Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dylan Wald’s Journey to Injury Recovery Has Required Therapy—and Filmmaking

June 16, 2023

One year ago, Dylan Wald didn’t know if he’d ever perform again.

The Pacific Northwest Ballet principal had just undergone major surgery: insertion of a metal rod into his left tibia in a last-ditch attempt to repair a nagging stress fracture.

For Wald, now 27, there were no other options after struggling with little improvement from conservative treatments. “The unknown of not doing the procedure made it clear to me I wanted to undergo surgery for a more certain outcome,” he says. “It was either this or continue to dance in pain. I didn’t want that for the rest of my career.”

Dylan Wald poses for a photo in front of a light gray backdrop wearing long black dance tights with white suspenders. He poses on releve on his left leg, his right extended in a low battement while he faces his back to the camera, looking out to the left. He extends his arms to the sides, his thumbs looped in the suspenders.
Dylan Wald. Photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet.

Wald had already been sidelined for four months; doctors told him he’d be out for at least six more. With his career on hold, Wald cast around for something to fill the creative void. “I knew I was going to have all this time off from the stage, and I needed something to keep me busy,” he says.

He landed on the idea of making a short dance video for himself, something he could perform seated while he recuperated. It seemed a logical step to spend his rehabilitation months choreographing a dance about how it felt to be separated from ballet. He’d perform, record, and edit it himself. Early in the pandemic, Wald had learned how to make simple home videos, shooting and editing dance routines that he posted on TikTok and Instagram. When PNB transitioned back to the studio in autumn of 2020, Wald documented the dancers backstage, creating witty video montages PNB included in its digital performance streams.

So when he told fellow principal James Yoichi Moore about his plan, Moore had an idea. In 2019 Moore and former principal Noelani Pantastico co-founded Seattle Dance Collective, a small nonprofit devoted to commissioning and presenting new work by both ballet and contemporary choreographers. The pandemic pushed SDC to learn how to produce dance films instead of live performances, an experience Moore wanted to share with Wald. He proposed that SDC partner with Wald on his project, and to hire other artists to refine and expand on his initial vision. Wald agreed.

This past spring, SDC assembled what Wald calls his “dream team”: choreographer Penny Saunders, who’s made several works featuring Wald and PNB principal Elle Macy, now Wald’s wife; videographer and former Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo soloist Bruno Roque; and PNB’s lighting designer, Reed Nakayama.

Lit by a spotlight in a pitch black space, Dylan Wald slumps over a red wooden chair, pushing up on his arms to elevate his body on a diagonal. He wears gray slacks and a tank top.
Dylan Wald in “Vanishing Act.” Photo by Bruno Roque, courtesy Seattle Dance Collective.

On a rainy morning in May, the team gathered in a small, black-box studio in a repurposed industrial building on an island near Seattle. A single light fixture suspended above the floor cast a bright circle that Wald, in a tank top and loose trousers, strode in and out of, accompanied by a recording of Lou Reed’s song “Vanishing Act.” Every time Wald moved out of the light, he seemed to vanish into a haze.

That section is one of three that make up the dance film, also titled “Vanishing Act”. Each juxtaposes illumination and obscurity, referencing the many months Wald spent out of the spotlight.

Wald admits that working on the solo forced him to relive some of the most painful months of his rehabilitation. “But it was also cathartic, you know?” he says. “I’m a little more at peace with where I am in my life. I can tap into the past, but it doesn’t need to be a hard moment.”

Though not fully recovered, Wald had returned to the stage in March of 2022. Over the past year, he’s spent hours in both physical and mental therapy, often relying on Macy’s unwavering support. The couple married this past May.

“It’s hard to know if the things you say have an impact,” Macy says. “Things that help me in tough times may not help Dylan. And I haven’t had an injury that pulled me away from dancing for a year.”

A close-up on Dylan Wald shows him stomach-up, moving toward the camera as he arches his chest back and flings his arms. He is lit by a spotlight, and a red wooden chair rests in the background.
Photo by Bruno Roque, courtesy Seattle Dance Collective.

Wald believes Macy’s most important advice may have been to take things one day at a time, something he thinks is a good tip for any dancers experiencing career-threatening injuries. For him, that has meant taking time to appreciate the strength and resilience that brought him back to ballet, and to savor his career.

“Next year could be my last. That’s just the reality,” he says. “I just want to embrace what I do for all it’s worth.”

You can stream Vanishing Act free on Seattle Dance Collective’s website from June 22 to July 3.