Interviews

Jason Lam on his Australian Ballet’s Ken Crichton fellowship

Photo courtesy of Jason Lam.
Photo courtesy of Jason Lam.

Dr. Ken Crichton, who sadly passed away on November 21, 2015, was an expert in the field of dance and sports medicine, mastering the fine balance between ambitions for high performing athletes and dancers, and medical precision to ensure both parties continued with a sound practice. A medical director for many sports and clubs across various fields, he was also a founding member of North Sydney Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine Centre, the doctor for The Australian Ballet for 30 years and worked with Sydney Dance Company and Bangarra Dance Theatre.

In honour of his life, multiple achievements and contribution to the field of dance, The Australian Ballet offered a fellowship in his name, and in 2016, the inaugural recipient was Dr. Jason Lam.

Photo courtesy of Jason Lam.

Photo courtesy of Jason Lam.

Lam met Crichton when he was an injured professional dancer. Inspired by Crichton’s expertise, Lam followed his footsteps to study medicine in order to continue his profession in the realm of dance, specialising in dance medicine. Nearing the end of his general practice training, Lam also spent time doing plastic and reconstructive surgery, dermatology and maxilla-facial surgery and holds a Masters in Sports Medicine, a Digital Media Degree from the College of Fine Arts and a wealth of dance experience. This five-year fellowship will offer mentoring by The Australian Ballet’s skilled dance medicine specialists, and here we catch up with Lam as he commences the fellowship.

Congratulations on such an achievement and honour! With your vast dance experience and achievements in medical studies, we were thrilled to hear that you were selected as the inaugural recipient in 2016! What was it about Ken Crichton that inspired you to follow a similar path?

“Ken was such a wonderful doctor, with impeccable skill and knowledge, but what stuck most in my mind was his kindness and manner in treating me, and all his patients, through what could be a traumatic and scary time. I saw in his career a beautiful blend of two of my great passions, and when I retired from dancing, he was a tremendous support for me when I was studying medicine, throughout medical school and afterward, even when I strayed into plastic and reconstructive surgery, to then when I came back to the sports medicine path.”

When did you start the fellowship, and how is it all going?

“It started in 2016 – though wasn’t announced until later that year in November on the anniversary of his passing – and it’s going very well! I’m involved in a few research projects with the medical team, I work with Orchestra Victoria as their in-house GP, and I am constantly learning from the incredible medical team.”

How is the fellowship partitioned across the five years?

“It’s quite freeform actually. I have one day a week that I’ve dedicated to it, and then if I have extra time, or there is a particular need (like a rush on a research project), then I make myself available.”

How many people are in the Australian Ballet medical team?

“Sue Mayes is the Medical Team Manager and Principal Physiotherapist, with Sophie Emery and Peta Steller (Physiotherapists). Dr. Andrew Garnham is our sports and exercise physician. We have Paula Baird Colt as our Body Conditioning specialist, Stuart Buzza is our Myotherapist, Megan Connelly is our Ballet Mistress and Rehabilitation Specialist, Sakis Michelis does Pilates and Strength and Conditioning with both company and the Australian Ballet School.”

What does a typical day look like for you during your mentoring sessions? 

“There is no typical day! Usually, I’m there for the medical meeting, which helps keep the artistic staff and the medical staff on the same page with respect to each dancer’s injuries and their progress. Then sometimes I spend time with the physios, Dr. Garnham and Paula, depending on what is of interest that day. Often I’m helping out with various research projects or presentations (that digital media degree I did is pretty handy for that). Sometimes that involves doing statistics, literature reviews or wrangling research participants. I’m also available for Orchestra Victoria members as a GP – so I get some general medicine as well – so it’s all very varied, which I love!”

What has been a fascinating thing that you’ve learned so far?

Photo courtesy of Jason Lam.

Photo courtesy of Jason Lam.

“I don’t think I can really identify any one thing. I’ve been really enjoying the depth of expertise in the conservative management of injury and the dedication to early identification and treatment of complaints. I love the great results we can get with that early detection and appropriate intervention – with modified duties and detailed rehabilitation. I’ve learned loads from Dr. Garnham and the physiotherapists, and have also really enjoyed working with Paula – in particular, the use of rehabilitative ultrasound imaging to train muscular action, recruitment and timing. I also enjoy watching Megan work in her coaching sessions – really fine tuning dancers’ technique from the very basics up, which has, in fact, influenced my own teaching of ballet. 

I’m always in awe of the dancers and how hard they work and what their bodies can do (and am pointedly reminded that my body no longer does that and probably could never do that even on my best days when I was dancing).

The other wonderful thing is seeing all these ex-dancers still involved in the art form, all the way from David McAllister the Artistic Director, to Paula and Sakis in the medical team, Eloise Fryer in artistic management, and our whole ballet staff with Fiona Tonkin, Tristan Message, Elizabeth Toohey, Steven Heathcote, Paul Knobloch, Megan Connelly.

It’s quite a thrill to be working alongside such legends of Australian dance and I still get a bit ‘star struck’ at times.

It’s also been fascinating for me seeing the Company through so many different lenses; as a dancer, working with the technical, production and artistic staff in designing Graeme Murphy’s Silver Rose and Romeo and Juliet and now in the medical team.”

How do you combine your dance experience into your practical medical work/sessions?

“I think that my background in dance, dance teaching, and other athletic pursuits, along with the wonderful experience I’m having with the medical team at the Australian Ballet have helped me greatly in my observation and physical examination skills. I’m also very much into conservative management and giving patients the responsibility and control of their own management with my guidance rather than a passive approach. I also strongly emphasise the value of movement, activity and exercise and I hope I model that well (I’m usually sitting on a fit ball and do my house calls on rollerblades).”

Are you studying at the same time? If so, what are you currently studying?

“I’m currently studying for my final clinical exams for General Practice having passed the written component, and also studying for the Part One exams for the College of Sports and Exercise Physicians.”

A dedicated person like yourself would have multiple career goals. What results have you started to see?

“At the moment I’m lucky enough to be doing pretty much what I hope will be my career. I work two days a week in a GP clinic, about half of which is skin cancer work (I love my surgery), I do a day and a half in Medical Education teaching junior registrars, and I do one day in with the Australian Ballet learning sports medicine and doing research.

I’m working on a pretentious short film, which I hope will net me an Oscar – or at least a strut on a minor red carpet somewhere!

My design company is a bit on the backburner but may have some interesting projects coming up. I still do photography and have some weddings of dear friends to shoot.

There are a couple of conferences I’ve been invited to, so hopefully, that’ll happen; pretty excited to present some of the work we’ve been doing.

So, in general, it’s all coming up Millhouse.”

Photo courtesy of Jason Lam.

Photo courtesy of Jason Lam.

After the 5-year fellowship, where do you see yourself?

“Hopefully pretty much where I am now but with more letters behind my name and better pay!

….and an Oscar.

…and maybe a kid and a puppy.”

Remaining connected to the dance discipline is important. Do you get much time to dance yourself as well as teaching?

“I try and fit in a class for myself a week and teach once a week! If I can fit more in that would be good, but tricky as I also need to fit in time to study, work, research projects, riding my bike recklessly and working on the aforementioned short film.”

When you are teaching, how do you utilise your sports medicine knowledge?

“In my body conditioning class, we focus a lot on correct muscle recruitment, alignment, and strength and we keep that theme throughout class.

In ballet class, I try to help guide movement patterns with imagery and structuring of exercises to fit with what I feel makes sense biomechanically.”

Do you find this helps your dancers/students understand the mechanics of their bodies better in order to prevent injuries?

“Hopefully! The classes are pretty casual, so we don’t really have the consistency and graded progress that I’d probably like. Also, I have to balance the ‘fun’ of class with being super pedantic.”

Drawing from your two streams of discipline – Dance and Sports Medicine, what words of advice do you have for all our wonderful dancers reading this?

“I think if you are suffering some sort of niggle, try to see someone who has expertise in dance early – by getting onto it early, we can prevent serious damage and often it’s a hint to look at your technique, and if we can fix that, then we can help you have a long and satisfying career!

In saying that, I would strongly suggest that you have a plan B from quite early on. Injury and illness can strike and leave you without a career rather suddenly – as I found out. I had a spontaneous pneumothorax (collapsed lung) probably just when I was getting into my stride as a dancer, which unfortunately lead to a very rapid about face and some frantic flapping about. I was very glad to have that first degree under my belt which enabled me to transition so much easier.”

Jason, thank you again for your time, and congratulations! We look forward to catching up with you over the next few years to see how it is all going!

By Renata Ogayar of Dance Informa.

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