The Boston Phoenix
July 17 - 24, 1997

[Dance Reviews]

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Rush to judgment

Was Boston Ballet responsible for the death of Heidi Guenther?

by Jeffrey Gantz

[Heidi Guenther] 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 principals.

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 dancers' health.

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 company culpable?

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 pounds."

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 voluptuous.

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 that policy.

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.

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