Companies Resume Rehearsals via Zoom

With No Live Performances in Sight, Some Companies Resume Rehearsals via Zoom

Ballet companies are in a bizarre holding pattern right now. With studios and theaters shut down indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic, how do they keep the repertoire alive and dancers in shape? A handful of companies, including Pennsylvania Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem, are pressing on with rehearsals, even with no confirmed performances.

“When you think of rehearsing remotely, with no space and spotty internet, how beneficial is that going to be?” asked Nicholas Patterson, a corps de ballet member with Pennsylvania Ballet. “But it’s been a different kind of rehearsing. The tools they’re giving us really help.”

Patterson says it’s been a struggle to find some normalcy since the virus hit in mid-March, but that when rehearsals began again at the end of April, it was almost like old times. “It was nice to get back to the routine of a typical working day, class and then rehearsals,” he says. “Even if it has a new set of challenges.”

Rehearsing in Makeshift Home Studios

Patterson returned to his hometown of Richmond, Virginia, where there’s more space to rehearse virtuosic ballets like Stanton Welch’s Clear. With the marley squares the company provided, he’s able to move full out—sort of. “I can jump and turn in place, but I can’t travel,” says Patterson. “You keep having to stop and back up to stay on the marley and on camera. It limits the flow of the rehearsal somewhat.”

Christopher Charles McDaniel of Dance Theatre of Harlem built a home studio in a spare room that most quarantined dancers would be envious of. With 8 feet by 8 feet of sprung marley floor, he’s been enjoying a busy Zoom rehearsal schedule. “The building of the studio inspired me to work and push myself like I’m in a normal situation,” he says.

DTH’s Crystal Serrano, however, lives in a space that is likely familiar to dancers in big cities: a small New York City apartment with roommates, and neighbors who complain of the noise from pointe shoes. Because of this, she participates in classes and rehearsals without turning on her video camera. “With my camera off, I’m more at ease to take in the work without having judgement from people, or myself, when I’m dealing with less than ideal conditions,” she says. “They have to trust I’m doing the work and absorbing the material.”

Learning and Refining Choreography

Group work and partnering are obviously challenging, if not impossible, to work on via Zoom. Rehearsal directors and choreographers have had to find ways to make individual work beneficial in new ways. Patterson says that when rehearsing Clear in the studio, he relied on visual cues. On Zoom, he has to master the challenging counts of the music. “We dissected everything count by count, so everyone knew for themselves when to exit, enter, point their foot, look up, everything,” he says. “When we get back to the studio, we’ll be in unison and on the same page in a way we weren’t before.”

Nicholas Blanc, a ballet master at Joffrey Ballet, contributed choreography to a video by a local TV station celebrating Chicago artists staying at home. He filmed himself dancing the phrase of choreography, sent it to the Joffrey dancers to learn, then held coaching sessions on Zoom. The sessions provided an opportunity to improve his verbal communication. “For the dancers not to confuse left and right, I sometimes had to run the rehearsal with my back to the camera,” says Blanc. “It’s already hard to see them, so you have to be so much more detailed in what you say.”

Blanc was happy with the result, but he’s not rushing to choreograph over Zoom again. “It’s a great temporary tool, but it’s not something that I’m so thrilled about,” he says. “Human contact is so important. Zoom can’t reproduce that.”

Keeping Motivated

DTH has been rehearsing repertoire the dancers are familiar with by refining counts and details dancer by dancer. But they’ve also been rehearsing other work to keep the dancers in shape, such as classical variations, that they may not perform.

Serrano, who is one of a few company dancers that rehearses off camera, says that it’s changed what she aims to get out of a rehearsal. “It’s scary not to have the feedback of the person at the front of the room. We are so conditioned to that as dancers,” she says. “I’m really taking this time to work for myself, not needing to show that I’m capable or get the attention.”

But still, rehearsing with no performance in sight is a challenge. “It’s painful to get in really good shape and master choreography but not know what for,” says McDaniel. “But we don’t want to put our careers on hold. We want to be ready to come back.”

I remember the first year that I competed at the Youth America Grand Prix. I was 17 years old and particularly excited to be participating in a competition that focused on ballet. First up for my age group was classical, where I danced Kitri’s Act I variation showing off all of my strengths: personality, speed and the ability to jump and turn. I felt really proud of how it went—imperfect, but not terrible.

The next day I performed my contemporary solo, a dance I choreographed to a jazzy version of The Beatles’ “Blackbird.” I danced in bare feet with my natural hair out. Halfway through the solo I forgot the steps and improvised my way through the rest. I felt mortified, defeated and heartbroken. Later that day, I was pulled aside by one of the competition’s organizers congratulating me (what?) and telling me that they wanted to work to get me a scholarship to The Ailey School. I had already participated in Ailey’s intensive the summer prior and had discovered that modern dance was not the language in which I wanted to develop. I wanted to do ballet.

Last year, in a segment on “The Today Show” on diverse shades of pointe shoes, Dance Theatre of Harlem artistic director Virginia Johnson reflected on the groundbreaking 1970’s-era performance, when DTH founder Arthur Mitchell had the company dance in dyed shoes for the first time. “When the curtain went up you saw a range of people in all different skin tones,” she said. “It was the most exquisite thing to see.” Yet it wasn’t until 2017 that Gaynor Minden made waves as the first pointe shoe brand to offer shoes in a diverse range of shades, saving Black and Brown dancers massive amounts of time and energy spent pancaking their shoes by hand. Freed followed suit in 2018, in a collaboration with London-based Ballet Black. So Danca also offers its Toshie and Aurora models in Mocha, a shade of brown satin.

 Since COVID-19 has forced ballet companies around the world to cancel performances—and even the remainder of their seasons—many are keeping their audiences engaged by streaming or posting pre-recorded performances onto their websites or social media channels. To help keep you inspired during these challenging times, we’ve put together a list of upcoming streaming events and digital performances.

 

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