Quantifying workload and establishing a performance science culture in ballet

Based at the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden, The Royal Ballet is one of the world’s premier ballet companies.

Given the intense physical demands placed on elite ballet dancers, the Royal Ballet’s Healthcare Department enlists strength and conditioning support from St. Mary’s University, Twickenham to aid in the physical preparation and rehabilitation of its dancers.

Much like you would see in a professional sports setting, the Royal Opera House’s healthcare suite is home to a comprehensive gym, where S&C coaches Adam Mattiussi and Gregor Rosenkranz deliver sessions to the 100 dancers employed by the company. Recently, the department has begun to explore the benefits of athlete monitoring technology in terms of quantifying workload and reducing injury risk.

Starting from scratch

In February 2019, Joe Shaw began a PhD at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham, under the supervision of Dr. Jamie Tallent, Dr. Charles Pedlar, Matt Springham and Derrick D. Brown. Based at The Royal Ballet as a performance scientist, Joe has introduced Catapult wearable devices to measure the loads experienced by dancers in rehearsals.

“My PhD is in the quantification of workload in elite ballet dancers, a hybrid of exercise physiology, data science and S&C,” says Joe. “This role is brand new at The Royal Ballet; workload hasn’t been investigated to this level before, so there was no strict template to follow when I started.”

Athlete monitoring may be well established in team sports such as football and rugby, but in ballet it is still a relatively young discipline. Joe therefore spends a lot of his time reviewing research in both dance and sports populations, looking for findings that can be applied to the specific context of The Royal Ballet.

“There has been so much research in sport related to monitoring training load, wellness and fatigue, so we’re looking for where we can apply the same principles and find answers relevant to the context of dance,” Joe explains. “Workload monitoring is an exciting area within the wider dance community at the moment, so it’s interesting to keep up with the growing body of research and see how other universities and dance companies are approaching the problem.”

Building an athlete monitoring culture

As the department implements performance tracking technology at The Royal Ballet for the first time, the team are tasked with trying to encourage buy-in amongst dancers and artistic staff. Working in an area which has historically had relatively little exposure to sports science, this is a significant but exciting challenge.

“There is mixed interest in the introduction of the technology,” Joe says. “At this early point, it’s all about demonstrating the value of the technology to the dancers in order to generate some buy-in.”

Given that The Royal Ballet is breaking new ground in terms of this technology, it’s vital for Joe to be able to distil data down into digestible and relevant insights for the dancers and their artistic directors.

“As sports science and medical practitioners, our department is primarily interested in the number of accelerations and decelerations, and the magnitude of impacts during jumping and landing,” Joe explains. “PlayerLoad offers us a single holistic measure of movement during rehearsal, but it can be hard to relate to for the dancers, so it’s about making it relevant to them.

“They are typically interested in the number of jumps they perform; that’s their key measure of training load each day. Giving a dancer more detail around their jump heights, for example, is a lot more meaningful than providing acceleration values measured during a landing.”

The Royal Ballet is still in the very early stages of its implementation of the technology, so there is a lot of learning involved with the project. This extends to finding the best way to work within the company’s existing structures and processes.  

“The rehearsal schedules are drawn up by the artistic staff, so we don’t have the same level of influence as a sports scientist might at a football club, for example,” Joe says. “I can’t tell them to adjust the schedule based on the training load from the day before. Instead, as we begin to understand the impact of training load on factors such as fatigue and wellness, we can tailor recovery interventions and conditioning programmes to the specific needs of the individual.”

Despite the limited influence compared to that of practitioners in team sports, they are already seeing the first signs of increased interest and buy-in to the research.

“Dancers who have been at the company for a while have experienced the benefits of S&C and sports science provided by the Healthcare Department. Some of the younger dancers may have come through ballet schools which provided performance support, so are generally willing to embrace it as part of the process.”

The data from the technology gives The Royal Ballet the opportunity to begin to build a global picture of dancer workloads. Ultimately, the team aims to offer a high level of sports science support across the entire company.

The physical demands of ballet

Ballet is an elegant and artistic activity, but the physical demands placed on the dancers can be extreme. Joe has found that the dancers typically record up to 500-600 jumps per day in class and rehearsals, and will do even more if they have a show that day. As well as working to quantify and manage high volumes of load, Joe has had to quickly get used to the relatively complex training patterns of the dancers.

“One of the biggest differences between ballet and teams sports is the lack of a universal training schedule,” Joe explains. “Every dancer has an individualised schedule based on the ballets and roles they are cast in. There are 100 dancers with the company and each dancer has between three and six rehearsals per day.”

This complexity poses a set of unique logistical challenges and is added to by the varying demands of the different styles of ballet. As dancers switch between those different types, the physical demands change and they need to adapt quickly.

“The Royal Ballet’s repertoire is extremely diverse,” says Joe. “For example, whilst traditional ballets may feature a lot of jumping, contemporary ballet is more grounded. This may change our approach to monitoring as the physical stresses the dancers experience can be completely flipped.”

As The Royal Ballet’s Healthcare Department continues to build the fundamentals of a performance science culture, we’re excited to see how our technology can be used to drive a deeper understanding of workload among some of the world’s best dancers, helping to further develop physical performance and mitigate injury risk at The Royal Ballet.

Image 1: Vadim Muntagirov and Marianela Nunez in rehearsal (Andrej Uspenski/ROH)

Image 2: Royal Ballet dancer Anna Rose O’Sullivan in rehearsal (Andrej Uspenski/ROH)

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