Injury is a dancer’s worst professional nightmare. That, at least is what National Ballet of Canada second soloist Brendan Saye assumed — until he was taken down by debilitating ailments that confounded a medical team for months.
Now, after a two-year absence struggling with the effects of late-diagnosed Lyme disease, Saye, 25, is rebuilding his career, step by step, having confronted the possibility that he might never dance again.
“When I thought my dancing days were over, I really mourned it like someone might mourn the loss of a friend,” says Saye. “I had given everything to it. The initial thought of losing that without even being prepared to say ‘goodbye’ was devastating.”
Saye is now preparing for his first big challenge since returning to the company last fall. As the National Ballet wraps up its late-winter season, he’ll be dancing Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. It’s the career-advancing role Saye first danced in 2011, signalling then the huge potential the company saw in him.
It was three years ago, after a rehearsal of John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, that Saye had the first inkling something was wrong.
“I was walking upstairs and my whole right side felt numb,” he recalls.
There’s a lot of thrashing head movement for the corps in Nijinsky and Saye, who’d suffered a concussion injury a year or so earlier, wondered if this was some delayed response; or perhaps just routine muscle strain.
“But it was worse the next day,” Saye continues. “There was a tingling sensation moving up my arm and into the neck and ear that affected my balance. But I still thought it could be some kind of whiplash or concussion-related thing.”
The numbness persisted and Saye was scared. A neurologist sent him for the first of many MRIs. It came back normal. The alternative speculation was more dire, a possible degenerative disorder such as MS or ALS.
Saye was terrified, especially with an imminent scheduled performance of Romeo.
He says he got through that March 2013 show on pure adrenalin. “It was nothing short of a miracle.”
Then Saye and partner Chelsy Meiss had to dance a second performance when another Romeo was injured. Saye got through it, despite not being able to feel his leg in warm-up.
“Brendan was anxious but determined to do it, in part because he didn’t want me to miss out on Juliet, which I think says something that’s so touching,” says Meiss.
He came down with a fever, but the symptoms seemed to dissipate. That summer, Saye was scheduled to dance George Balanchine’s Apollo at the Banff Centre, but the symptoms came back and he had to withdraw.
Even in ideal circumstances a dancer’s career is short, so Saye was determined to find the root cause of his illness.
As a medical team analyzed the results of a battery of tests, Saye’s condition worsened to the point he could hardly stand up at times. He didn’t step on a stage again for almost two years.
Lyme disease is a bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi, primarily transmitted to humans via the bite of certain infected ticks. The bite often, but not always, causes a “bull’s eye” rash. If correctly diagnosed and treated promptly any infection can be halted. If left unattended, the infection can cause everything from headaches, dizziness, nausea and neck pain to tingling and numbness in the limbs, chronic fatigue and even cognitive impairment.
Saye was urged by his family to be tested for Lyme, but the result came back negative. But when vials of his blood were sent to a leading clinic in California, they tested positive.
Saye could not afford expensive clinical treatment in the United States but, through online research and advice from friends, he started a drug regime that brought positive results.
Saye is heartfelt in his gratitude for the way the National Ballet stood by him during his unusually long absence. “They’ve been so patient, understanding and supportive.”
“We were very worried,” artistic director Karen Kain says. “But with that kind of talent you’re always going to be hopeful. So we kept letting Brendan know the door was open.”
“I hope stories like mine help open up a wider conversation about the threat of Lyme and about the treatment of chronic conditions in general,” says Saye, who recommends the website of CanLyme, the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation.
If there’s any positive to be found in his harrowing experience, it’s the way it’s affirmed his love for the art form.
“Dancing is very much who I am,” says Saye. “That’s why I fought so hard to get back to it.”