A Cinderella Story for Today

written by Bill Kopp

New Ballet lead dancer makes a triumphant post-cancer return to the stage

In early February, San Jose's New Ballet announced that a lead in this year's staging of Cinderella would be Alysa Reinhardt. On the surface, there was nothing particularly notable about that announcement; Reinhardt is an acclaimed and experienced dancer and instructor.

What made the announcement remarkable is the fact that it was even possible. Just a few months after the 2019 ballet season concluded, Reinhardt was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. The disease attacks the human body's lymphatic system, sometimes spreading to organs and even bone marrow.

It all started with what seemed like a relatively minor dancing injury. "I thought it was tendinitis," Reinhardt says. She went home, stayed off her feet as much as she could, and hoped she'd feel better. But a day or two later when that didn't happen, New Ballet founder and director Dalia Rawson advised her to get an MRI. "Thank god for that," Reinhardt says today. As soon as that first MRI was completed, she recalls being told, "You can't go home; you need to stay here and get more testing done." Reinhardt's one-week vacation from her dancing career turned into a long-term pause.

"It shifted my whole life," she says. "A full stop to dancing." Reinhardt moved back to her hometown of Anaheim, and began treatment. "I was on crutches," she says. "I weighed 85 pounds." Doctor's orders meant no movement at all. Her daily routine was pared down to the minimum. "Sleep, try to eat something, and get to treatment," she recalls.

Reinhardt's course of treatment included five months of chemotherapy, followed by radiation treatments over the period of a month and a half. By October 2020, the treatment phase was over. But the nature of the disease meant that Reinhardt's eventual return to dancing wasn't guaranteed.

Nobody told the then-20-year old dancer that, and if they did, she didn't listen. "It was serious," Reinhardt admits, "but it was treatable. I was told, 'It's gonna be horrible, but you're going to see the end of it.'"

Even during the worst and most painful parts of the ordeal, even though the cancer was attacking her bones, Alysa Reinhardt knew that she would dance again. "I knew I needed to get back to dancing," she says. "It's like my oxygen." Within a week after treatment wrapped up, she was back in San Jose, trying to get back to work. "I probably shouldn't have done that," she says with an inward laugh. "But I had to. I wanted that piece of myself back."

The path to full recovery was arduous. "I was so excited to be back," Reinhardt says, "but it was really hard to keep motivated. It was very slow going, but I was determined to get back to my life. And my stubbornness helped!"

In a remarkably short time, Reinhardt had recovered enough to return to the stage. Since returning, she has participated in three seasons with the New Ballet. "I've done Nutcrackers, and I've done Sleeping Beauty," she says. Reinhardt considers the latter from the 2023 season her first "big bounce" back onto the stage.

Ballet is a strenuous discipline, one that requires not just poise but great physical strength. And even once she was recovered, the particulars of Reinhardt's cancer would pose specific challenges. "My tumor was all through my left tibia," she explains. "So with all of the surgery and radiation, I still have numbness there; I can't feel." She emphasizes that ballet dancers depend on the strength in their shins for balance. But because of her condition, she lacks a full and accurate sense of her weight distribution. "So I have had to be more intentional," she says, "thinking more about where my weight is on my foot."

That's on the physical side. There are mental and emotional considerations as well. "I've been giving myself more grace and gentleness," she says with a warm smile. "I have a better understanding now of, 'If it's not going to work out today, these are the steps I can take so that it will work tomorrow.'"

Reinhardt brings a distinctive combination of pure joy and determination to her performance as Cinderella. Dalia Rawson points to those traits as central to who Reinhardt is as a person. "Those are defining qualities in her dancing, too," she says. In fact, when Rawson originally created the role in 2019, she did so specifically with Reinhardt in mind.

Rawson's adaptation of Cinderella strips away many of the themes that she is unafraid to call out as stupid: "Oh," she moans dreamily, mocking the cliché idea of the story's heroine. "I'm going to get a pretty dress and some nice shoes, and then the world will fall in love with me!" Instead, Rawson's staging emphasizes more grounded, real-world qualities. "Cinderella has joy through adversity, and that's what makes her special," Rawson says. "And that's what makes this ballet a perfect vehicle for Alysa."

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