Ballet dancers aren’t accustomed to dancing alone.
The art of ballet is a gloriously communal one, from the ritual of taking daily class to the process of choreographic creation, rehearsal and performance. But these days, the dancers of Pacific Northwest Ballet are, like many of us, unable to assemble with their colleagues: The coronavirus pandemic has shut down the PNB season and sent the dancers home. Accustomed to a busy, active workday at the Phelps Center at Seattle Center, where a 90-minute company class begins at 9:15 a.m. and is followed by rehearsal from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., they’re now figuring out how to keep in performance-ready shape while isolated in their living rooms — despite not knowing when that next performance might be.
Though some of the dancers are resting as they recover from injuries, many have embraced the new normal of online ballet classes taken at home — a very different experience from sharing a ballet barre in a vast studio. “At first, it was so hard to get over the fact that I wouldn’t be able to be in a class with my company and directors and ballet masters,” said corps de ballet member Juliet Prine, about the reality of online classes. “It didn’t feel natural and it wasn’t inspiring and motivating like normal class.”
But Zoom ballet class, like Zoom everything else, just takes some getting used to. PNB is now offering its company members three live company classes a week via Zoom, as well as six classes aimed at the PNB School’s Professional Division and several prerecorded classes for use anytime. (The PNB School has also been Zoomified, offering 85 classes a week to its students.)
One advantage to online class: You can join a “studio” anywhere. Companies, choreographers and dancers worldwide are making classes available; many for free or donation-based. Principal dancer Kyle Davis and corps de ballet dancer Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan, who live together in Lower Queen Anne, have enjoyed taking classes taught by dancers they know in other companies. “It’s cool how we can connect with friends that we wouldn’t be able to see in our normal jobs,” Ryan said, calling it a “silver lining.”
Accustomed to discipline and routine, the dancers are finding that having a schedule for their now less-formed days is helpful for motivation. Davis and Ryan do cardio workouts every morning, company class three times a week, and long walks with their dogs every day. Corps de ballet member Abby Jayne DeAngelo works as a nanny in the mornings, then takes daily class at 1:30 (offered at her former school, the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet).
Fellow corps member Sarah Villwock, who’s recovering from an ankle injury, takes “at least one class a day,” does physical therapy exercises and walks in her Edmonds neighborhood. Prine’s daily schedule varies, but she’s learned that it makes a difference in her motivation to get fully dressed to work out every day, in a leotard and tights, rather than “just taking class in your pajamas. Which I’ve definitely done.”
And many are turning to teaching, both to keep their own skills sharp and to connect with others. Prine, who in nonpandemic times teaches yoga at Seattle’s Corepower Yoga, is offering online yoga classes through PNB’s Instagram. (They are, she says, donation-based; “most of the people who are taking are unemployed or furloughed, so I don’t ask anything.”) Ryan and Davis are teaching a cardio class to the school’s Professional Division students. Principal dancer Benjamin Griffiths has been offering a 25-minute workout class for dancers, and corps dancer Cecilia Iliesiu has filmed an ankle warmup and strengthening video.
Working at home, for dancers, has its challenges: Those interviewed confirmed that their living rooms have undergone some significant rearranging, with many of them utilizing the vinyl dance flooring mats that the company has offered to them. (It’s difficult to practice ballet on carpet, or on slick wood floors.) Several have installed barres in their homes. DeAngelo, after struggling with using a countertop for support (“turns out it’s quite slippery to hold on to!”) used Home Depot’s curb service to order a 7-foot wooden handrail and mounting set, which she installed herself at home. Prine, tired of using a bookshelf as barre, is in the process of doing the same.
And Villwock uses a cat tree — often complete with cats — as a barre. Dancing with pets has been one of the lighter spots of this new normal, though it’s been an adjustment for the animals as well. Davis and Ryan’s dogs, Hawk and Magpie, had a “rough” first week with all the dancing in the living room, but now their owners report that they’re doing better (though still confused by the rapid movements of cardio workouts). Villwock’s cats, Casper and Mitzi, will sleep on the cat tree throughout her barre routine, and DeAngelo said her cat Milkshake likes to bask in the sun next to her during workouts.
Cute animals aside, ultimately these weeks and months are about keeping fit and keeping disciplined, until rehearsals and performances can start again. And you can hear the yearning in the dancers’ voices for that day. The company was able to come “together” to film a video of a sequence from George Balanchine’s “Serenade” (filmed separately, with dancers and musicians), an experience that Ryan found “bittersweet … that we can still connect during this time, even if it’s not the way we want it to be, or the audience would want it to be.”
Davis spoke of regret for the repertory programs canceled in the second half of PNB’s season. “I wish we could go back and do those,” he said. But he appreciated the opportunity to take part in “Serenade” — “It’s nice in this time to have something you knew was for the good of your company, a project.”
While no one knows exactly when performances will return, or what a post-COVID ballet class might look like, the company members eagerly anticipate dancing together again, someday. “There’s nothing like going into the studio and seeing everyone standing at the barre,” said DeAngelo. “I think PNB’s really special in that way — it’s a family, it’s our home. And so it’s a big challenge not to get too lonely. It makes it challenging to stay inspired, because my biggest inspiration is who I’m surrounded by every day, my peers.
“Not having that inspiration right there, I’ve had to search it out a little bit more, and find out things to inspire me to keep working and keep moving, because it really is therapeutic once I get started.”