When Christopher Tierney fell from the sky during a preview of Broadway's Spider-Man, the horrific crash wasn't just felt in New York's theater world. It sent shockwaves to Houston, where Tierney started his career and is recalled fondly by friends.
"My mom called me (Tuesday) morning as soon as she saw it was Chris on MSNBC," Kelly Myernick, first soloist at the Houston Ballet, tells CultureMap. "Everyone who knows Chris is worried about him. He's one of the most talented dancers I've ever been around. It's upsetting to hear to his safety was so at risk."
Not many people know that Tierney went to the Houston Ballet Academy. He and Myernick were classmates there in 1998 and 1999 and those years served as a springboard for his career. His Houston friends find it strange to hear Tierney referred to as "a stunt man" in news reports. For this is a very well trained classical dancer who branched into things like Spider-Man in a quest for a new challenge.
"He was so excited about doing Spider-Man," Myernick says. "Chris is definitely one of the most fearless performers you'll ever come across. He was always daring in dance, trying things that no one else would even attempt. This production was perfect for him. It just fit his personality."
Now, the 32-year-old dancer lies in a New York hospital with cracked ribs and internal injuries, facing back surgery Wednesday afternoon. His brother Patrick Tierney told the New York Daily News that Chris' career could very well be over. Myernick reached out to Tierney's dad to try and get more of an update, but hasn't heard anything yet.
Tierney plunged 30 feet into the orchestra pit when his safety harness didn't hold (there are conflicting reports on whether the cable wasn't attached properly, it simply snapped or someone dropped a tether; federal and state authorities are investigating). As Tierney, dressed as Spider-Man, chased Mary Jane up a ramp and leapt off it, he didn't know that anything was amiss until he instantly plummeted. Tierney is the man who actually does the high-flying in Spider-Man for the show's star and face, Reeve Carney. He's the fourth performer hurt since Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark went into production.
Preview performances scheduled for Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon were cancelled in the wake of Tierney's Monday night fall, but producers said the show would go on Wednesday night — with new safety procedures in place. Then, safety inspectors stepped in and the Wednesday night performance was cancelled just three hours before the scheduled opening curtain.
Producers now say that previews will continue on Thursday night.
Actors Equity has criticized Spider-Man's prior safety measures and several Broadway actors have blasted Julie Taymor, the director of the $65-million, super-hyped spectacle, for the fall Tierney suffered.
"I'm with Actors Equity," says Myernick, talking about the group's reaction (Myernick herself is a member of the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA). "There has to be the realization that these are real people with real lives that can't be exploited or taken advantage of. They have to get it right and they should have gotten it right already.
"There are lives in their hands and if they need to slow it down and do things more carefully, that needs to be the first priority."
Myernick pauses when asked if she's ever felt in danger during a performance.
"As we're talking, my right arm is in a sling because of a dance injury," she says. "There's an inherent risk in what we do. We're suspending disbelief and trying to take the audience along. We're willing to take risks ... but it's unfortunate for one show to have things keep happening."
Tierney was even more willing to take risks than most. At the Houston Ballet Academy, he quickly became known for pushing the envelope.
"He's more daring than probably any other dancer I know," says Tierney, who has worked with hundreds of dancers. "He always wanted to try something new, to do something differently. He was very unwilling to be the same. He has a unique way of doing things. He wanted to take risks. He wanted to make every performance exciting.
"I think that's one of the reasons he didn't stay in one type of dance company very long. He represents dancers who want to take things one step further."
Now the question becomes: Who was looking out for Tierney's safety? Taymor, the director, clearly relished Tierney's fearlessness. She used Tierney in her lavish Across The Universe musical and turned to him again for some of the most spectacular aerial scenes in her Spider-Man vision.
"I know Chris was really excited to be working with Julie Taymor again," Myernick says. "He couldn't stop writing about it on Facebook. He was so pumped to be in this show."
Tierney only spent a few years in Houston, but he made a mark as a lovable rebel in ballet's often strict structure.
"He's an incredibly talented dancer who never fit into the confines of the ballet world," Myernick says.
The Houston Ballet's first soloist takes a moment as she thinks of her friend lying in a hospital bed across the country. She still cannot help but smile in remembering his days in town.
"Chris was the black sheep of the company in all the best possible ways," she says.
Myernick also imagines the pain Tierney must have been in even as he gave the stunned crowd a thumbs up as he was wheeled away on a stretcher.
"When I heard he flashed that thumbs up ... " Myernick says. "Right after falling ... Well, that's just Chris. He's always about the show."
Part of Tierney's fall was caught on video: