SALT LAKE CITY — When a spine specialist advised a teenaged Beckanne Sisk to give up dancing nearly a decade ago, she decided to listen to her heart instead of her head. Now, as the Ballet West principal dancer prepares for her leading role in the Utah premiere of “Onegin,” she opened up about her battle with severe, career-threatening scoliosis and the inspiration she’s found in her character, Tatiana, a powerful woman who beats the odds despite being dealt a bad hand.
Dancing through the pain
“When I first learned about my diagnosis at 13, it really scared me,” said Sisk, whose gift for dance, even at that young age, was already turning heads in her Longview, Texas, hometown. But during rapid growth spurts, her spine had become not only twisted, but had also developed two S-shaped curves.
The spinal malformation was diagnosed as scoliosis, a lateral curvature of the spine problematic for regular folks, but potentially detrimental for a dancer — and likely a dream killer for young Sisk.
“It concerned my mom, too,” said Sisk, who acknowledged her mother’s persistence as tantamount to her success. “She saw how much I loved to dance — I was dancing all over the house all the time.”
Her mother, Laurie Beck, tends to resist any credit, according to a laughing Sisk, for fear of being perceived as a "dance mom."
“She’s not a ‘dance mom’ at all, but she agreed that (dance) was what I was meant to do and so she was going to do everything she could to help me get there,” Sisk said.
This included finding Sisk an alternative to wearing a brace “with metal bars from my shoulder to my neck for 24 hours a day until I stopped growing,” she said. Instead, with her mom’s help, she began a disciplined regimen of weight training and strengthening exercises to build the muscles in her back and keep them from sinking into her spine.
“It has made all the difference,” Sisk said. “It has kept me dancing even though there will always be some pain.”
Her discipline and undaunted determination paid off.
At 14, Sisk moved to Philadelphia at the invitation of the famous Rock School for Dance Education, a ballet training high school that has launched the career of hundreds of professional ballet dancers.
Yet even as she refined her dancing, she continued to battle scoliosis on a daily basis with the demands her training put on her spine — from stretching, extending and contorting to practically buckling in half.
“For me, the pain got worse and the curvature became more noticeable as I grew. I had teachers trying to push back my shoulders or shift my leotard over because I looked crooked to them,” she said. “Plus my left side was just always really tight, and sometimes my left arm would go numb in class.”
Sisk recalled learning the “Dying Swan” solo from “Swan Lake” during her training as a teenager in Philadelphia. The choreography required more extension from her back and legs than she was used to.
“I thought, ‘I can’t do it,’” she said. “Scoliosis wasn’t supposed to hurt, but it was hurting me.”
Instead of calling it quits, however, Sisk doubled her efforts outside the studio and in the gym to combat scoliosis’ painful effects. She said she also learned how to make small adaptations in the way she extends her limbs on her right side — which she said is her unfavorable side for extension. She’s found that a slightly tweaked angle in an arabesque, for example, has allowed her freedom to explore the sky-high angles she’s now famous for.
During a competition the same year she learned the "Swan Lake" solo, Sisk caught the attention of Ballet West’s artistic director, Adam Sklute.
“I first saw Beckanne dance when she was 15 years old,” he told the Deseret News. At the time, Sklute was a judge for a prestigious youth ballet competition in which Sisk was a finalist. “What I saw was a fearless, beautiful, exciting performer with an amazing turning ability, extension and balance. I saw star quality and limitless potential.”
Acting as a judge again the following year, Sklute said, “I decided that even if I didn’t make an offer to anyone else, I wanted Beckanne Sisk for my company.”
She accepted the contract with Ballet West upon graduation at 18 and swiftly rose to the rank of principal dancer within a handful of years — having already danced dozens of principal roles in the company before enjoying the official title. She was also singled out for her talent on a network reality show, “Breaking Pointe” as the up-and-coming prima ballerina of the company.
It should come as no surprise, then, given her abilities and what Sklute calls her “amazing work ethic and determination," that Sisk was one of just a few women (including Arolyn Williams and Katie Critchlow) chosen for the lead role of Tatiana in Ballet West’s upcoming premiere of choreographer John Cranko's 1965 ballet “Onegin,” based on Alexander Pushkin’s famous Russian novel.
Having worked closely with the dancer for nearly eight years, Sklute said he sees remarkable similarities between Sisk and her character, Tatiana.
“Even as a young trainee, Beckanne embodied that kindness and also that impetuousness that reminds me very much of young Tatiana,” he said. “But like the more mature version of her character — the Tatiana we come to know towards the end of 'Onegin' — Beckanne has faced some challenges that I believe have made her into the strong, elegant and wise woman she is today.”
Sisk, too, feels a kinship with her character.
“This isn’t your typical fairy tale — Tatiana’s story is so relatable,” said Sisk of the spurned young woman whose love letter is torn up and unfeelingly brushed aside by the young Russian dandy Eugene Onegin. “She is rejected by the man she loves and has to look inward and decide who she wants to be. This is real-life stuff and honestly, I think this is her story, not his.”
Sisk will dance opposite her fiancé, principal dancer Chase O’Connell, as he takes on the snobbish title character, Eugene Onegin (Rex Tilton and Adrian Fry have also been cast). With the couple planning to tie the knot in the summer of 2020, one might say Sisk, unlike Tatiana, has been lucky in love. But that doesn't mean she doesn't understand heartache.
“I know how it feels to have my dreams cast aside,” she said. “Tatiana has to overcome being told ‘no’ to something she wants so desperately. She has to take ownership and grow up and learn who she is.”
Sklute described one especially poignant scene that occurs in the ballet's third act. Tatiana, now a married and successful woman at the top of the social chain, confronts Onegin years after he spurred her — but this time, it is her turn to tear up love letters.
“She still feels passion for her first love and still feels the sting of unrequited love,” he said. “But now we see a shift. She is a mature woman who holds the power. Ultimately, she sends him packing.”1 comment on this story
And although this an unrequited love story, Sisk insists "Onegin" is ultimately redemptive.
“This feels like a ballet about female empowerment,” said Sisk. “At first, Tatiana is the one pursuing the man she loves. Then, after he rejects and humiliates her, she comes back in a big way and really has the last word.”
If you go …
What: Ballet West presents John Cranko’s “Onegin”
When: April 5-13
Where: George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main
How much: $30-$87