How Ballet West’s Loren Walton Returned to Dance After a Life-Threatening Medical Emergency

May 16, 2023

Loren Walton is one of those dancers whose career trajectory can be described as impressive without running the risk of sounding glib. At age 16, just four years after his first ballet class—an audition for the Joffrey Ballet School summer intensive—he left his hometown of Austin, Texas, for Salt Lake City, Utah, to join Ballet West as a trainee. In 2020, he was invited to join Ballet West II, and in 2022, he officially made his debut in the company’s corps. He kicked off the 2022–23 season by dancing Sophie Laplane’s Galantheae.

Just as the company was in the midst of rehearsals for John Cranko’s Onegin that September, Walton woke up one morning with severe pain in his abdomen. Though he initially thought his symptoms were the result of a bad stomach ache, Walton called his mother and she urged him to contact emergency services.

“I had what’s called a small bowel volvulus. My intestines twisted, cut off circulation to the other parts of the intestines, which killed them. And then I had a blood infection,” Walton says of his diagnosis.

Within an hour of his arrival at the emergency room, the Ballet West dancer was undergoing emergency surgery. His condition was so severe that he was only given a 10 percent chance of survival.

Loren Walton is in tendu plié in a parallel second position. He is onstage and wearing rust-colored tights, a black belt, white t-shirt, and white socks with white flat shoes.
Walton with artists of Ballet West in Glass Pieces. Photo by Beau Pearson, courtesy Walton.

Walton ultimately defied the odds and made a full recovery in time to finish out the season with Ballet West, but the next few months proved difficult for the dancer. Even so, he possessed a distinct air of gratitude during his conversation with Pointe, remaining focused on what the experience had taught him—and how he’s applying these lessons to dance and life.

“This definitely made me such a stronger person—more in tune with myself and more in tune with my needs.”

After surgery, Walton says he was unconscious for four days, largely due to acute and lingering effects of anesthesia and other painkillers, as well as the general bodily toll of the ordeal. When he regained consciousness, he says, he felt like his world had completely shifted.

Walton appears unconscious in a hospital bed.
Photo by Lesia Hunter, courtesy Walton.

“It was so hard going from my job—moving, being active, and being independent—and ‘Now I’m bedridden; I can’t walk,’ ” he remembers. Though he struggled with feelings of identity loss and worried about missing his first full season as a corps member, Walton learned to celebrate the small wins and give himself patience and grace as he rebuilt his strength.

After a total of 10 days spent in the ICU, Walton returned home to continue his recovery. Since the procedure had required doctors to cut through his abdominal muscles and remove six feet of his small intestine, Walton had to completely rebuild his core strength, ultimately resulting in a four-week period of bed rest.

Even after he was able to regain some strength and mobility, recovery was slow going. Walton lost 40 pounds during his hospital stay and from the initial complications of recuperating at home. Basic daily tasks, like brushing his teeth and taking a shower, exhausted him. Gradually, though, through continued perseverance and work with a physical therapist, he grew stronger. 

Loren Walton is supporting Rylee Ann Rogers in an attitude on pointe. They are wearing period costumes from "The Glass Slipper." Walton is in first position, with his left arm extended in second position allongé, as he looks toward his partner over his right shoulder.
Walton with Ballet West corps artist Rylee Ann Rogers in The Glass Slipper. Photo by Beau Pearson, courtesy Walton.

“It was first just getting the strength to function and be able to do things,” Walton says, but he knew in his heart that he could return to ballet. “We do this every day, all day, so the muscle memory was still there,” he says. “I had no doubt in my mind that eventually, hopefully sooner than later, I would be right back where I was—dancing again.”

Walton’s first day back in Ballet West’s studios was January 9, 2023. He finished the season strong, performing in The Sleeping Beauty and Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces.

Emerging from this experience, Walton has renewed gratitude and a fresh perspective on dancing and his career: “In a way, it completely changed my mindset and how I think about ballet going forward. If this has taught me one thing, it’s balance and prioritizing your own needs.”