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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”