The coronavirus pandemic has upended plans for dancers everywhere, but perhaps most so for those who signed on with new ballet companies back at the beginning of this year. Pointe asked three of them what it's really been like to weather the financial precarity, professional pressure and general upheaval of switching companies at a time when performance opportunities are far off, and your work as a dancer is confined to a computer screen.
Ashley Simpson: From Collage Dance Collective to BalletX
Ashley Simpson on the set of a BalletX Beyond short film by choreographer Francesca Harper
Tara Keating, Courtesy BalletX
I was so happy to join Collage in my senior year of the Ailey/Fordham BFA program, but BalletX was always the dream. I'd gone to their summer intensive a few times, so when I happened to tour to Philadelphia in January 2020, I asked artistic and executive director Christine Cox if I could take company class. When they offered me a contract a few months later, it was a no-brainer.
I started in May remotely. I had originally figured the pandemic would be cleared up by then. Instead, I had to move my whole life from Memphis (where Collage is based) to Philadelphia at the beginning of June. Luckily, family was there to help. We flew from our family home in West Palm Beach, Florida (where I was quarantining), to Memphis and drove in a little moving van from Memphis to Philadelphia. At the time, there was a lot of civil unrest and protests in Philadelphia. Stores were closed, and it was hard to find an apartment remotely.
What got me through those first few weeks in BalletX was the whole company being in a Zoom room together to take class. Seeing everyone was almost like the energy of being in the same space. At the end of every class, Christine would ask if we were in a peak or a valley. That check-in felt so necessary. We wouldn't have to talk about what was wrong, but we'd send our love to that person. Since then, we've been able to take outdoor class at Cherry Street Pier, rehearse for and shoot dance films, and pod together so we can go into the studios a few at a time. There's one thing I'm grateful for amidst this hardship: Normally, you're thrown into everything, so it was nice to have a slow introduction to the company.
Jonnathan Ramirez: From Tulsa Ballet to Colorado Ballet
Jonnathan Ramirez in Don Quixote
Francisco Estevez, Courtesy Colorado Ballet
My fiancée, fellow dancer Jessica Payne, and I were looking to switch to Colorado Ballet because she has family here. Having danced in Tulsa for 10 years, I was very excited to finish the season strong and say goodbye properly to my career there. Instead, we went into a layoff that just didn't end. Jessica and I owned a house in Tulsa, and we worried that it wouldn't sell because of the pandemic. Luckily or unluckily, it sold a week after we put it on the market in March! So we quarantined with her parents in California before moving to Colorado.
Colorado's been badly hit, so most places have been shut down—Colorado Ballet included. The good thing is that it's a very outdoorsy place. It's helped my fiancée and me that we can go for a hike anytime. What's also helpful is that we were thinking about having to dance at home when we chose a place to live here in Denver. The company gave us two pieces of marley, and we got super-lucky with a big space.
I'm from Colombia originally, and I was getting my green card when the pandemic hit. That's been basically halted, and my work permit didn't arrive in time for the start of Zoom rehearsals with Colorado Ballet, so they legally couldn't pay me for my first week. I was so excited to join that I showed up anyway. Other dancers in the company have organized Zoom happy hours and sent us so many messages of support, offering to help with whatever we need. That they'd go out of their way to make us feel welcome in our new company is amazing.
Ao Wang: From Miami City Ballet to Boston Ballet
Ao Wang takes company class at Boston Ballet
Brooke Trisolini, Courtesy Boston Ballet
Because I grew up with Russian training, four years at Miami City Ballet taught me a lot about balance, technique and musicality. Recently, I noticed myself wanting to do more than Balanchine, and the contemporary European rep at Boston Ballet really attracted me. When Mikko Nissinen offered me a contract this spring I signed as quickly as I could!
In any other year, at the end of MCB's season I'd go back home to China for layoff, renew my visa at the consulate, then return to the States. After everything shut down, I tried to book flights back to China (five times!) because I wouldn't start at Boston Ballet until September 21. Each got canceled. The company even had to intervene and help me get a visa to stay in the U.S. It was stressful, in part because family back in China said I should've stayed in my secure position in Miami. Because my lease was up, I stayed with MCB friends until moving to Boston at the beginning of September.
Unfortunately, my time at Boston Ballet started with a letdown: I was called to learn the Sugarplum pas de deux before we learned that Nutcracker was canceled. I just hope opportunities like that will be offered again once we're back to normal. It's hard to prove yourself as a new dancer when there's no chance to perform, but I'm trying my best anyway. I wanted to join this company so badly that even at this "worst" time to join, I'm happy to be where I can learn—and in a city with better Chinese food than Miami!