Master pointe shoe fitter Josephine Lee of the California-based ThePointeShop chats (in Korean!) with Joffrey Ballet artist Gayeon Jung before a performance of Anna Karenina earlier this year to hear all of her pointe shoe hacks and customizations. Jung shares her thoughts on Gaynor Minden verse Freed, why she rotates between different shank strengths, and the joy she felt when she saw her name stamped on the bottom of her shoes for the first time.
Let's be frank: No one knows what's ahead for the performing arts in the U.S. With COVID-19 forcing the cancellation of nearly a year of performances so far, including many Nutcrackers, ballet companies face a daunting path ahead with no roadmap for how to survive. While schools can offer classes online or in small groups, what does the future hold for companies when it's not safe to gather large audiences or corps de ballet?
"We are in for a very hard set of months," says Michael M. Kaiser, chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland. "Nothing will change until there's a vaccine."
Pointe set out to find out what the new normal looks like while the virus is with us.
Online Content and Digital Seasons<p>When COVID-19 hit, it seemed everything moved online that could, from galas to company class. In a recent <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iWxHvH5zMxo" target="_blank">online panel</a>, American Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin McKenzie said the company's May online gala, which did not include much dancing, was well-received but not a financial success. The Washington Ballet's gala centered on livestreamed performances and was financially successful. But afterwards, artistic director Julie Kent, a company dancer and a gala chairwoman became ill with COVID-19, despite social distancing and other safety precautions.</p><p>Can online platforms be a safe, longer-term source of income and artistic outlet for ballet companies?</p><p>Marc Kirschner, a founder of the paid performing arts streaming service <a href="https://www.marquee.tv/" target="_blank">Marquee TV</a>, says this moment is a line in the sand for companies' survival.</p><p>"Whether or not companies can figure out how to incorporate digital into their strategy is going to decide which will fold," says Kirschner. "Linking digital programming to data, marketing and operations is a long-term necessity. COVID has only made this more clear."</p>
Louisville Ballet dancers Mark Krieger and Natalia Ashikhmina
Sam English, Courtesy Louisville Ballet
City Ballet of San Diego's Chelsey Kuhn in Geoffrey Gonzalez's Dark Room Series
Jaroslav Richter Photography, Courtesy City Ballet of San Diego<p>Geoffrey Gonzalez, a dancer and resident choreographer with City Ballet of San Diego, found a way to create new digital work without much risk of spreading the virus with his <a href="https://vimeo.com/430940339" target="_blank">Dark Room Series</a>. He <a href="https://vimeo.com/430957092" target="_blank">transformed</a> the company's studio into a black box and filmed solos that he edited into a 15-minute work, where the dancers sometimes appear to be dancing together. The purpose was to have a touchpoint with the audience but also to nurture artistry.</p><p>"Quarantine was like my feet were caked in cement," Gonzalez says. "I had to find a way to work, and so did the dancers. It was about fulfilling physical and spiritual needs as artists."</p><p>He offered the film for free. He says it's succeeded in keeping the audience interested, and has since managed to receive $10,000 in support from donors to make these socially distant pieces. "People can see we're still working, we're not going away," says Gonzalez. "If we ask for financial help, we need to show there's new things to support, in whatever form."</p><p>Kaiser believes online content is a good tool for audience development, but cautions against companies investing in it too heavily right now at the expense of longer-term planning. "What's critical is not putting another performance online, but getting audiences excited about what the company will be doing when they come back," says Kaiser. "There's a ceiling for how excited people will get about online content."</p>
Reimagining Live Performances<p>Small venues might be the best, and only, option for in-person shows. Gonzalez says the company is scaling back plans in an attempt to keep operating, with a 2020–21 budget of half a million dollars, down from $1.2 million. They are hoping to perform in smaller spaces with fewer dancers on contract, and focus on producing a new <em>Nutcracker</em> they have planned for 2021.</p><p>This strategy worked for some European companies, as Europe is ahead of the U.S. in containing the virus. Norwegian National Ballet split its dancers into small groups and performed in locations across Norway, mostly schools and elder homes. This kept the dancers working and expanded the company's audience.</p><p>"Many of those we met said this was their first encounter with ballet," says Maria Børja, a spokesperson for the company.<strong></strong></p>
A New Daily Life<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f9e72860853301b696babcb425d9ee3b"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/TMlreh-p40c?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Hong Kong Ballet spent much of the spring rehearsing in small groups, wearing masks and conducting temperature checks. Company member Amber Lewis says it was challenging to come back to the studio under these conditions. "In the first few weeks, everyone was kind of afraid to touch each other," she says. "We'd be sanitizing our hands constantly, struggling to breathe in the mask." But as Hong Kong's infection numbers dropped, she says the fear went away.</p><p>However, in mid-July, there was a new wave of infections and theaters had to close once again. Dancers resumed classes on Zoom, followed by a gradual return to the studio starting August 10.</p><p>Hong Kong Ballet's artistic director <a href="https://www.pointemagazine.com/hong-kong-ballet-septime-webre-2638918632.html" target="_blank">Septime Webre</a> says he encourages dancers and directors to find creative opportunities in challenging circumstances. Webre used the time rehearsing in small groups to workshop material for his new version of <em>Romeo & Juliet</em>, which he was able to finish choreographing before the mid-July shutdown. He also moved the company's outdoor pop-up performance series online.</p><p>"The lessons of this time are that we need to keep thinking about new ways to reach our audience and provide them with art. That's not going away," he says. "But it's also that every plan A needs a B and C behind it."</p>
What's the best way to extend the life of your favorite leotard or piece of workout wear? Aside from fabric quality, it largely comes down to what you do on laundry day.
We spoke with Erin Rollins, costume shop manager at BalletMet, for her top tips on keeping your beloved dancewear in rotation for years to come. (Spoiler alert: No, washing and drying everything on the same setting isn't advised.)
Keep it cool<p>"Cold water is always the best option with stretch fabrics," says Rollins. "Warm is okay, but hot water should be avoided." Why? It can damage the fabric's elasticity over time. Plus, if your clothing has bright or deep colors, opt for cold—heat can have adverse affects on color fastness. </p>
Regular versus delicate cycles<p>The majority of leotards, sports bras and activewear can be laundered on a regular cycle, says Rollins. Tights, leotards and anything that's delicate (like lace or lightweight mesh) should be set aside for a delicate cycle or hand-washing. </p><p>Be mindful of anything with hooks, which can damage other items. Rollins recommends washing your tights in a lingerie bag to avoid snags.<span></span></p>
The drying debate<p>When it comes to using a dryer, "there's a lot of debate about this in wardrobe land," says Rollins. "Many wardrobe managers will avoid drying garments because it elongates the life." But she points out that company costumes have a very high value and often need to last at least 10 to 20 years. "Most dancers don't need their rehearsal wear to last like that, so drying really isn't that big of a deal."</p><p>In fact, if your leotard is looking saggy, the dryer's heat can help the elastic in stretch wear "spring back." And if it's a synthetic fabric, shrinking usually isn't an issue. </p><p>One exception to using a dryer: If the tag lists more than 5 to 7 percent cotton. With cotton, colors fade and the surface of the fabric can develop a fuzzy white layer. Using a dryer speeds up that process. </p>
Caring for your favorite pieces<p>A washing machine is never foolproof, warns Rollins. "There is always the potential for 'laundry disasters': snags, tangles, shrinkage, dye stains from other clothing, etc." That said, clothing made from heavier fabrics, like sports bras, activewear and some leotards, will generally hold up fine. </p><p>"But if the item is made from a super-lightweight fabric, or has lace, or if I <em>really</em> love it and want it to last forever, I might hand-wash it, so I'm certain it stays intact," she says. </p>
How to hand-wash<p>Fill a sink or tub with cold water, add a very small amount of clothes detergent and swish it so suds start to form. Soak your item for 30 minutes, then rinse it in clean, cold water. Roll the clothing in a towel to remove excess moisture, and let it air dry on a plastic hanger or rack. (Avoid wire hangers, which can rust, says Rollins.)</p>
About those stinky, sweaty clothes...<p>"Odor in clothing is usually due to bacteria, and bacteria will only grow if you give it time to get started," says Rollins. Post-class, don't throw your damp clothes in your hamper, or let them sit in your dance bag or a locker for more than a few hours. "That's a great recipe for gross." </p><p>Salt from sweat can also wear down stretch materials, notes Rollins, so wash promptly if you can. </p><p>If you're not doing a load right away, let your clothes dry before you add them to the basket. And if you're worried about the lingering stench, soak it in cold water for 30 minutes before washing it with warm water and putting it in the dryer. </p>
What she wishes dancers would stop doing<p>"Don't <em>ever</em> wash your tights with anything that has color," says Rollins, recalling a dancer whose tights had turned grayish pink because she'd washed them with her leotards. "The majority of dance tights are made with nylon—a magnet for dye. If there's anything else in the washer that has color, and even a tiny bit of that color escapes, the tights will grab that color and never let it go." </p>
When buying new dancewear, consider fabric, weight and weave<p>Aside from how you wash your dance clothes, Rollins says these three factors can shorten their lifespan:<br></p><ol><li>Fabric: "Natural fibers like silk, cotton and bamboo break down more quickly and show holes."</li><li>Weight: "If a fabric is super-light, sheer or thin, it will wear down more quickly."</li><li>Weave: "If the weave has large holes that you can see—like mesh or lace—it will be more likely to snag."</li></ol><div>If you're looking for dancewear that can go the extra mile, opt for opaque, synthetic material that feels thick when held between your fingers.</div>
We revisited some of Pointe's past cover stars for their take on how life—and ballet—has changed.
Patricia Delgado, August/September 2010<p><strong></strong><strong>Then:</strong> Principal dancer, Miami City Ballet</p><p><strong>Now: </strong>Part-time Juilliard faculty, répétiteur, freelance dancer and Broadway producer</p>
Patricia Delgado and Justin Peck in Peck's Sleep Well Beast
Paula Lobo, Courtesy Patricia Delgado<p><strong></strong><strong>What's changed since then: </strong>"I retired from MCB and moved to New York to be with my husband, Justin Peck. I freelance danced, began teaching at Juilliard, staged Justin's ballets around the world and was associate choreographer on the upcoming Steven Spielberg film, <em>West Side Story</em>. Currently, I am a producer on a Broadway musical that Justin is developing."</p><p><strong>Advice for dancers: </strong>"The expectations we demand of ourselves are important motivators, but part of what makes each dancer so captivating and unique is a sense of self and an acceptance of one's own physique and artistry. Be curious of what else you can learn, without expectations and being judgmental of yourself."</p>