We had no proof that she had an eating disorder. We had to believe
what she told us."
At last Thursday's press conference, Bruce Marks was at pains to point out
that under his directorship Boston Ballet never insisted on the tall and lean
Balanchine look. Indeed, the company's leading ballerina during Marks's 11-year
tenure, Trinidad Sevillano, was short and stocky (and superb). Of the current
principals and soloists, Larissa Ponomarenko is naturally quite thin; the rest
-- Kyra Strasberg, Adriana Suárez, Jennifer Gelfand, Pollyana Ribeiro,
Emily Gresh, Jennifer Glaze, Nadia Thompson -- are various heights and all
attractively feminine. It's been speculated that the Russian-trained Holmes
will be less open-minded about different body types; Strasberg's answer to that
is to remind us that as a dancer Holmes herself had "lovely muscles, not
sticks," for legs. Among the women the company seems to be priming, Glaze looks
like a normal healthy young lady; April Ball is, for a ballerina, downright
In other words, Boston Ballet has plenty of role models who aren't skinny. And
there's no evidence the company wanted Heidi Guenther to dance at 100 pounds.
What prompted Guenther to lose so much weight is the question the company now
needs to consider -- that and its position that "we had to believe what she
told us" and "there's only so much you can go into someone's personal life."
Eating disorders, like alcoholism, or spouse abuse, often entail denial; we've
heard it from PGA golfer John Daly, and we're hearing it now from Red Sox
outfielder Wilfredo Cordero. On the tightrope every dance company walks between
respecting its dancers' privacy and protecting their health, Boston Ballet
edged toward the side of privacy. In light of the possibility that excessive
weight loss contributed to Guenther's death, the company might want to review
It might also ask whether simply telling a dancer to lose -- or gain --
weight and having a dietician available is practicable. Dancers are athletes as
well as artists, and athletes have to know how to eat -- not just how much, but
what. For marathon runners it's a virtual science. Few dancers are food
experts; as Myles acknowledges, you don't have to have an eating disorder to
suffer from disordered eating. Ballet companies need to do more than say, "We
hope you are eating well." They need to say how.
Finally, Boston Ballet might rededicate itself to appreciating its corps. I
find it sad that the only photo the company has of Heidi Guenther is a blurry
shot of her as a Flower in this past season's The Nutcracker. The
foundation of any ballet company is not the artistic director, or the trustees,
or the principals and soloists; it's the corps. Boston Ballet has one of the
finest corps in America. With so many talented dancers seeking promotion, you
can understand why a Heidi Guenther would be reluctant to acknowledge an eating
disorder, or a family history of heart trouble. A ballet company can't do away
with competition, but it can try to create an understanding atmosphere, where
the corps members are valued just for being corps members, where they don't
feel they have to be perfect to earn promotion.
Ballet can also do its part by fostering choreography where a man doesn't have
to lift a woman or throw her around all the time to prove he's a man. Male
dancers shouldn't have to be built like Popeye. Women shouldn't have to be as
thin as Olive Oyl. Two people can look great just dancing together. The same
goes for pair figure skating (which might observe how popular no-lift ice
dancing has become). Women's gymnastics needs to develop events that measure
talent rather than rewarding Tinker Bell-sized girls.
It's easy to be wise after the fact. And we can all do better. What matters
now, in memory of Heidi Guenther, is to do it.