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The Monday Extract: The ballerina who was hospitalised with anorexia

Massey University creative writing graduate Sacha Jones was a principal dancer in the Sydney City Ballet – after surviving a teenage diet of cake and laxatives on Saturdays. Her memoir takes a tragi-comic look back at her early dance career.

Kelly Barden, a fledgling young dancer, was lithe and lovely and very much built for ballet, as I was not. But her technique was weak and undeveloped where mine was strong. When she was awarded first prize in the Stuyvesant, Australia’s premier ballet competition, against every prediction of the teachers and other dancers at the Opera House on the night, and I was awarded runner-up for the second time, I thought it was the end of my world, and in a way it was. It was the end of my childhood, and the beginning of the end of my dance career, though I didn’t know that then. I planned to go to London to win the top ballet competition there, the Adeline Genée. That would show them.

The company returned from Tasmania a few days later and I make myself go in to meet them in the studio. They are buzzing with the success of the tour; the best ever, they all agreed, which doesn’t exactly help. But it does help to have the studio alive again. “You don’t look too good,” someone tells me, and I shrug. I don’t feel too good. The September–November edition of Dance Australia comes out with a full-page article and photo of Kelly, still wearing that stolen golden smile, her arms laden with her winner’s bounty of flowers, trophy and $4000 cheque. There are a few words dedicated to the “runner-up”.

Another production of The Nutcracker to be performed for schools by day and the general public by night is planned for late November, early December, to finish a few days before I leave. I am going to London despite the Stuyvesant loss – and because of it, in a way.

I have enough saved in my little blue bank book for a one-way ticket and after the Stuyvesant I have no more doubts about leaving, possibly never to return.

Between rehearsals for The Nutcracker, for which I am dancing the part of Clara, I must learn the two Genée variations from a video and manual. This is a gruelling process undertaken awkwardly with Mrs P’s help in the smaller studio next to the one in which Hassan runs rehearsals of the second act, which doesn’t involve Clara much. The piano accompaniment for the Genée dances is clunky and uninspiring next to Tchaikovsky’s passionate Nutcracker score, and the steps are so technical that I can’t muster much enthusiasm for them.

The truth of the matter is that I’m not as fit as I was for the Stuyvesant. In just a few weeks I have lost condition, returning to abusing laxatives on an ever more regular basis, and extending my binges beyond a few spoonfuls of pie. On my way home from the studio one evening, the custard cannoli in the window of the Italian bakery at Central Station that I have successfully resisted for approximately 700 days finally wins out and I don’t stop there.

That night the laxatives don’t work, possibly because my body is getting used to them, or perhaps laxatives don’t work on custard cannoli. Whatever the case, waking up with all those cloying calories weighing me down the next morning is more depressing than losing the Stuyvesant – almost. I starve myself the next day, not even eating breakfast, and again the following day, then break out with another binge the day after that.

And so the vicious cycle begins and continues until one day Mrs P, taking me through my Genée variations, tells me I have put on weight and need to lose it before the Genée. She leads me to the mirror and says: “Here,” pinching the fat on my upper arm, “and here”, pinching my upper inner thigh, which is not the first time she has touched that part of me – ballet teachers have a free pass to the whole body – but it is the first time she has done it for the purpose of finding fat. I have finally failed the pinch test.

Sacha Jones as a teenage ballerina, Sydney, 1982 (Image: Supplied)

I’m a miserable wreck. I charge headlong into a carrot-and- TAB-only diet that I intend to stay on for the remaining weeks till I leave for London. It lasts precisely three long days; not quite long enough for Mrs P to notice any improvement or say anything if she does, but long enough that I’m so ravenous I could eat an entire Italian bakery – and almost do. My battalion of laxatives comes out in full force that night and this time they do work. By the time I get into the studio the next morning, I am light-headed and dizzy from a very draining night. And it’s not over yet. After another visit to the studio bathrooms I collapse unconscious on the floor – fortunately just beyond the toilet cubicle.

When I come to, I am being carried through the streets of Sydney in Daryn’s arms. Later on I find out that he insisted on being the one to carry me to the hospital, although Hassan, a much bigger man, offered.

I spent that day after collapsing in the museum bathrooms in intensive care at Sydney Hospital being tested for drugs and diseases, questioned by a psychiatrist (I admitted nothing), given a sedative and finally diagnosed with anorexia ‘in its early stages’. I was deeply ashamed of those “early stages”. I had always taken inspiration from Karen Carpenter’s battle with anorexia, even if she had just died of the disease earlier in the year, but “early stages” anorexia feels like being runner-up in the Stuyvesant.

But the show must go on. I was out of intensive care and onto the stage dancing the role of Clara quicker than you could say Nutcracker. Three days after my collapse, we opened at the Capitol Theatre (the Regent being prepared for demolition by that stage), with the dress rehearsal the very next day.

Three weeks later I am on the plane to London. And it is this goal that saves me, I think, as well as my brief stay in intensive care, which was a bit of a wake-up call. After that, I put away the laxatives and got back to my much more balanced breakfast-only, no-cannoli diet. By the end of those three weeks I was down to 41kilograms, roughly my goal weight, and felt more or less recovered. I could lose those last two kilos in London.

More cautious parents may well have wanted to keep their slightly unstable, recently hospitalised teen at home for a while longer before sending her off to the other side of the world unsupervised. So it was just as well that my parents were not the cautious type. In fact, in those three weeks Mum and Dad had taken themselves off to their favourite guesthouse in Bowral where Mum, according to her diary, “sank a 20-foot putt”, and Dad bought her an eternity ring to celebrate twenty years of marriage while waiting to hear back from Oxford University Press who had sent him some encouraging letters on his book.

As soon as I take my seat on the flight to London, I plug in The Man from Snowy River (in my ears) for a bit of premature nostalgia as the plane clears that vast brown continent of fake forests and improbable fruits, heading north over the bright, blushing blue sea. A box of Colon Care is tucked safely in the hold – just in case. They might not have laxatives in Narnia.

From The Grass Was Always Browner, a memoir by Sacha Jones (Finch Publishing, $32.99), available at Unity Books. Sacha will compete tonight (Monday) at the Classic Comedy Club in Auckland for a place in the semi-finals of the Raw Quest. All the best Sacha!