Backstage exclusive: life on placement with The Australian Ballet

Backstage exclusive: life on placement with The Australian Ballet

Love the arts but not an artist? Luckily, a career in the arts isn’t limited to being in the limelight. Behind the scenes, a dedicated team of experts bring shows to life through roles in marketing, external relations, finance, IT and specialised medical support.

Take The Australian Ballet, for example. Their in-house medical team of physiotherapists, myotherapists, sports doctors and body conditioning specialists supports a national company of elite dancers to achieve their best performance, season after season.

La Trobe physiotherapy students Brad Smith and Madeleine Hook took an exclusive five-week placement with The Australian Ballet to discover how medical expertise plays a pivotal role in bringing first-class ballet to audiences across Australia. Here’s what they learned.

Elite artists demand custom clinical skills

For Brad and Madeleine, a placement with The Australian Ballet was refreshing in its variety. Some days they’d observe the company’s physiotherapists, or sit in on coaching classes for dancers in rehab. Other days they’d train in manual handling and spend time in the gym with body conditioning specialists.

This diverse experience helped Brad and Madeleine better understand what exercises work best to improve dancers’ strength and control.

“We’re taking everything we’ve learnt at university and we’re building on it in an elite sporting environment,” Madeleine says.

Ballet dancers use their bodies in a unique way, in that they require strength, endurance, power and control in very extreme ranges of joint movement. You need to tailor your clinical skills to suit the way they move, because it’s quite different to athletes you’ll see in the general population.

Brad agrees. The placement has given him a chance to work with athletes whose force, grace and sweeping ranges of motion require pinpoint medical accuracy.

“You need such a keen eye and millimetre precision when you’re working with these artists,” he says.

La Trobe physiotherapy students Madeleine Hook and Brad Smith observe artist Benedicte Bemet of The Australian Ballet.

Rigorous repertoire makes injury prevention a must

A big part of a physiotherapist’s job is to watch what the dancers are doing in their repertoire, flag certain areas where they might be prone to injuries, then create an exercise program to help prevent those injuries.

“It’s a specific population spending a lot of time on their feet. It’s really interesting to look at how that impacts their bodies, and how their bodies adapt,” says Brad.

“Around the ankle is where a lot of ballet injuries often occur. Pointe shoes require dancers to go on the tips of their toes, which predisposes them to the pinching of structures around the ankle. It’s sometimes seen in cricket and rugby, but it’s really not as prevalent as it is in the ballet population.”

Observing world leaders in physiotherapy and body conditioning educate Australia’s best dancers was a highlight for Brad.

Working with elite physiotherapists has given me a chance to understand what 20 years of experience gives to your clinical management and reasoning.

“Being able to really understand what’s going through their head when they see a patient is an invaluable experience that’s changed the way I approach clinical practice.”

Madeleine and Brad practise manual therapy on placement at The Australian Ballet.

Real-world placements prepare career-ready graduates

Brad and Madeleine’s placement is one of several on offer as part of La Trobe’s unique research and learning partnership with The Australian Ballet. The partnership pairs La Trobe’s human movement and sport scientists with The Australian Ballet’s injury prevention and rehabilitation team to examine the athletic capacity of leading ballet dancers.

“As a student I’m really lucky to have this opportunity. There aren’t too many placements where you get to work with elite athletes who have to push their bodies in such an extreme way,” says Madeleine.

“We’ve seen very interesting clinical presentations and learnt specialised treatment and assessment techniques. I’ve loved the experience.”

For Brad, gaining hands-on experience with The Australian Ballet has given him high-level skills with broad appeal. It’s also helped him confirm his career path.

“As a graduate entering the field soon, I think the manual therapy experience we’ve gotten here is second-to-none. It’s encouraged us to think critically about the exercises we’re prescribing, so we can apply them to the general population,” he says.

I’d love to work in a setting like this. Anywhere that I’m able to help people achieve what they want to achieve.

What Brad and Madeleine are achieving already is extraordinary. They’re helping get the strongest, most flexible and most controlled dancers to their full potential. They’re preparing themselves for real-world challenges by adapting their classroom knowledge to a distinct group of elite athletes. And they’re getting direct access to the clever thinking that goes into staging a sell-out ballet season.

Apply now to study a course in Health at La Trobe in Semester 1, 2018.