The Washington Ballet's Maki Onuki Describes Her Path from Injury to Recovery

January 30, 2020

Maki Onuki has been with The Washington Ballet for a remarkable 14 seasons. She’s danced lead roles in almost every ballet in the company’s repertoire, from Serenade to Giselle, Swan Lake to Don Quixote, Le Corsaire to La Sylphide. This fall, Onuki was in rehearsal for TWB’s fall program, NEXTsteps, set to originate a role in a new work by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. But disaster struck one day in technique class, when she badly twisted her ankle, rendering her unable to perform. Here’s what her path to recovery was like, as told to Cadence Neenan.

Onuki (right) in rehearsal for Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Delusional Beauty, as a part of TWB’s NEXTsteps program, prior to her injury (Mena Brunette, courtesy TWB)

The Day of the Injury

I was in class, a week or two before our fall program was set to begin. I was turning, and as I came out of the turn, my ankle got all twisted. I saw a physical therapist right away, and he said my ankle was basically just sprained, but because I have twisted my ankle many times before, it has a tendency to swell up a lot. I even got bruises all over my foot—it was really painful. For a while, I couldn’t do anything besides icing and trying to circle the foot to keep it moving.

Week One of Recovery

For a week, I stayed home, watched TV, and did foot exercises—a lot of TheraBand work, and exercises to activate the smaller muscles, like lifting only my big toe or lifting all my toes except my big toe. I was still icing my ankle, about every two hours for fifteen minutes at a time, and sometimes I would even try ice and heat to contrast. Since my therapist was so positive that it was just a sprain and not anything in my ligaments or bones, I didn’t see a doctor.

Onuki getting her ankle massaged by TWB physical therapist Megan Poll (Scott Greenberg, courtesy TWB)

Week Two of Recovery

A little bit into the second week, I started doing barre again. At some earlier points, I’d been thinking “I’m going to perform. I want to do it,” but we were only two weeks out from the program, and I was nowhere near ready to be putting on pointe shoes or doing jumps. I talked to Julie Kent, the director, and she really wanted me to get completely healthy for the rest of the season, instead of trying to push through and end up only dancing at 70 percent for a longer amount of time.

Taking class was hard at the beginning, because my ankle had gotten very stiff. You build up all this scar tissue when you injure your ankle, and it takes time to break through that. You have to go little by little, because sometimes, if you push too hard too early, you end up taking longer to get better. I think it’s always better to come back slower. So, I was just doing barre, but no center. Sometimes, I would stay to watch center, but a lot of the time, I would go home and rest. It was frustrating, but I know it doesn’t help to be frustrated.

Week Three of Recovery

In the third week, I was definitely getting much stronger. Before that point, relevé was painful, and jumping was really hard. But in the third week, I got pretty comfortable with everything except turning, since that was how I had gotten injured in the first place. I wasn’t back on pointe yet; I would try it sometimes in class, but it was still painful.

Onuki performing as the Sugarplum Fairy in The Washington Ballet’s The Nutcracker (Theo Kossenas)

Week Four of Recovery

Finally, during the fourth week, I was dancing on pointe again. By then, I could pretty much take class full-out.

These days, I still have a little pain, and it’s hard sometimes to control my feet in pointe shoes, because I’m still a little weak. And sometimes, when I have to stay on pointe for a longer period of time, it’s quite painful.

I’m in rehearsal for Nutcracker now, doing both Sugar Plum and Dew Drop. I feel a little nervous, because my foot isn’t 100 percent good, but I think it will be. Both Sugar Plum and Dew Drop are really challenging, but in different ways. Dew Drop has a lot of turning and jumping. And in the Sugar Plum adagio, there’s one point where I have to balance for a long time on my injured foot—I get a pinching feeling, and I can’t really control coming down off pointe. But I think in a few weeks, I’ll feel a lot better.

I’m glad I took time off when I got hurt. It was definitely the smarter choice. I think if I’d pushed myself, I could have done the fall program, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it full-out, and then I would probably have needed a longer break before Nutcracker. It’s sad to miss a performance, but for your body, it’s a better choice.