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Twists and Turns: Kiyon Gaines’s Road to Recovery

Written by Steve Ha

Choreographer Kiyon Gaines (right) rehearses a section of his ballet, Sum Stravinsky,
with Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Laura Gilbreath and principal dancer Seth Orza. 
Sum Stravinsky will have its world premiere November 2-11, 2012.  Photo © Lindsay Thomas.
Just days away from debuting a new work as a part of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s daredevil ‘All Premiere’ program, soloist and choreographer Kiyon Gaines is a satisfying blend of nerves and excitement. It’s difficult to imagine that the effervescent and grinning Gaines was sidelined with a devastating knee injury last season, a ruptured patellar tendon that required surgery and a minimum 7-month hiatus to heal. The physicality of dance makes obvious the catastrophic impacts of a severe injury; sometimes dancers avoid the topic altogether over feelings of inadequacy but Gaines’s remarkable optimism is proof that he has overcome adversity and it offers inspiring insights into the healing process, physically and especially mentally, as the psychological rehabilitation proved to be the more grueling of the two.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Batkhurel Bold
and Lesley Rausch rehearse a section of
Kiyon Gaines’ 
Sum Stravinsky,
 Photo © Lindsay Thomas.

Gaines had never had a knee injury prior to last year, so the ruptured tendon was immediately terrifying, and the recovery a rollercoaster of emotions. There were days of panic, depression, and trying to stay positive through it all. “I just had to get back,” he recalled, “you don’t want to leave when it’s not on your own terms.” Despite anxiousness to return, Gaines made sure to listen to his doctors and his body, noting the importance of having a good physical therapist, following protocol, and absolutely no rushing. It’s a testament to Gaines’s patience that he wasn’t hasty, especially because the year before saw him with ankle surgery to remove the os trigonum, an extra bone causing inflammation between his ankle and heel. Gaines even cites that recovery as more frustrating than the injury to his knee, because it took much longer to feel normal, even after he was cleared to dance again.

On the mental battlefront, Gaines turned to yoga and meditation in order to quiet his mind, which allowed him to focus on progress. He also kept a journal, recording things as they improved and also when they were worse. “As a dancer you want to be at a certain level, but you have to give yourself credit for all the work that went in,” he said, explaining further that even the negative things were tantamount to positive benchmarks on the overall incline of progress. His recognition of the give-and-take nature of recovery also manifested in his support system (his “go-to” people consisting of fellow PNB dancers Lindsi Dec and Kylee Kitchens, and former PNB dancer Josh Spell), who, in taking care of him, proved to be sources of both relief and chagrin. Despite wanting to avoid ballet entirely until he was healed, Gaines found himself in the audience in order to support them as they were cast in exciting roles—painful as it was to be a spectator.

Nevertheless, a silver lining appeared during those trying times—when he really got to see his peers do great things on stage. “It changed my perspective because when you’re in the company, you don’t necessarily get to see how talented everyone else is. It made me realize how special it is to be a part of [PNB],” and thus, new ideas for choreography and a desire to showcase his fellow dancers was born. Three months into recovery from knee surgery, Gaines was approached by Peter Boal about choreographing a new work for an ‘All Stravinsky’ program alongside three ballets to music by Igor Stravinsky, all with choreography by George Balanchine. Though the program was scrapped, Gaines had already been researching the composer, and the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto resonated with Gaines. Founding artistic co-director Kent Stowell had choreographed his own Dumbarton, which Gaines had seen but never danced, but felt it right to have PNB perform to that music again, as a nod to Stowell, while also drawing many influences from Balanchine.

Choreographer Kiyon Gaines working with Pacific Northwest Ballet
corps de ballet dancer Leah O’Connor on the creation
of his new ballet, 
Sum Stravinsky,
Photo © Lindsay Thomas.
The title of Gaines’s new ballet is Sum Stravinsky, and he describes it as “bright, exciting, and a great palette cleanser,” a fresh neoclassical work in luminous blue tutus with simple, but chic pleating details. Far different from Gaines’s first work to appear on the main stage, Sum Stravinsky is more classically oriented, and something that he feels is more true to his personal style. It’s often underestimated how crucial honesty is in an artist’s work, and if Gaines’s openness and generosity are any indication, the genuine congeniality with which he seems to live his life is sure to shine in his latest choreographic venture. Though the path had been fraught with difficulties, Gaines persevered and may very well be the most eager of all come opening night.

PNB’s ‘All Premier’ program opens November 2, 2012 at McCaw Hall. Tickets are available at