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>
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>
Sylvie Guillem and Éric Vu-An, two former leading dancers with the Paris Opéra Ballet, were both muses to Maurice Béjart. The boundary-pushing choreographer created several roles for each of them throughout their careers, including the 1985 duet "Mouvement, Rythme, Étude," when Guillem was just 20-years old and Vu-An just 21. In this excerpt from the ballet, the pair juxtapose technical brilliance and finesse with Béjart's playfully absurd post-modern movement.