Orlando Ballet dancer Kate-Lynn Robichaux performs the The Dying Swan

Michael Cairns, Courtesy Orlando Ballet

Returning to Live Audiences: How 4 Companies Have Gotten Back Onstage

Performing in front of live audiences again has been every ballet organization's goal since the COVID-19 pandemic began more than a year ago. With vaccinations on the rise and light appearing at the end of the tunnel, companies are slowly starting to come back to in-person shows.

Pointe spoke to four U.S. ballet companies—Milwaukee Ballet, Orlando Ballet, Avant Chamber Ballet and Columbia City Ballet—about how they have cautiously made their way back to live audiences. For each, the road back to the stage meant a combination of lessons learned throughout the pandemic, adhering to government and health and safety policies, and dogged determination.

"Every step we take now is a bigger step back to normalcy," says Milwaukee Ballet artistic director Michael Pink.

Safety First

Each company took a slightly different path, but all adopted the now familiar health and safety measures that got their dancers back into the studio and working: masks, temperature checks, cleaning and ventilation protocols, regular COVID-19 testing and organizing dancers into small pods to help minimize potential disease spread. Those precautions have also helped to allay safety concerns among dancers about interacting with each other during the pandemic.

"First and foremost was the safety of everyone. No one was being forced into a choice that they were not comfortable with," says Katie Puder, founder and artistic director of Dallas-based Avant Chamber Ballet.

Similarly, Columbia City Ballet artistic director William Starrett, now in his 34th season, says: "Any of our 28 dancers that were not comfortable coming back into the studio or performing during the pandemic could opt out. Their contracts would be there for them next season."

On a darkened stage, Paunika Jones balances in pass\u00e9 and does cambr\u00e9 back while her partner, WIlliam Moore, Jr., holds her waist with his right hand and extends his left arm in second. She wears a red bikini, face mask and pointe shoes while he wears red shorts and brown ballet slippers.

Paunika Jones and William Moore, Jr., in Rendezvous at Columbia City Ballet, from the March program Off the Wall and Onto the Stage: Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green.

Ashley Concannon Photography, Courtesy Columbia City Ballet

Getting Creative

Each company had to deal with various levels of state-mandated theater closings. Most notably, Orlando Ballet, whose home state of Florida kept its theaters open with restrictions throughout much of the pandemic, has been offering live performances since last fall. "We have been very fortunate and have done a lot of the right moves to be able to be doing what we are doing," says company artistic director Robert Hill.

In October, the company presented a pandemic-friendly version of Hill's Sleeping Beauty, keeping the audience capacity at a state-mandated 50 percent. In reality, says Orlando Ballet executive director Cheryl Collins, with proper safety restrictions in place that turned out to be only about 22 percent. The company also modified its ticket pricing upward for select seating sections to financially justify being in the theater.

In addition, Hill made modifications to his ballet, including having the dancers wear gloves as well as masks, and re-choreographing the grand pas de deux so that it was contact-free. Instead of kissing Princess Aurora, Prince Désiré blew her a kiss, which turned into a lighting effect that traveled along a stage curtain to meet her reposed figure. Similar modifications, including cutting the ballet's running time and eliminating intermission, were made to the company's February run of Jorden Morris' Moulin Rouge and April's production of Morris' Peter Pan.

While the company was able to perform in its usual theater, for the others finding a venue and making the process economically viable proved more challenging.

Melissa Meg and Madelaine Boyce, two female ballet dancers, perform a grand jet\u00e9 towards stage right in front of a bright blue backdrop. Each wears a white and green dance dress, pink tights and pink pointe shoes.

Avant Chamber Ballet dancers Melissa Meng and Madelaine Boyce in The Seasons

Sharen Bradford, Courtesy Avant Chamber Ballet

With this being Columbia City Ballet's 60th-anniversary season, Starrett was hell-bent on presenting its annual Nutcracker after not performing all fall. "I had five performance spaces reserved, including a baseball field, fairgrounds and our convention center," he says. As it turned out, the Koger Center for the Arts, where the company regularly performs, received a special variance from South Carolina's Department of Commerce to open at reduced audience capacity: 473 seats (down from 2, 223), socially distanced every other row. In addition to the safety measures mentioned before, audience members wore masks, tickets were sold only in pairs and the theater exits were kept open for ventilation.

Starrett also got creative: He modified the ballet's first act to be set during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, when wearing masks was also commonplace. To help with revenue, the company upped its local performance run from six to eight shows.

Having proved a success with Nutcracker, Starrett applied a similar approach with the company's production of Cinderella this March and to April's season-ending encore presentation of the 1960s-themed Beatles, the Ballet.

Alternative Spaces

In December, Milwaukee Ballet eased back into live performance with The Nutcracker: Short & Sweet, showcasing highlights from the ballet. With Milwaukee's theaters closed, the company decided to utilize its new Baumgartner Center for Dance's 200-seat studio theater. With a new ventilation system, plenty of space and four separate theater exits, the company could adhere to COVID safety guidelines more easily, says artistic director Michael Pink. He also kept performances to an hour, with no intermissions.

They began with 10 audience members per performance for the 26 live showings of The Nutcracker: Short & Sweet. (The company also offered a prerecorded, pay-to-view version online.) They did the same with their To The Pointe program in February and March, which had a state-mandated maximum of 50 audience members per show. Those same measures will be applied to the company's remaining programs, Re Gen (April 22–May 2) and Encore (June 3–13), which revisit popular repertory works. Pink says that the mix of classical pas de deux and small ensemble works wouldn't normally fit into the regular theater's repertoire programs, but doing them at the in-house space has opened his eyes to continuing similar programs there.

Itzel Hernandez does an attitude crois\u00e9 balancing on her right leg in front of a blue backdrop. She wears a green and oragne peasant dress, pink tights, pointe shoes and a black face mask.

Milwaukee Ballet dancer Itzel Hernandez

Nathaniel Davauer, Courtesy Milwaukee Ballet

Taking advantage of Texas' warmer weather, Avant Chamber Ballet took its first live performance outdoors in November to a newly discovered downtown amphitheater that had previously never been used for dance. With COVID numbers yo-yo-ing in Dallas, the venue was one of the few kept open by the city. ACB kept the space to 30 percent capacity for the mixed-repertoire program, and was able to perform to live music. Then in March, in a show of solidarity with other Dallas troupes, the company hosted Together We Dance, a joint production with Bruce Wood Dance and Dallas Black Dance Theatre. Like Milwaukee Ballet, ACB offered its audiences an online pay-to-view option in keeping with its 2020–21 season mix of virtual-only and limited live performances.

As for whether audiences felt trepidation about coming to a live show, most of the directors we spoke with said they couldn't tell. "Our audiences were so happy to have live performing arts to go to. I heard no grumbles," says Puder. "Everyone is just so excited to be able to do something again safely."

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Last summer many intensives were canceled or online-only. And the past school year has been spotty and strange for many, as well. All the more reason to look forward to an in-person summer program this year with excitement—but also, perhaps, some nerves. Take heart, says Simon Ball, men's program coordinator at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. "Once you get there the first day, all those fears will be relieved."

Here, Ball and two other experts share their advice for how to make the most of this precious opportunity to dive deep into dance—and how to handle complications that may get in the way, like injury and drama.

1. Show Off...Your Work Ethic

Summer intensives offer a preview of company life: You'll be dancing in a variety of styles over the course of the day, and all day, everyday. But that doesn't mean you have to be company-ready on day one! Though the first day may be filled with placement classes, try not to approach every class as an audition. "This year has taught us that the work is the important thing," says Ball. "Let go of trying to impress. The best impression I ever receive as a teacher is when I see someone receptive to doing things differently, even if that means taking one step backwards initially, to be able to take two steps forward by the end of the summer."

Angelica Generosa, a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, clearly made a splash during her first of three summers at the Chautauqua Institution's School of Dance. At 14, she was cast to dance the pas de deux from Balanchine's Stars and Stripes in the final performance. Generosa describes her younger self as "very eager." She'll be a guest teacher at Chautauqua this summer, and says that a similar eagerness catches her attention: "Dedication, and willingness to try. That twinkle in the eyes when a step is really challenging."

2. Make Friends

Even if friends from your year-round school will be with you this summer, branch out. During breaks at the studio, you may be tempted to spend time on your phone. "Take your headphones off," suggests Margaret Severin-Hansen, director of Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. "Share that ballet video with the person sitting next to you! Their eyes might see it differently; you could learn something. Or find that you have other things in common, too."

Do things outside the studio, too, even if your social circle is limited for safety reasons to a "pod" of classmates. "Sign up for activities," says Generosa. Go on that weekend shopping trip, or out for ice cream. "Be open," she says. "These are people you might see along the way in your future."

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Simon Ball leads class at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.

Courtesy CPYB

3. Stay Healthy

"The first week is tough—you're going to be sore," says Ball. "Prepare yourself." He means that literally. Before your program begins, ramp up cross-training, especially cardio to build your stamina. Severin-Hansen recommends you also keep dancing. It no longer matters that your regular school might be on break: We now know it's possible to take virtual classes from home or in a rented studio. If you're on pointe, make sure to put the shoes on every day, at the very least for some relevés. Keep the skin on your toes tough; the last thing you want is to be sidelined by blisters.

If you are recovering from an injury or managing something persistent like tendonitis, take action even further in advance. Find out if your intensive provides access to physical therapy, and if not, make a plan before you leave home. Learn exercises and massage techniques that you can do on your own, and ask about virtually checking in with your regular doctor or PT. Once you arrive, says Ball, communicate with your instructors. "Chances are it's a common ballet injury that teachers understand. They'll be able to help you."

During her summer intensives, Generosa often suffered flare-ups of inflammation. "I knew the tendonitis in my knees was from over turning out, and in my ankles from lifting my heels in plié." She was able to alleviate some of her pain by dancing more thoughtfully, addressing those habits. She also got creative about taking care of her tendons during off-hours. "I basically did ice baths in Chautauqua Lake."

4. Deal With Disappointment Constructively

Whether you're placed in a lower level than you'd like or were hoping for a soloist role that went to someone else, disappointment is understandable. Try, on your part, to understand too. The faculty may believe you'll thrive more in that particular group, or see a technical issue better solved by not pushing you too fast. If you're not sure exactly what you should be working on, ask. "Trust that you can make the most of your experience, whatever level you're in," says Ball. "Don't be afraid of the conversation."

5. Avoid Drama

Competition is inevitable, but unproductive competition is unnecessary, and bullying unacceptable. Severin-Hansen lays down a very clear guideline: "Nobody should ever feel uncomfortable." If you hear or see anything that bothers you—whether directed at you or someone else—don't hesitate to speak up. "If there's even one person creating drama, you feel it in the class. Summer is short. There's no room for that." Tell the resident advisor in the dorms, or bring the problem to the school administration.

Angelica Generosa performs an arabessque elong\u00e9 on pointe while her partner stands behind her holding her waist and with his left leg in tendu. She holds her left hand on her hip and extends her right arm out to the side with her palm up. Angelica wears a purple leotard, black tights and a white Romantic tutu while Kyle wears a yellow shirt, black tights and tan slippers.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Angelica Generosa (shown here in rehearsal with Kyle Davis) made notes of corrections she'd received and variations she'd worked on during her summer intensives to help retain what she had learned.

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

6. Fuel the Long Day

Depending on your housing arrangement this summer, you may be on your own for buying or preparing your own meals. Generosa recalls her first time living in a dorm and eating cafeteria food: "I wanted to try everything: pizza, chicken tenders, the salad bar, the dessert section—that was also my introduction to coffee." She found, however, that caffeine and sugar rushes would give way to energy crashes, and soon enough her better knowledge prevailed. "I told myself, 'Angelica, get your protein, vegetables, complex carbs—the right kind of energy.'"

Masking requirements may make snacking at the studios slightly more difficult. Nonetheless, there will almost certainly be somewhere you can safely have a nibble in between classes, whether that's a dancers' lounge or socially distanced in the studio itself. Make sure you always have something with you that's easy to munch on during breaks. Ball recommends protein bars or fruits and veggies. "Hydrating is huge," he adds, and suggests bringing packets of powdered electrolyte supplements to add to your water.

7. Retain Corrections

Take a moment each evening, Severin-Hansen advises, to write a few things down. "Say the whole class got a general correction, like 'Use your head.' The person who takes notes will think about it: 'When could I have used my head?' It's all about how you come back the next day and improve."

Generosa set a goal for herself to get better every day. To accomplish this, she would stay late to practice, she says, "so my body could adjust to what I was trying to achieve in that class." If you're inclined to follow her example, ask a friend to practice with you. You can film each other to get a glimpse of your own progress.

At the end of her Chautauqua summers, Generosa made notes of some things she had worked on and which variations she'd learned. "Then it wasn't like I left and that was that. I brought the summer experience with me, for my whole year."

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