My First In-Theater Performance as a Pro Dancer Included Masks and Social Distancing—and It Was Exhilarating
This is one of a
series of articles following one young dancer as she starts her career in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Two months into my professional career—and eight months after the coronavirus shutdown forced theaters to close and dancers to train virtually from home—I finally feel like I’m back in shape. Throughout October, Eugene Ballet, where I am an aspirant, provided morning company classes, and it was glorious. Even though we were broken up into pods, wearing masks and sanitizing the room after every class, I deeply appreciated our studio time. Each weekday from 9 am to 10:30 am, we practiced in one of two studios with our fellow pod-mates, gradually getting to know each other better and relishing each other’s company (even while staying 6 feet apart).
The classes had amped up in difficulty, as well, pushing us to break out of the “maintenance mode” we had been operating in since the beginning of quarantine. One particular adagio exercise included a full promenade in attitude derrière en relevé (yikes!). But as frustrated as I was trying to rise to the level of difficulty at hand, with time I felt that incredible feeling I’d been craving for so long: improvement.
Our season technically begins November 22. So when Eugene Ballet announced plans for a combined in-theater and livestreamed fundraiser program, Home Is Where the Art Is, for October 31, I couldn’t wait to get into rehearsals. Along with five other company members, I was cast in a new work, In Place, created by our resident choreographer Suzanne Haag. Set to music by Yann Tiersen, the ballet took what we’d experienced in pandemic life—denial, distress, isolation, anger, absurdity and the comfort and community provided by others—and transformed it into a series of group numbers, duets and solos. I’d never danced in a work commenting on the here-and-now, and certainly not one about the social implications of a worldwide pandemic. It seemed fitting for In Place to be my first ballet with Eugene Ballet, the company that had given me my first professional contract despite the most contrary of circumstances.
Home Is Where the Art Is was designed as a fundraiser program separate from our regular season, with proceeds benefiting the construction of Eugene Ballet’s new Midtown Arts Center, opening in early 2021. Split between a small, socially distanced live audience and online viewers, the program marked the company’s first attempt to broadcast a live onstage performance. It would also be the first performance at Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts since March. In short, this had to be a success—not only artistically and fiscally, but to prove both organizations’ resiliency and preparedness to continue performing safely.
After two and a half weeks of in-studio rehearsals, we took the program to the Hult for spacing and tech runs. Each of us had been completing health checks, wearing masks, sanitizing and distancing for quite some time, so those policies were easy to integrate into backstage procedures. Newer safety precautions included extreme divisions of dancers between dressing rooms (I felt so spoiled—my dressing-room mates and I each had about seven mirrors’ worth of space!), hallway traffic patterns designated for company members and stagehands, and marked “safe zones” backstage for dancers who needed to catch their breath, sans mask. And while I’ve used foundation to pancake my pointe shoes and bodice elastics before, for this performance I had to also pancake the white elastics of my costume’s cherry-red face mask to blend in with my jawline. Yet I was much too excited about finally setting foot onstage to really pay attention to the odd novelty of what I was doing.
Laubacher with fellow Eugene Ballet dancer Antonio Lopez in Suzanne Haag’s In Place.
And that excitement was justified. When I first looked out into the empty theater before onstage warm-up class, my world stopped for a moment. Here was the crux of my reality: the culmination of my first professional onstage performance, the months spent desperately wanting to be back in the theater and the sheer uncanniness of pandemic life. I felt a wave of adrenaline, awe and nerves inside me. But as I set my bag down, took my spot at the barre and surveyed the lights, curtains, wings and marley floor, I couldn’t ignore that I also felt at home.
And when I finally took my first step onstage with my fellow company members during Saturday night’s performance, everything seemed surreal. The mixture of distinct newness and comforting familiarity rocked my system with a feeling I’d never experienced before, and one I don’t know I’ll ever feel to that extent again. I could sense it from my fellow dancers, too—every wide eye, deep breath and anxious jitter carried a special weight. After all the months of dancing at home, waiting anxiously and struggling to get back in shape, we had made it back to the stage together. We stood in front of an audience that reached beyond the theater walls, and I took my first professional bow in a state of absolute wonderment. This was, for many reasons, the performance of a lifetime.