Ballet boy

Jack Widdowson thought his career was over…

It is hard to imagine a steeper decline. In two days Jack Widdowson went from the greatest moment of his promising career as a dancer to lying in a hospital bed, unconscious and seemingly paralysed as a result of a spinal injury.

The 19-year-old had created a role in the world premiere of a new ballet, at the prestigious Bern Ballett in Switzerland. A few days later he travelled to visit his older brother at university in Cardiff — only to be attacked in the street and left for dead.

But what happened in the weeks afterwards is hardly less remarkable: thanks to early and informed intervention, Jack regained his mobility and has since rapidly recovered much of the strength he had before. Now, against the odds, he is poised to dance once again.

The crisis hit in November. Jack’s father, Julian, had travelled to Bern to watch the premiere, and sent home excited text messages to Jack’s mother, Celia, as the evening unfolded. Then father and son returned to Bath, where Jack took a train to Cardiff to visit his brother.

“I met him at Bath station,” says Celia. “But only for long enough to give him his tickets, and a kiss.”

That evening, Celia heard from her husband about Jack’s triumph, while Jack and his brothers, Mark and George, enjoyed a night in the Welsh capital.

Exactly what happened that evening is not clear — Jack cannot remember, and, with a court case coming up, the family are reluctant to speculate. But at some point Jack got separated from the others and at 2am a passer-by found him lying unconscious.

“The first we knew about it was at 5am,” his father recalls, when two police officers knocked on the door and said a person with Jack’s ID had been admitted to the University Hospital of Wales with serious injuries. It seemed that Jack was immobile from the neck down.

As a doctor specialising in sports medicine, Julian knew how serious this was. He woke Celia and they raced to Cardiff by car. In the hospital, Julian and Celia watched Jack being wheeled, unconscious and on a ventilator, from theatre to intensive care. Then they settled down to a bedside vigil for days on end, sleeping on the floor in his room and later at a hotel.

The couple discussed what to tell him, if and when he regained consciousness. And how to help him to cope with life in a wheelchair.

“We tried to think of ways he could use the parts of his body he might have,” says Celia, her eyes welling up. “When I couldn’t sleep, I would think of ways to help him continue to be creative. I thought perhaps we could find software to help him to choreograph.”

Jack started dancing at a young age, following his older sister, Chloe, to a local dance school. Friends were impressed when he was given small parts on TV. After completing his GCSEs he went to board at a dance school in Tring, Hertfordshire. There, in his third year, he won awards for best male dancer, best contemporary dancer and for choreography.

“I have been told that I was always a hard worker,” he says. “I tried to pick up on corrections as soon as a teacher asked. I suppose other people might think they knew better. I have always been told that I was good at applying myself. It might seem quite boring, doing the same thing all the time, but you gradually get more in tune with your body.”

He won auditions for big dance groups in the UK and overseas and grabbed the chance to move to Bern. His father suggested taking a degree first, but Jack was adamant. So the family travelled to Switzerland with him last August, taking him to a flat he had organised for himself. “Kids have to do their own thing,” says Celia mournfully, “and be independent. But it was a big jump to go from being at school to living and working in a foreign country.”

One thing that made his parents happier about the situation was seeing Bern’s theatre, and posters announcing the premiere, three months later, in which Jack might appear. As a junior company member, he was given several roles to understudy. Then a dancer was injured, and Jack was able to shape the role himself. 

“I was quite nervous,” he says. “All the other dancers come to the front to watch what you have created.” When another dancer, in a big role, got injured, Jack took over. He was aware that somebody else’s misfortune was “a great stroke of luck for me”.

But the good fortune ran out in Cardiff. When Jack regained consciousness, he could communicate only by blinking.

One evening, during one of their regular visits, Julian brushed his son’s arm and Jack opened his eyes. “I thought it might have been a coincidence,” Julian says. “I asked, did you feel that? And the response was a blink that meant yes. So I called over the consultant, who went from top to bottom pressing Jack to see if he could feel anything. Once or twice, just to be sure, he asked if Jack could feel anything but without actually touching him. When he did that, there was a look of concern on Jack’s face, so it was pretty clear that he really did have sensation. Suddenly we had some hope that things might improve.”

“That was such an emotional moment,” says Celia. Everybody was in tears. “It was heartbreaking.”

Throughout this time, as a result of news stories about the assault, the family received messages of support from all over the world, which really helped, Jack says. “Especially in those first few weeks when it took immense effort to relearn how to do everyday activities, such as holding a cup.”

Since then, his recovery has been simply miraculous. He was discharged before Christmas, and has kept up a fearsome exercise routine, mostly involving Pilates. Although he cannot do the 120 press-ups he routinely managed in Switzerland, he is already back up to 48.

“I will recover my form,” he says, surprisingly steely. His childhood dance teacher, Dorothy Coleborn, gave him remedial classes, at no charge. To reduce his awareness of impaired performance his mother went along with him. “I was a kind of decoy duck,” Celia says. “It didn’t matter how bad he was, I would always be worse.”

Now the family is launching the Dance Again Foundation, a charity promoting the importance of immediate intervention when dancers are injured. “There is no doubt that his recovery has been aided by the early interventions we were able to make with his flexibility and movement,” says Julian.

Next week, Jack goes back to his old dance school at Tring. Other opportunities are lined up after that, and the company in Bern has said he can return when he is ready.

“I definitely think of myself as lucky. It could have been so much worse,” he says.