In March of 2020, one day before their latest production was set to open, Pacific Northwest Ballet announced it would be shuttering in-person performances. It was one of many live performance groups across the country to do so, as public health guidance forbade large gatherings in order to contain the spread of COVID-19. It was just when the company had been working hard toward a major premiere with a new artist in residence, Alejandro Cerrudo, PNB videographer Lindsay Thomas recalls.
Thomas, who grew up dancing and now films the company for its social media and marketing needs, was in a unique role: Her work now presented one of the only ways the company could stay engaged with its audience without live performance. “It very quickly became apparent that we would not be coming back, and we started to kind of cobble together … some semblance of the season that had originally been planned,” she says.
That meant recording the final dress rehearsal of the company’s latest production — “making sure that all of the work that was put into that show didn’t just disappear” — and filling in a performance schedule with video from PNB’s archives, including footage of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “Roméo et Juliette” that Thomas edited for digital distribution.
This was new territory for PNB. Ballet companies aren’t necessarily set up for digital distribution — choreography and music rights can add up, says Thomas, and not every company has deep archives to draw on. “There were some companies that weren’t putting on anything because they didn’t have anything that they could work with,” she says.
Still, in 2020 and into 2021, major ballet companies across the country pivoted to digital or hybrid performances, as did several dance companies in Seattle, including Whim W’Him, which shared dance films and performed outside, and Spectrum Dance Theater, which offered prerecorded performances in the socially distanced form of solos.
There turned out to be an audience for digital performances. According to PNB’s internal numbers, 15,370 households watched the company’s digital programming during the 2020-2021 season, across 39 countries and 50 states. In all, PNB commissioned 17 brand-new works for digital distribution, each with its own choreographic flair. “Some choreographers came in and were like, ‘I want this to feel like a live performance,’ ” says Thomas.
But others embraced the innovations made possible by the new digital format, making creative decisions like filming dancers in the orchestra pit, which the audience wouldn’t normally see. “Everyone came with different levels of experience and vision for that, so I couldn’t have predicted how differently everyone would approach their new work,” says Thomas.
The company also expanded content to include features like Spotify playlists, behind-the-scenes footage, messages from dancers or director Peter Boal and even a cocktail-making video. They were all ways of keeping in touch with subscribers and regular audience members — “so that people remember … us whenever we come out on the other side of this.”
Now, PNB is back to performing at McCaw Hall, with “The Nutcracker” primed to bring in new audience members as it has for so long. But the company will still offer digital subscriptions. In part, it’s a reflection of the uncertainty balletomanes have faced over the past year and a half: “We wanted to give our subscribers the confidence to resubscribe… when no one knows what the future holds,” says Thomas.
The transition back to live performance has also been a positive development for the company’s dancers, she says. “It was tough to perform to an empty auditorium, so being able to capture a live audience, it definitely changes the performing for the dancers, in a good way.”
But even with Zoom fatigue, Thomas says, PNB’s audience held on during the pandemic, with patrons consuming more than 53,600 hours of the company’s digital content. “We’ve continued to keep really consistent numbers in terms of how many people are watching our performances.”
And Thomas is still filming, with a focus on “Nutcracker” rehearsals, which had recently featured the excitement of company members taking on new roles in the ballet. Video isn’t the only way for patrons to keep up with PNB anymore, but Thomsas’ focus hasn’t changed. “Sometimes it’s just being in the right place at the right time,” she says. “But I just try to film a lot of things, and if something makes me gasp or gives me goose bumps, I know that’s a good sign.”
The Nutcracker is back! Gather your loved ones for “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” at Pacific Northwest Ballet. With its classic score, thrilling dance, vibrant scenery and costumes, and magical story, “The Nutcracker” is the perfect centerpiece for a Northwest holiday.