Creating dances specifically for film has become one of the most effective ways that ballet companies have connected with audiences and kept dancers employed during the pandemic. Around the world, dance organizations are finding opportunities through digital seasons, whether conceiving cinematic, site-specific pieces or filming works within a traditional theater. And while there is a consistent sentiment that nothing will ever substitute the thrill of a live show, dancers are embracing this new way of performing.
Still, it's been an adjustment. How are dancers developing performance energy? How can artistry best be communicated through the camera? What is the best angle to present technique? Dance Theatre of Harlem's Derek Brockington explains that dancing for film is "about acknowledging that it's not going to be the same experience—it's a different way of dancing." Below, Brockington and several other dancers share their takeaways after a year of dancing on camera.
Adapting to New Spaces and Timelines
Rehearsing in the back of a crowded studio used to seem like a challenge, but since the pandemic began last year Zoom rehearsals became the norm, and gave new perspective to exploring movement in small spaces. Dancing an entirely digital season this year, Jessy Dick, a company apprentice at The Washington Ballet, explains that learning contemporary movement via Zoom last fall was confusing to translate into the body. "It is hard to feel the movement," says Dick. "I never realized how expansive moving in the studio can feel. The walls mess with your head."
Dick had to adapt and develop mind flexibility, which she says later carried over when the company began dancing in site-specific locations and adjusting to the quick pace of a filming day. When shooting Something Human, by TWB artist Andile Ndlovu, last October, considerations such as natural lighting and weather shaped a single day of filming at Maryland's Patapsco Female Institute. There was little time for dancers to acquaint themselves with the space, adapt and, as Dick says, "just go for it." Yet she adds that the challenge of performing outdoors on unfamiliar surfaces and in tennis shoes or bare feet was balanced by the inspiration of dancing with the wind and sunshine. "The location fueled us to be able to turn it on and off quick," she says, especially when doing multiple takes throughout the day.
The Washington Ballet's Jessy Dick on the set of Andile Ndlovu's Something Human
Mena Brunette of XMBPhotography, Courtesy TWB
Even when filming in the familiar confines of a theater, the recording experience can be intense. San Francisco Ballet principal Aaron Robison describes recording George Balanchine's Jewels at the War Memorial Opera House in January as "one run-through, notes and then a quick touch-up, and we did it again." While rehearsing his role in "Emeralds" was relatively typical (save Balanchine répétiteur Sandra Jennings coaching via Zoom instead of in the studio), the recording day included two back-to-back run-throughs. When asked how he rallies performance-level energy multiple times in a row, Robison explains that knowing that a performance run is complete in one single day of filming gives him the fortitude to push to his max.
Turning On Performance Mode—Without the Audience
The energy between dancers and audience members during a live performance is hard to replicate digitally. Since films are often shot from different angles, dancers have had to explore how to project through different parts of the body and with specificity, depending on the shot. "It involves more thinking than you normally have to do," says Brockington. He says he has to have keen awareness of where the camera is, while also trying to project beyond it and considering the different angles it is potentially capturing.
While Robison's filming process of Jewels was a straight run-through from one angle, he was still performing to an empty theater. Yet he says he drew energy from "the fact that we haven't been able to perform for all this time, and I felt fortunate in that moment being back on the stage."
San Francisco Ballet principal Aaron Robison and soloist Sasha Mukhamedov in George Balanchine's "Emeralds"
Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB
Regardless of the circumstances, being committed to the moment is imperative for a filmed performance to be effective. Not only do viewers need to feel it, dancers want to do justice to the choreography in a way that stands the test of time. "That's the thing with a film," says Robison. "It stays."
Reaching a Global Audience
One of the major advantages to online performances is that anyone can watch from anywhere in the world. On a personal level, dancers from international backgrounds can share their dancing with family, friends and teachers who supported their training. From a more global perspective, virtual performances allow dancers and companies to share their missions on a broader platform.
When DTH initially created Dancing Through Harlem, a virtual submission for Harlem Week last August, it went viral with over 7.6 million views. Brockington and his roommate, fellow DTH dancer Alexandra Hutchinson, conceived, produced and edited the film—with choreography based on Robert Garland's New Bach and set throughout beautiful spaces in Harlem—over seven days in August using an iPad. Not expecting to reach such a large audience, Brockington says that the video's popularity is why representation matters. "I grew up not seeing many ballet dancers who looked like me." Brockington says he was honored to share his dancing and the stunning architecture of Harlem with the world while representing DTH's mission of inclusivity and accessibility.
Another audience added to the pool of viewers is the dancers themselves. Waiting for a film to debut can produce greater anticipation than pre-performance jitters, especially when you're not sure what the final product will look like. Robison explains that while he knows which takes he felt particularly good about, the chosen cut will be what best represents the entire cast—and that isn't revealed until the film is released.
For dancers, being able to watch the work they were a part of is a reward that is entirely new. "There's nothing that compares to the feeling of performing onstage," says Dick. "But it was beautiful to watch my colleagues blossom in front of the camera."
Last week, Ballet West announced that first soloists Katlyn Addison and Hadriel Diniz have been promoted to principal artist. The news marks a historic moment for the company.
Addison, who is Canadian, will be the first Black principal dancer in Ballet West's 58-year history. She joined BW in 2011 and has been steadily climbing the ranks since. In addition to a growing list of featured roles, she has also pursued choreography, creating several works for both Ballet West and University of Utah's dance department. In 2019, Addison participated in an artist exchange with Scottish Ballet, dancing the title role in that company's production of The Snow Queen. "She has dedicated her whole life to this art form, and methodically worked hard to get to this point, and she deserves this promotion," artistic director Adam Sklute has said in a statement on Ballet West's website. "I know she will continue to soar."
Hadriel Diniz in George Balanchine's Prodigal Son
Beau Pearson, Courtesy Ballet West
Diniz, who will be the company's first Brazilian principal, joined BW in 2015 after finishing his training on full scholarship at the San Francisco Ballet School. He's risen quickly through the ranks since, most recently performing the leading role in George Balanchine's Prodigal Son. Sklute praised Diniz's bravura technique. "He is also a consummate partner," Sklute continued, adding that he and Addison are "clear leaders."
Ballet West principal dancer Arolyn WIlliams, shown here in Giselle, has announced her retirement.
Luke Isley, Courtesy Ballet West
The company also announced that several dancers would be retiring, including Katherine Lawrence and Arolyn Williams, two of its longtime ballerinas. Both dancers joined Ballet West in 2004 and have danced as principals since 2011 and 2013, respectively. Lawrence will give her farewell performance in Balanchine's "Emeralds" on Saturday, April 17. Williams, who gave her final performance in Onegin in 2019, has recently had a baby. First soloist Alexander MacFarlan; soloists Katie Critchlow and Emily Neale (Pointe's Summer 2020 cover star); demi-soloist Lindsay Bond; and corps members Jordan Richardson and Lucas Horns will also retire at the end of the season.
In other roster news, three former BW dancers are returning: Amy Potter, who joins as a soloist, and Kazlyn Nielsen and Anisa Sinteral, who will join the corps de ballet. Ballet West II dancers Jazz Khai Bynum, Isabella Martinez Corridon, Robert Fowler, Connor Hammond and Claire Wilson have been promoted to the main company. Congratulations and best wishes to all!
When it comes to navigating summer intensives, 2021 may be more complicated for ballet students than last year. On the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic's spring spike in 2020, summer programs went all-virtual or had very limited capacity. This year is more of a mixed bag, with regulations and restrictions varying widely across state and county lines and changing week by week.
Between vaccines and variants, can students aim for a full calendar of intensive training at local and national summer programs?
In-Studio Classes, Lower Enrollment
Many schools affiliated with major companies are finding ways to make in-person intensives possible, with some offering housing. However, they're doing so at smaller scales to enable social distancing. For instance, at San Francisco Ballet School, administrators have decreased enrollment by 25 percent compared to normal years. Boston Ballet School's Summer Dance Program is expecting to land at two-thirds enrollment overall in both its classes and housing, as compared to a non-pandemic year. While in-person classes are a big improvement from last year, smaller enrollment at major schools means that a large number of students can't be accommodated.
This stressful situation may be heightened by waitlists for those coveted in-person slots. "Yes, waitlists are longer. That said, we've never used one before, so we don't have a good comparison to base that off of," confirms Dave Czesniuk, managing director of Boston Ballet School, over email. "We are sensing a lot of 'wait and see' from the population. We won't be allotting any additional acceptances, since we filled our enrollment and waitlist so fast."
Luckily, the pandemic uncertainty has also meant that some programs are announcing plans later and still hosting auditions through April and May—check out Pointe's Summer Study Guide, which is regularly updated.
Students from Interlochen Center for the Arts in rehearsal
Courtesy Interlochen Center for the Atrs
Should You Go In-Person or Virtual?
Many top-tier intensives, like the ones mentioned above, will offer a combination of in-person training and virtual classes (expanding the latter as a contingent plan if outbreaks occur). Smaller, bubble-like programs are also worth considering, and may be more conducive for social distancing, whether commuter-based or residential. For example, Michigan's Interlochen Center for the Arts, which is offering a virtual option and on-site programs, has outdoor studios, cabin-style housing spaced out on a wooded campus and regular testing.
Other schools are only offering virtual intensives. For example, American Ballet Theatre is not holding in-person programming at its Southern California location and is waiting for more information from its Texas, Florida and Alabama university partners before deciding whether those will be in-person. (The New York City intensive, also still tentative, does not offer housing.)
American Ballet Theatre corps member Zimmi Coker teaching during ABT's Virtual Young Dancer Summer Workshop in 2020
There are pros and cons to each type of intensive, and you should take into account your current training and career goals, as well as safety, when deciding which to attend. For example, younger students, with their shorter attention spans, may be best served at a program that lets them train in person, so that they can take a full class through grand allégro and receive in-person, dedicated corrections.
Alternately, older students often see summer sessions as a chance to get in front of a director and potentially earn a traineeship or apprentice contract down the road. Joseph Morrissey, dance director at Interlochen Center for the Arts, acknowledges that his older students looking to train away from home this summer may feel pressure to network at company-attached programs. But while vaccines may be possible for students over the age of 16 by summertime, he says, he wants them to be vigorous in selecting an intensive for its safety protocols. "I would never sacrifice safety over networking."
Kate Lydon, director of ABT's summer intensives, notes that virtual intensives can be a great place to safely network. She points out that ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School director Cynthia Harvey, ABT Studio Company director Sascha Radetsky and ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie will be teaching at all of the company's two-week virtual intensives—and confirms they will be keeping an eye out for new talent. "These three see more students over Zoom than they normally would because usually they would only be present at our New York program."
This summer may see more dancers staying close to home. Elizabeth Hutter, principal at New Ballet School in San Jose, California, is leery of sending her students to in-person residential programs due to the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak. "What might look sure right now might be unsafe in two weeks," she says. Her dancer daughter, 18-year-old Sarah Patterson, has decided to stay home this summer to take advantage of in-person classes at the New Ballet School's outdoor studio.
Katie Slattery, a faculty member at The Florida Ballet, is seeing a similar trend and says this is a genuine concern for families. "Most of our advanced year-round students who typically go away to an intensive are enrolling here for summer because their parents don't want to send them away due to COVID."
Hutter also notes that many families have been economically impacted by the pandemic, making a residential program—or finding housing if it's not provided—financially challenging. She adds that some schools are charging just as much for their virtual sessions, and that not all families have the same access to at-home training accommodations, like wide space and portable flooring. If your family isn't in a position to pay for full-priced programs, training at your local studio may be the more economical fit with the lowest health risk.
Interlochen Center for the Arts dance director Joseph Morrissey teaches an outdoor class on campus.
Courtesy Interlochen Center for the Arts
Design Your Own Hybrid Curriculum
To get the best of both studio training and national networking, Lydon suggests combining in-person and virtual programs, if possible. For instance, you could start or end your summer with a short virtual session and also attend a local, socially distanced one.
If that's not an option, keep in mind that the wealth of online training resources, from master classes to cross-training to at-home technique and pointe classes, is likely to continue into 2021. While a smattering of Instagram and YouTube classes can't replace a dedicated training schedule and live teacher corrections, strategically selected virtual classes may help supplement your local training.
Morrissey's advice is to keep everything in perspective. Understand that many students are in the same boat this year, and one summer won't make or break your career if you keep dancing and stay positive. "At the end of the day, the art form is not going anywhere," he says. "It's on maybe a little bit of a pause, it's not fun, it's not comfortable, but we will come back."