Crushed Like a Nut: S.F. Ballet Dancer's Hilarious Anecdote Recalling Near-Death on Stage

Categories: Local News, Media

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You'll never laugh so hard about workplace accidents horrifying children

By Joe Eskenazi

Editors like to tell writers "Sometimes you have to kill your babies." It's a horrid notion -- even Medea didn't have to kill her babies, it just seemed like the thing to do at the time. I much prefer the more literally accurate, "You've written too long again, Hemingway."

In any event, I knew the following story from veteran ballet dancer Larry Pech couldn't fit in this week's cover story about the San Francisco Ballet -- but it's too good not to share it.

So...

Pech beat lymphoma, but his principal dancer position at the San Francisco Ballet was not waiting for him when he returned. Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson had qualms about hiring a dancer with a compromised spine and instead offered him a job as principal character dancer – a position emphasizing acting and pantomime that is often reserved for a dancer or instructor in his or her 50s or older. Pech, however, was just 30. And a particularly disastrous experience in a 1990 Nutcracker show led him to believe he ought to seek more in life.

Roughly a year after he'd danced the most challenging parts San Francisco Ballet had to offer, Pech found himself in a student matinee, portraying Herr Drosselmeyer, the magical godfather who presents Clara with the nutcracker. Rather than dancing, his most agile moves were reserved for piloting a golf cart decorated to resemble a massive swan, in which he ferried Clara and the young prince into the land of snow. But then, above the familiar refrains of Tchaikovsky's hypnotic score, Pech heard a series of terrifying cracks. . .

He glanced upwards just in time to notice the "two-ton Christmas tree that served as the centerpiece of the set" come loose from its moorings and crash to the ground. The massive evergreen thudded to the stage just behind the golf cart; the resultant shockwaves sent the swan lurching forward and a gust of wind set the orchestra's scores swirling about the theatre. The curtain abruptly fell to the accompaniment of hundreds of mortified children in the audience wailing in horror. Right then and there, Pech made a career choice: "I'll be damned if I overcome cancer and get killed by a Christmas tree."

He resigned from the ballet shortly thereafter.

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