I recently had the pleasure of interviewing a colleague of mine, Liam Morris. Liam is an incredible colleague. He is known as being the “class clown”, you could say. You will almost always catch him on the side of the studio joking around, but at the very same time, he’s one of the most professional, hardworking, and dedicated dancers I know.
Injuries are such a big topic among dancers and athletes. It was something I was looking forward to discussing. I didn’t want to interview someone who simply had “been through it” but also someone who grew and learned through it as well. I couldn’t think of someone better than Liam. Listening to Liam’s story was such an inspiration to me. I was so encouraged and blessed as he opened up about his experience. He has taken the definition of “never give up” and “hard work” to another level.
Liam Morris grew up in Australia and started ballet with a friend at the age of six after his football experience was a failure due to the coach being incompetent and irresponsible, or as Liam described him, “Ned Flanders from the Simpsons”.
After his first ballet class, Liam was hooked. “I think after my first class I was just like, ok, that’s my life now. I don’t want to do anything else.”
He graduated from the Australian Conservatoire of Ballet at age 17, then moved on to the English National Ballet School in London. After two years there, he got a job at the National Ballet of Bucharest under Johan Kobborg. Then two years later he moved onto the Northern Ballet in Leeds, under David Nixon, and finally, he moved to the Estonian National Ballet where he is currently still dancing.
Though Liam has been traveling and dancing for many years, his knee injury begun at his first job in Romania. Like many dancers, it came in the most unlikely of ways,
“I don’t know how or why but one day in a rehearsal I went to just sit back on my heels and I felt a big pop in my knee, and then I went to stand up and I couldn’t. I said to my friend, ‘I don’t know what’s happened, I can’t stretch my knee.’ I kept dancing on it and I didn’t really know what it was but then the next day my knee was really swollen I couldn’t stretch it completely and I couldn’t even bend it or put weight through it.”
When the initial pop took place in 2016, he found out that he had a bucket handle tear in his left lateral meniscus.
A bucket handle tear takes place when your lateral meniscus breaks off at a certain point, allowing the cartilage to get caught in the joint.
But after moving to Leeds and consulting with his Physio, Craig Schofield, they decided against operating. “Most meniscus tears you can get away without having surgery. You can just rehabilitate and get it to a functional knee, but the instability of the cartilage flipping was the main problem.”
Liam recalls the stress it caused, never knowing if it was going to flip out of place.
“ I remember doing performances of Casanova and there were so many things on the knees. I remember always crossing my fingers for every show, so nervous that it would happen. Then even in my first week at Northern Ballet, I remember we were just doing a ron de jamb en lair and I felt a pop mid-exercise and I thought, oh no! It’s my first week here, and I’m already having these problems… And whenever it would pop out of place it would take two or three days to settle down because also what happens is the muscles will normally switch on to protect it from further damaging it, but sometimes it can be a false response. It can even just slip out for a split second and go back but then the muscle will still spasm for three days so yeah I would always just massage it like crazy, I would take magnesium and aspirin and ibuprofen.”
But unfortunately, magnesium and ibuprofen could only do so much. When Liam moved to Estonia that was when the real problems began.
“When I came here I did a roly-poly on the floor and I heard the same pop, but it felt different to any other time that it went out of place. When I would try to stretch my knee it would feel like there was something stuck in my knee joint. I went to our Physio here who then referred me to a surgeon, one of the main surgeons in Estonia. He said it was still the bucket handle tear that I had previously, but that piece had detached from one of the parts now and it was completely stuck between my thigh bone.
Liam wasted no time in getting better. After 2 weeks he was on the operating table having a meniscectomy. This means that instead of repairing the cartilage, they took it out altogether.
Normally coming back from this kind of surgery only takes 6-8 weeks, so when Liam’s knee was still completely swollen by week six, he knew something was wrong.
“At about week six or something like that, I was saying to my girlfriend I don’t know why, I just have a really bad feeling in my stomach like something’s not right. I just feel like I need another surgery. I don’t know why but I just feel like it.”
The swelling created a second problem. In knee injuries, when there is too much swelling, the body will create a cyst behind the knee called a popliteal cyst or Baker cyst.
When the fluid can’t go anywhere else it goes into the cyst. If the cyst gets too big it can even inhibit the hamstrings from working properly.
Liam, feeling that something wasn’t right, but being told everything is fine, continued to dance and perform. But his knee continued to deteriorate.
“I continued for the rest of the season just kind of miserably with a huge, huge, huge knee and I kept texting the surgeon, saying it’s not good. It’s much more than eight weeks now and it’s still not getting better.”
But still, Liam was offered no real solution, so he kept dancing.
“That summer I did some performances and some tours as well in Italy and although it was an amazing tour and amazing experience I just remember every night bawling my eyes out as soon as I got home just because of how big my knee was and how depressed I was. Definitely, during the summer I started feeling very kind of lost.”
Often in injuries, people forget about the emotional and mental toll, it can take on a person because all the focus is on the body part that is hurting. Liam said that the hardest part wasn’t even feeling the pain as much as not knowing how to get better, and what that possibly meant for his career.
“The hardest part through all of that was not knowing what the answer is. If something bad happens to you, that’s fine there’s always a solution to it. But when you don’t know actually how, why or what’s causing it, then you can’t fix it. You don’t have control over it. I think that was pretty difficult that summer; for me to know that I’m coming back to my new season with new directors and I’m not healthy.”
Thankfully the new director, Linnar Looris, was very understanding of Liam’s situation. But even so, the problem remained.
“I went to the surgeon again and he just said ‘yeah it’s it it looks fine to me. I can’t tell why it’s swelling up, but probably just need some injections’. So then I got back in touch with the Physio from Northern Ballet, Craig. He said sometimes, the rugby players or even soldiers he’s treated in the past, if their knees or joints still swell up he normally tells them to get hyaluronic acid injections. What that does is, it creates a gel shock absorber in the joint. Then you can rehab it and get it strong. So, I got two injections of hyaluronic acid mixed with PRP and then I also got another PRP injection. This was all from about August to December. In November, as well, I had fluid drained from the cyst behind my leg. They took 15 ml of synovial fluid from the joint; two massive syringes. After that my knee was great. For about two days it was fine! But as soon as I started dancing again, boom, all the swelling just came back. For me, that was when I really hit the bottom. I just thought, come on! I literally just took the swelling out and it’s already back.”
But even then, with no apparent solution to this mysterious problem, confusion started to set in hard. Some experts were telling him he was fine, he could jump and do everything ballet required of him. His Physio back in Northern was telling him to come to England immediately. Friends and psychologists were suggesting it was all in his head. But his knee was still huge and still in pain.
Not knowing what to do, he continued to work and dance as normally as possible.
“So I kind of kept going on. I was still performing as well and not really knowing what to do. Then we came to the Nutcracker season. And there were quite a lot of injuries that year. I ended up doing something like 16 or 17 shows of Chinese which is extremely heavy on the knees. We had some shows of Alice in Wonderland as well. So I had my premiere of Flowers because another colleague’s knee was bad, so I quickly went in and my knee was shocking, I just remembered how much pain I was in.
Getting to the end of his rope, on the 21st of December Liam asked the surgeon for another MRI, to which the surgeon happily agreed. But by January his results still had not come through. January required several more performances of Alice in Wonderland, in which Liam danced Gardeners, another dance that is not knee-friendly as well as doing his premiere of soloist role, Jeff, in Streetcar Named Desire.
“I remember that night walking home, crying and limping. My knee was so swollen. I didn’t even care about the premiere or anything. I just thought, I don’t know what to do.”
On February 9th he had enough, he went to his directors and told them that he would be traveling to the UK to work with his Physio, Craig Shofield, for a maximum of two weeks. His bosses supported his decision, and so Liam flew to England for what turned out to be a 6-month stay.
Upon his arrival, Craig gave him a brand new diagnosis- a chondral defect.
The next day he had his MRI, the day after that the surgeon explained to him the results of the MRI. He had two holes in the cartilage behind his kneecap, one 2cm, the other 1cm. And on top of that, the cartilage had completely delaminated from the bone. To most, this may seem like a lot of bad news, but Liam says,
“Hearing that I felt so happy because all through that process I had people above me saying, you know, you don’t need to do work out, you need to relax, let your body heal on its own. Others saying, maybe you are kind of crazy, you should go back to Australia and relax. But deep down in my heart I always knew there was something seriously wrong. So at that moment, I felt like, ok, I have a problem now, but with a solution.”
Two weeks later Liam got the second surgery with one of the top surgeons in the UK. Within 20 days, Liam had seen a Physio, got an MRI, the results, and a surgery, all while still waiting for the MRI results in Estonia. He and Craig worked hard to get as strong as possible before the surgery to make the recovery process smoother.
Liam had a successful micro-fracture surgery, a surgery where they drill many, tiny holes making the bone bleed. The blood then acts as cement making a fake cartilage.
Not long after the surgery, the world was in a pandemic. This became a huge blessing in disguise, giving Liam all the time needed to recover and get strong again.
“One of my other biggest insecurities in that time was how much time I lost because of my knee injury, but knowing that the pandemic was happening seemed to level the playing field. It kept me calm.”
Liam then turned his room into a mini Physio room and entered into a very intense physiotherapy routine with his life-saving Physio, Craig. After 23 weeks of 7-8 hour rehab sessions per day, Liam was ready to return to Estonia. But the work was not over. Returning to dancing post-injury can be very scary. There are many mental blocks and triggers to overcome.
“My biggest fear was always just getting re-injured. So then I arrived back in Estonia, I finished off my last few weeks of rehab that Craig had sent me and, yeah, I start my season. That first year is very crucial after a micro-fracture surgery in regards to its success. I had a lot of times where I was pretty nervous about starting back dancing again. I remember jumping, I was so scared. It was literally like learning ballet again. For the past four years, I had become accustomed to my knee feeling painful or weird and it completely changed how I worked because I had to compromise for my knee.
Now, a year and a half post-surgery, Liam is shifting his focus more from recovery to maintenance and to “looking like a ballet dancer” again. For his recovery, Liam was required to put on a lot more muscle mass in his quads, to stabilize and support the knee. Reshaping those muscles to look more balletic takes a lot of work.
Liam had his big come-back moment when he had the opportunity to perform Tchaikovsky by Mai Murdmaa, a grilling piece for boys.
“There is one piece we do here, Tchaikovsky, and it’s about eight minutes of just crazy male jumping, and yeah, after my first show of that I remember I felt quite emotional. It really hit me, I’m back.
Also, due to Covid or injuries, when Liam came back he was able to jump in for emergency performances 18 times! “After my first season, I still didn’t feel as though I had a place in the company with my new director and I was really quite nervous about what they thought of me since they hadn’t properly seen me dance in a healthy capacity yet. I was really happy about that because, like, what a better way to say, ‘you can count on me and you can count on my body’, and I can count on me too.”
Looking back there was so much learned during this intense and crazy journey. Having an injury tends to make you or break you. Liam walked away from this injury knowing not just more about his knee, but also about life and himself.
“There were several big lessons. First and foremost and I was a very, very impatient person, and this was like life slapping me in the face and forcing me to be patient. So that’s like one thing I’m really grateful for. The second thing is, kind of the silver lining to it all now, when we’re dancing, we don’t really get to know actually who we are as people. We sacrifice a childhood, we sacrifice a social life, we sacrifice all these things for what we do that we can kind of get lost in the land of tutus and fairies. I felt like this experience grounded me a lot. I had to learn who I was away from the stage and away from all of that and find myself. Even just little things like what I like as hobbies. Then I could come back to my work with all of that. Now, one day, when I do retire, because I’ve already been forced to stop and contemplate Plan B, I won’t have to spend a few years after my career finding who I am or what my interests are.”
I couldn’t end this interview without asking Liam what he would say to someone who is injured right now.
“I would say one of the most important things is, one, to find someone that you can trust. But also to be open-minded with that trust because maybe the trust that you do have in them will turn into your injury still not getting better. My Physio, Craig, he’s incredible. I have so, so much respect for him. Because after all of that all of the help he gave me, he didn’t ask me for one cent, one pound, or anything. He was really a godsend also he’s probably one of the best ballet physios in the UK. He was texting me every single day through the pandemic, ‘Hey how’s your knee going? You need to do this a bit more. Ok, this sounds not so good maybe do more of this’, etc. Really, every single day, asking me, sometimes multiple times a day. I mean without him, I don’t know what I would’ve done.”
Secondly, try to educate yourself about your injury. Once you know what you have, Google everything, look on YouTube, look at exercises, look at why that’s caused, look at all of these kinds of things. You will become a better dancer and a more well-rounded person as well. Be curious and hungry. Especially if you’re injured for a long time- even better actually, because you can use that time wisely and do so many other things. Not to take your mind off of it, but to be more involved and more in control of it. When you are injured you’re losing control, and we all like to have control of situations, so I think through education you actually become more in control of yourself and the situation. It helps so much.
And lastly, never give up. It is out of the question. I think that’s one of the main things that got me through as well. It seemed like I would never kind of get out of it, but I was so determined to not give up and to find a solution.”
When Liam says, never give up, he’s not talking about 2 weeks, 6 months, or even a year. From start to finish the injury lasted 4 years, the worst part being the latter two. But through, dedication, education, and a determination to never give up, he finds himself now dancing on a stage in full health, and also living life more fully because of all that this experience gave him.
I hope this interview is as much of an encouragement to you as it was to me.
If there is anyone reading this that has questions for Liam feel free to email him at Liamsmorris@gmail.com.