Breens Draw from Experience in Guiding Performers

by Jacquelyn Thayer

Interview originally conducted in January 2015.

Since opening their Motion Arts physical therapy and conditioning office in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Veronique and Peter Breen have seen the typical woes faced by any facility working closely with high-level athletes—like the greater Detroit area’s bumper crop of elite figure skaters.

“There’s always the last minute injury that shows up when you’re doing stuff,” said Peter. “It’s not usually the day before they leave for an event; it’s usually like one week before, and it’s always that there’s something that happens and you’re stuck in the middle—you don’t have time to rest and let this heal, but you don’t have enough time to really do a whole lot with it before they go. So that’s where your skill set comes in.”

The drama can be predictable in its emergence. “You almost can count it down,” he continued. “You say ‘One week before an event, here we go, somebody’s going to walk through the door today.’”

And one week before January’s respective U.S. and Canadian Figure Skating Championships, three high-level competitors appeared in search of relief.

“We had a guy come in, strong skater, and I said ‘Go ahead, hold your leg up in the air’ and he couldn’t do it,” said Peter. “He was weaker than my six-year-old daughter. And I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ But it was one little dysfunction in his back, and that just shut that hip right down. Fixed the back thing and the hip turns right around and he’s good to go. And as long as you have that skill set, you can tip the scales just enough for these guys that they can do what they need to do.”

But for the Breens, who uprooted their—originally separate—practices from Boston in 2014, it’s part of the predictable unpredictability of the world of performance. Peter, a former U.S. ice dancer who competed with partner Rachel Mayer at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, followed his retirement from the sport in 1998 with pursuit of an athletic training certification and career in physical therapy, including an initial specialization in dance medicine.

For a decade, Veronique danced with the Royal Ballet of Flanders and Amsterdam’s Dutch National Ballet, following her onstage efforts with work as an instructor and ballet master. A deep knowledge of the physical woes she and other dancers routinely faced prompted study in Gyrotonic and other therapeutic and conditioning pursuits.

While a move to the U.S. marked a cultural shift for Veronique, unfamiliar with the dancers and general arts scene in the Northeast, it was Peter’s involvement with a physical therapy office in New York during its work with the cast of the Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles that first drew the couple into backstage work. Though the locale was new, the territory was familiar for Veronique, who had worked in a similar capacity as a massage therapist with the Dutch National Ballet.

“I realized that there was a need for somebody to be backstage during the performance and to be there to support the dancers if something would happen, as small or big as it can be,” she said. “So that was already in the back of our heads. Being in New York gave us that taste a little bit more on how fun it is to work with those people and how it brought us back into the atmosphere that we know.”

Upon settling down in the Boston area, in 2005 Peter opened a physical therapy clinic next door to Veronique’s Gyrotonic studio, creating a convenient set-up for their clientele.

Photo courtesy of Veronique Breen.

Photo courtesy of Veronique Breen.

“The two of us come from backgrounds where we’ve been at the top level in our respective disciplines,” said Peter. “We know the physical demands, we know the injuries that can happen, and we know how frustrating it is when the medical person that you’re working with or the fitness person that you’re working with doesn’t get it, doesn’t understand the needs that you have as a performer. And vice versa—how wonderful it is when that person just knows, ‘okay, this is what this person is going to need and this is how I need to approach them.’”

The firsthand experience has proven especially fruitful in work with those from their own disciplines, as Veronique has assisted dancers in both Boston and Detroit.

“Veronique has had a gazillion pointe shoes over the years,” said Peter. “So we see the ballet girls come in, especially the kids, and they say ‘Oh, my teacher said to go to the shop and get some pointe shoes.’ And that’s all the instruction that they’ve been given. So they walk in here and they say ‘Now my knees hurt. Can you tell me why?’” The situation proved common enough to prompt Veronique to introduce instructional sessions in pointe shoe fitting.

“For me,” continued Peter, “I know a lot about skates, and these men say ‘Why does my back hurt, I just got brand new skates?’ Okay, we can give you some answers on that. A lot of other facilities can’t answer those questions; they just don’t have that experience.”

But the true challenge comes with variety—different disciplines present some idiosyncratic demands, from quick change to overuse, a phenomenon Veronique cites as underlying a majority of performance injuries.

“They get back problems, they get hip problems, and then it’s figuring out what is the position onstage, in the dance,” she said. “The swinging, flying monkeys in Wicked that always had issues with their shoulders, and figuring out, okay, maybe for the time being you need to switch arms and not hang on the same arm continuously. Or, for a skater, also figuring out how many jumps are they practicing each session and if there is an overdoing of certain jumps that one leg is just going to be too tired to hold it.”

Peter, meanwhile, recalled a particular challenge from the La Cage days. “They were performing at such a high level, but because the training intensity was so hard—you can imagine these guys all doing drop splits on the stage, over and over and over in the can-can out there, and at least half of the men had hamstring sprains. So trying to keep these guys going to get through the premiere and the first few months of their show was quite challenging, but we got it done.”

And each performance discipline presents its own unique set of demands. “Broadway dancers—they also have to sing, and there is a different approach on the knowledge that they need and a different use of their abdominals to be able to sing properly,” said Veronique.

“And certainly if you think about both the demands that your ballerina will have, the demands that your figure skater will have, the demands that your aerialist will have, your Broadway folks—those are all in the same sphere, but they’re all different disciplines,” added Peter. “At the end of the day, you see some similar imbalances and things, we work on them. But they all have different needs for their training, for their performance, depending on the time of season, things they need to focus on. So having an understanding of what does this person need for their discipline can really help guide you and just make it a lot more efficient for them.”

Within the realm of figure skating, both can especially draw from the nuances of their own experience. Off the ice, Veronique introduces skaters to the basics of ballet, creating a level playing field for those less familiar with dance alongside those with stronger training. “They need the artistry, they need the conditioning, so off the ice we do conditioning ballet, contemporary dance, just to get them to move and feel the movement in their bodies,” she said.

While efforts in Boston were concentrated in studio and office, in her current work with skaters of the Detroit Skating Club as well as clients from other area camps she’s moved into on-ice instruction as well, guiding students from the sidelines and providing an additional eye on choreography and presentation.

Photo courtesy of Veronique Breen.

Photo courtesy of Veronique Breen.

“All their movement is very similar to what we do in ballet; they’re just going to glide on the ice on top of it,” she said. “So it’s kind of a full circle from presentation, artistry, even guiding on the costumes.”

Veronique actually credits her own career injuries—a torn meniscus and partially-torn ACL—with her adaptability in educating fellow performers in such expanded capacities. “I understand what it’s like to have that moment where you don’t know what to do with yourself and I ended up working with the costume department,” she said. “So I understand the problems that can happen when something doesn’t fit right, how to do hair, how to do makeup. Basically I guide them in pretty much everything.”

But as an ice dancer, Peter observes the technical ways in which Veronique’s ballet training has been key.

“Growing up in the world of figure skating, it’s kind of structured in its development of technique and learning of skills, but it’s not nearly as structured as what you find in the ballet world,” he said. “In particular, when you get into ice dance and pairs and partnering, these kids are put together at a relatively young age and you skate around and say ‘Okay, go ahead and lift the girl.’ And they’re doing tricks at an early age before they’re physically really ready to do these things.

“So Veronique has found very often that she’s working with some high-level teams, and they haven’t learned some of the fundamentals on how to partner a girl and lift a girl. She’s had years of experience with basic partnering fundamental techniques, and she can really help these guys out—and has helped these guys out—with going back to some of these basics, and it helps their lifts immensely. It’s really cool to watch.”

With a flourishing business in Michigan, the couple have found that for all the job’s adventures, the ultimate prize lies in the chance to share their earned knowledge.

“We’re actually quite happy and privileged to work with all the folks that we do work with,” said Peter. “I think we both have thought, as we left our respective disciplines, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to travel with a tour or something like that, be with this crowd as they go from city to city?’ And at a certain part of your life, you kind of say ‘Gee, that might be nice,’ but having the ability to work with all these different disciplines, in a location where we are right now, is truly great.”

“It keeps you on your toes, it keeps you thinking in different ways,” added Veronique. “The technique stays the same on what we do and what we teach, but how you bring it to them and how you explain it to them and how you can make them understand that they can mimic what they need always makes it exciting.”