While the coronavirus pandemic has brought live performances to a halt worldwide, American Ballet Theatre principal Christine Shevchenko has used the gap in her schedule to realize another dream—and help her colleagues at the same time. Shevchenko teamed up with former ABT corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick and choreographer Joanna DeFelice to found Live Arts Global, a platform to view dance at no cost and bring in new audiences. Their first project: A Night at the Ballet, which safely unites some of the world's most celebrated dancers for a virtual gala performance.
"Dance can be very healing, especially in troubling and difficult times like this," Shevchenko says ahead of the gala, streaming on YouTube from December 17 to 20. "We wanted to bring some happiness to everyone's home, while also providing a way for dancers and crew to work again in a COVID-safe environment." The hour-long performance, sponsored by Bloch, includes excerpts from Don Quixote, Romeo and Juliet and The Nutcracker, and features ABT's Calvin Royal III, San Francisco Ballet's Julian MacKay and Dance Theatre of Harlem's Crystal Serrano, among others. (Shevchenko will be performing too, of course.)
"We worked our butts off to put this together," Shevchenko says. She laughs as she recalls figuring out logistics, like finding a filming location, hiring dancers and raising money—all while following CDC guidelines. "It was a lot, but the result is definitely worth it," she adds.
Ahead, Shevchenko shares how Live Arts Global put together its first gala in just two months.
How did the idea for A Night at the Ballet come about?
My dream has been to create my own gala eventually. I just never had the time to do it because when we work full-time with ABT, we're insanely busy. I was in a slump because there were no performances or rehearsals because of COVID-19, and I reached a limit where I thought, I want to do something on my own because I'm tired of waiting around for something to happen. I thought this would be a great opportunity to start something that I've been wanting to do for a long time, so I reached out to one of my best friends, Melanie Hamrick, in October.
What were some of the biggest challenges in organizing a virtual gala?
Well, I'm in New York, Joanna is in Florida and Melanie is in Europe, so it was a lot of 9 am FaceTime calls to go through what each person had to do. The most challenging thing was finding a space to film. We really wanted to film in a theater to make it look like a real, onstage performance. We probably spent a month looking, and luckily we found Manhattan Movement & Arts Center—they have a beautiful theater in their basement.
Then, we came up with an insane collaboration of dancers from Mariinsky Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, San Francisco Ballet, New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. But, obviously, there was no way the Mariinsky couple could come to New York for filming. We told them the camera angles we needed and what it should look like, and they filmed right on the Mariinsky stage, which is quite incredible. (We are keeping the dancers' identities a surprise)
Shevchenko with Julian MacKay in the Grand Pas de Deux from Don Quixote
Courtesy Live Arts Global
What were the rehearsal and filming processes like?
All of the dancers rehearsed on their own, renting studio space in different locations since we can't all work together. I'd been rehearsing with ABT principal Aran Bell for the past two months, but I'm also dancing with Julian MacKay, who is at SFB, so we were only able to rehearse a couple of times before we filmed. Closer to filming, Joanna was able to come to New York and help, and we worked with an amazing crew, MacKay Productions. Then for the filming of the performance, we spaced everyone out so that there were no crossovers. One couple would come in, film, leave, and we would sanitize the dressing rooms and everything before the next couple would come in.
In the future, where do you see Live Arts Global?
We would love to continue with this and have more impact. Eventually, maybe in the spring, I'd like to put together a bigger gala that could take place live.
What are you most looking forward to, post-pandemic?
In the beginning it was quite challenging because nothing was open. I turned my living room into my dance studio, and I did a lot of ballet class there for the first three months. Now, it's a little easier because ABT is doing classes, and other studio space is open to rent. But what I really miss is interacting with my colleagues and the audience. It feels really lonely right now, and it's weird not to be around people every single day. And for a live performance, you feed off of the energy of the audience—I really look forward to live shows.