Last September, midway through the third act of Swan Lake, 23-year-old Chase Finlay, the youngest principal dancer in the New York City Ballet—a "rising force," per the New York Times—sprang himself backward and landed awkwardly on his left foot, breaking the fifth metatarsal. "You know when a tree branch breaks?" recalls Jean-Pierre Frohlich, a ballet master with the company. "You could hear it snap."
Jacked up by adrenaline, Finlay powered through the next four minutes of the pas de quatre. "Every jump after that," he would later say, "the adrenaline wore away. I began to sink back down into my body." Eventually the pain hit him, along with the realization that a promising career could already be over. As he left the stage at the end of the piece, his foot badly swollen, he remembers City Ballet's artistic director, Peter Martins, telling him, "You're not going back out there." Finlay stifled tears, then reemerged for the five-minute finale. It was his last performance of 2013—the company benched him for 15 weeks, 14 more than the average for a ballet injury. "A ballet dancer's run is so short that any time missed jeopardizes your career," Finlay laments. "I had five new parts coming up. Big parts. Just knowing they're gone . . . But I had to accept it."
3 Days per week lifting weights
125 Reps of biceps curls per workout
60 Laps swum per week
20 Minutes on the bike per session
0 Hours per week watching football
6 Days per week lifting weights
150 Reps of biceps curls per workout
180 Laps swum per week
30 Minutes on the bike per session
12 Hours per week watching football
Finlay's right foot, with a perfect dancer's arch.
Halfway through his journey back, on a blustery afternoon in mid-November, Finlay recalls how the first weeks after breaking his foot—when he was loopy from Percocet, unable to move a muscle—were the roughest of his young life. After living alone since the age of 17, Finlay temporarily moved in with his mom in Fairfield, Connecticut. He caught up on The Voice and Breaking Bad. "I could finally watch football on Sundays," says the die-hard New York Giants fan. But knowing his parts were being played by other dancers drove him nuts: "It got to the point where I just had to frigging move right now or I'm going to kill someone." Within two weeks, he was pulling himself off the couch to do push-ups and abs exercises.
Now, sitting on a treatment table at Westside Dance Physical Therapy in midtown Manhattan, wearing a tight tank top that shows off his sculpted arms, Finlay looks every bit the self-possessed ballerino. To speed his recovery, surgeons fused Finlay's bone with a metal screw; last week, he traded in crutches for an air boot. Putting weight on the foot for the first time since the injury, Finlay reports "no pain whatsoever."
After his PT appointment, Finlay walks several blocks to the Reebok Sports Club/NY, where he's been working out for an hour or two every day since his cast came off. To rev up his heart rate, Finlay spends 30 minutes on a stationary bike. While pedaling, he talks about the first time he saw The Nutcracker, at age 8: "It was the second act, when the Chinese character does all these split-jumps. The athleticism appealed to me, so I decided to give it a chance." He traded soccer and lacrosse for dance training five days a week. At 16, Finlay earned a spot at the School of American Ballet—City Ballet's feeder school. The following year, he was called up to the company and killed every role thrown at him.
But no one was more shocked than Finlay when, as a 20-year-old member of the corps, he was cast as Apollo, a role usually danced by a principal. "He looks like a young god, and the facility was also apparent," Martins says. "I had every confidence that he was ready." Finlay had just two weeks to prepare his path to Mount Olympus—and nailed every step. "It was a defining moment for finding my personality as a dancer," he says. Critics raved. Groupies swarmed. Finlay's modeling career (he had already appeared in French Vogue) took off. Lo, a ballet god was born. "He has this perfect instrument—this amazing body that is built for ballet," says Margaret Fuhrer, an associate editor at Pointe. "Even to the untrained eye he is very exciting to watch. All the ingredients are there for him to be huge." But as the 2013 fall season approached, Finlay was "a little overtired," and one bad landing brought his ascension to a screeching halt.
Finlay steps down from the bike and heads for the weight room, moving swiftly from one machine to the next: rows, flies, raises. When he's rehearsing and performing—hoisting ballerinas nine feet in the air, turning them upside down for hours on end—Finlay hits the weights only twice a week, tops. Now he has to make up for lost time: "You're putting your partner in danger, so you have to be strong enough to earn her trust." It's a relationship that sometimes extends beyond the stage—Finlay's had several romantic relationships with ballerinas. "I don't necessarily like dating in my company," he says, "but they're kind of the only people I have time for."
At the moment, he's single and concentrating on his comeback. The casting for City Ballet's winter season (beginning January 21) has yet to be announced—but whatever roles Finlay gets, he'll be ready. "I want to dance as many pieces as I can, as well as I can. I want the fame of a dancer like Martins or Baryshnikov. Farther down the road—" Finlay stops himself. "I can't think about that. I'm back on my feet. I'm going to the gym every day. I'm focused on right now."