By Garth Grimball
Special to The Examiner
This past February, Sean Bennett was hiking with friends near Roseville. When they reached the campsite, he pulled out his knife. He gathered the fastened gear and began cutting through zip ties. An irregular tie required wielding the knife at an awkward angle. A quick slip and the knife twisted into Bennett’s abdomen cutting his large intestine and a major blood vessel. By the time Bennett was airlifted to the nearest hospital, he had two liters of blood in his stomach. After his procedure, the doctor said if he’d arrived any later he would be dead.
Ballet dancers know injuries. Stress fractures. Broken bones. Torn ligaments. Dancers’ relationship to pain tends to be high on threshold and low on tolerance. Perform a grand pas de deux with a dislocated rib? Yes, with aplomb. Sit in a chair that quietly irritates the thoracic spine for two minutes? The whole day may as well be ruined. In the culture of professional ballet, the more extreme the injury, the stronger the desire to get back on stage. Bennett, 30, a San Francisco Ballet Corps de Ballet dancer, has an exceptional appreciation of healing and return.
I met with Bennett one week into S.F. Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” season. He had already performed in the production six times and had a two-show day ahead of him. Seemingly immune to the physical and mental demands of the season, he spoke with a laid-back friendliness natural to the Bay Area. This is not what makes him unusual. What makes him unusual is that he is a born-and-bred San Franciscan in the corps de ballet of The City’s world-renowned company.
Bennett grew up in the Richmond District and Japantown. His mother works at San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden. The garden connects Bennett to his own Japanese heritage, and has become a go-to destination when he introduces new dancers to San Francisco.
At age 8, he participated in S.F. Ballet School’s Dance in Schools & Community residency at Clarendon Elementary. He was then invited to attend the school through its community scholarship program. In 2012, he became a company member. Bennett’s dance education and career have been in the same city. Dance work, especially for leading companies, rarely supports those who want to remain on native ground.
Bennett attributes his commitment and success as a student to his dance community. “The way I kept going,” he said, “was I loved the people here, the teachers here. They are the reason I felt cared for at (S.F. Ballet). It was hard to find my people before.”
The dancer has proven to be highly adaptable to S.F. Ballet’s programming. Whether it’s three-act narrative ballets, the extremes of William Forsythe or the delicate tension of Mark Morris choreography, Bennett is at home dancing on the War Memorial Opera House stage.
He said the long healing process from the knife wound reaffirmed his love of ballet and being in his hometown. “With ballet there are so many injuries,” he said. “I can deal with the physical part. Mentally, it was a struggle. I’m very active. Sitting for so long made me appreciate what I have in dancing. I’m not done with ballet yet.”
Once free from bed rest, he walked from his Presidio neighborhood to the Golden Gate Bridge and back, every day, eager to be in the studio and on stage. In addition to returning from a near fatal injury, this season he returns to a defining role. At 23, Bennet performed the villainous Von Rothbart in “Swan Lake.” On his young shoulders rested principal dancers and the dramatic arc of the ballet. “I always wish I did better,” said Bennett. Next year, he gets the opportunity.
In April, Bennett will step on stage as Von Rothbart with a renewed strength and gratitude for being a dancer in The City.
“Being in San Francisco is great,” he said, “Not a lot of ballet dancers get to work where they grew up. My family gets to watch me. Knowing they’re out there watching me is the best. It’s hard to leave that.”