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A Dancer’s Death Hints at ‘a Cult of Secrecy’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a world that is tough, demanding and fiercely competitive, they are among the young elite. Lean and full of life, they come to the big brick building that houses the Boston Ballet with their muscles taut and their dreams fixed firmer still. Athletes and artists in equal measure, the young dancers who fill this prestigious group’s corps de ballet are driven, determined and, to a one, immensely talented.

But even in such rarefied company, Heidi Guenther stood out. “She was funny, she was cheerful and she was just so vivacious,” said Anna-Marie Holmes, artistic director of the 45-member Boston Ballet. “She was a lyrical dancer who was very smart; she learned her combinations quickly,” Holmes said. “Definitely an up-and-coming talent.”

But on a visit home to California on June 30, the 22-year-old dancer abruptly slumped over in the back seat of the family van while on a trip to Disneyland. Her body arched into the kind of contortion that nobody but a dancer can accomplish. She died so quickly that her mother, pumping gas at the time, thought she must be kidding.

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An autopsy revealed no identifiable cause of death and toxicology reports are pending. But a statement from the Boston Ballet that Guenther’s death “was precipitated by an eating disorder” rekindled old and deep-seated concerns about the toll of excessive dieting on healthy, athletic young bodies.

Although Guenther had recently complained to her family that her heart had been racing and beating heavily, her death staggered those who knew her. “She was very strong and energetic,” Lola de Avila, the associate director of the San Francisco Ballet, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “She had beautiful energy. She was the kind of student who was always in the front row, always willing to take corrections and learn new things.”

“Women all over this country are killing themselves trying to be too thin, not just dancers--athletes, your mother, your sister, your girlfriend, your daughters,” wrote one online chat participant, who noted that a news story on Boston TV about the dancer’s death was immediately followed by an ad for the Jenny Craig weight-loss program.

“I want to see bone,” the legendary choreographer George Balachine often barked at his New York City Ballet dancers. A Balachine poster hangs prominently near Holmes’ office.

Guenther danced as she was: quick, energetic, effervescent--a soubrette, in ballet parlance. Soon after Guenther joined the company in 1994, it was Holmes who told the 5-foot-3-inch dancer that she was looking “a little pudgy.”

“It was an adolescent thing,” Holmes said here Tuesday at the company’s spacious, modern headquarters in the South End. “Aesthetically, we thought she could be a little thinner.” She recalled telling Guenther to shed five pounds.

Guenther declined the ballet company’s offer to refer her to a nutritionist. Instead, friends say she resorted to the dancer’s well-known diet of rice cakes and fresh fruit. She quickly slimmed down. “She looked beautiful and she danced beautifully,” Holmes recalled.

But by January of this year, Holmes was telling Guenther that she had lost too much weight. At about 100 pounds, according to ballet records, she was considered “dangerously thin.”

“We hope you are eating well,” ballet officials told Guenther in a meeting about her weight. She assured them she was. In May, before she returned to California for summer break, officials again told her to gain weight.

Devon Carney, one of nine principal dancers in the company, the nation’s fourth largest, remembered stopping Guenther in the hall one day last winter. “Hey Heidi, you’re looking pretty thin there,” Carney told her. But even Guenther’s friends felt awkward about pushing beyond that point.

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Weight is a touchy issue among dancers, and “there is a cult of secrecy” about eating disorders, said Bruce Marks, the ballet’s artistic director emeritus. “There’s a lot of denial. It’s like drugs. We don’t know there’s a drug issue until someone overdoses.” Marks said ballet officials often worry among themselves about their dancers’ weight, “but at what point can you go to someone’s house and see what’s in their refrigerator?”

Dr. Richard Gibbs, the San Francisco company’s supervising physician and a former dancer, wondered: “Are we driving these kids too hard? I don’t think so. These kids want to be there. We hear the stories of the teachers who are the army sergeants, but for every one like that there five very caring ones. I don’t know of another endeavor that focuses on problem-solving like ballet. I’d love my kids to take it up. It has such a healthy aspect to it.”

In December, when Marks directed Guenther in the “Nutcracker” he too took her aside. “Heidi, you’re just not looking good,” he said he told her.

But Guenther’s colleagues said they also felt stymied because the San Diego native showed no telltale signs of such conditions as anorexia nervosa or bulimia. Her brown hair was thick and lustrous, the skin tone was radiant and her teeth were bright white. Bulimia can turn teeth orange, and many eating disorders cause hair to turn dull, then to fall out in clumps. Skin often looks pale and flat.

Besides, Guenther--one of 22 members of the corps--never seemed neurotic about her body or her food. “She ate,” Holmes said. “She ate well.”

Guenther’s mother, Patti Harrington, was too distraught to speak about her daughter’s life or death. But Cathy Fischer, a family friend in San Francisco, described Guenther as a well-balanced young woman who did not seem overly obsessive about ballet.

“Unlike other dancers, she was very good at separating the ballet world from the rest of the world,” Fischer said. When Guenther was a student at Washington High in San Francisco, Fischer said, one of her favorite pastimes was hanging out with her buddies at the legendary Mel’s Drive-In.

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As a child, Guenther took up gymnastics. By 5, she was at the level of a 15-year-old, which alarmed her mother, a hotel concierge, who suggested that Heidi try a less strenuous activity. She flirted with jazz dancing and then gave ballet a shot.

Soon her mother was driving 200 miles to San Francisco from their home in Los Osos, south of Morro Bay, on Saturdays so that Heidi could take classes at the city’s prestigious ballet school. When Guenther’s parents divorced, Heidi moved to San Francisco with her mother and a younger sister and brother, in part so that Heidi could pursue dancing.

At 12, Heidi enrolled at the San Francisco Ballet School, which shares a four-story modern building with the dance company in the shadow of the city’s ornate Beaux Arts Opera House. The school takes children as young as 7 and molds them into dancers, who by 18 or 19 are ready to start professional careers.

Heidi’s mother turned down a scholarship that would have allowed her to finish her education at a private arts school. “She wanted her to have a normal life,” Fischer said.

“Normal,” that is, for a gifted athlete. Before long Guenther was appearing across the street at the Opera House, dancing the part of a flower in the “Nutcracker,” playing a peasant in “Swan Lake” and the Lilac girl in “Sleeping Beauty.” Twice she picked up the school’s coveted Hellman merit scholarship. She spent summers training at the School of American Ballet in New York and the Houston Ballet School.

In 1994, her last year at ballet school, Guenther performed with the company in Balachine’s “Symphony in C” at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Later that year she joined the Boston Ballet.

In Boston, ballet officials said her death has prompted a reassessment of how far the company should go to manage its dancers’ personal lives. At summer school they’ve begun nutrition counseling, and at least one young dancer came forward to seek help. Under Marks’ tenure, the company became known for cultural diversity and its array of “diverse” body types--not that fat dancers were among them. Many choreographers, Marks among them, have drifted away from the emaciated Balachine model.

The ballet company is away on summer break, so no official memorial has been scheduled. But in a letter to Guenther’s mother, Marks promised to dedicate a fall performance to her daughter.

Marks had directed Guenther in “Romeo and Juliet,” one of the young dancer’s favorite ballets. And he said the performance that he dedicates to Guenther will seem empty without her.

“Like Juliet,” he wrote to Guenther’s mother, “Gone too soon.”

* Times staff writer Mehren reported from Boston and freelance writer Ybarra from San Francisco.


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