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Louisville Ballet Dancers Return To Work For A Season Like None Other

Louisville Ballet dancer Brienne Wiltsie talks a "pre-contract" class on Aug. 20, 2020.
Louisville Ballet dancer Brienne Wiltsie talks a "pre-contract" class on Aug. 20, 2020.

89.3 WFPL News Louisville · Louisville Ballet Dancers Return To Work For A Season Like None Other

Louisville Ballet dancer Leigh Anne Albrechta never thought her dance career would involve shopping for the perfect face mask. But masks are now just as much a part of her daily routine as her pointe shoes. 

“I’m now quite comfortable in a mask,” she said. 

Comfortable in a mask, but still a little on edge about returning to work. 

Earlier this year, the Louisville Ballet announced its 2020-2021 season would be entirely virtual, featuring streamed cinematic dance works that the dancers will start rehearsing for, in person, on Monday.

Albrechta said getting the news that they had a return-to-work date came with mixed emotions.

“It's a really split thing between being super excited to have a job and get back to feeling like you're doing something that you've kind of put on this earth to do, but at the same time, there's a lot of fear and anxiety behind it,” Albrechta said. 

At the top of her list of anxiety-inducing thoughts, there’s the fear of getting COVID-19, and its short- and long-term health impacts. But there’s also the fear of how the measures to reduce the risk of infection will drastically alter the day-to-day, “stripping away” some logistical and communal aspects of the job that Albrechta has come to rely on, such as a place to sit and prop up her aching feet in between rehearsals or the little social interactions with fellow dancers. 

“It's a double-edged sword where I know it's the most cautious, correct thing you can do,” she said while trying to imagine how it will be to step outdoors in her pointe shoes during breaks with the possibility of bad weather. “It just there's that feeling of, I know I love to dance, but am I going to love my workday anymore?” 

‘Get in, dance and then get out’

Artistic director Robert Curran said the general rule of thumb is "get in, dance and then get out” and that might feel a bit curt this season.

He said dancers will have to pass health surveys and have their temperatures taken before entering the building. Studio doors will remain open for better airflow and, after an hour and a half, the dancers will have to clear out for 20 to 30 minutes to let the air circulate. 

Floors will be disinfected at least twice a day, Curran said, and the ballet barres will be wiped down before every use. 

The 20-plus Louisville Ballet dancers will be broken up into two “pods,” or groups, the full season to minimize contact, as will the members of the Studio Company. This is a method being used by a number of dance companies bringing their dancers back into their facilities. And while ballet is typically high-contact, Curran said there won’t be any touching in choreography, at least for the immediate future. 

“We have to, together, work out quarantine and testing protocols if we were to move into partnering or touching at all,” he said.

The Louisville Ballet School hosted a socially distanced summer program in late June and July, and, according to the ballet, there were no outbreaks. Curran said he learned a few things from the faculty on that. 

“Make sure that you’ve scenario/contingency-planned your butt off. Run through everything that might happen in the space, every direction somebody might turn in the building, everywhere you might think signage could be useful, like really do the work.”

Ballet dancers across the country head back to work with COVID protocols

Companies from Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle to Sarasota Ballet announced virtual seasons, working with dancers in “pods” to create socially distanced pieces that will be streamed or performed outdoors

Colorado Ballet announced it would cancel all 2020 scheduled performances, and the dancers started the season rehearsing via Zoom, hopeful for a spring production of the full-length “Giselle.” 

Artistic director Gil Boggs said they’re doing a phased-plan to get back to the studio, following guidance from the American Guild of Musical Arts (AGMA), the labor union that represents many American ballet, opera and choral groups.

“These dancers, it's literally a year of their career that they're watching go by and anything that we can do to keep them healthy, in shape and working as artists, we will try and figure out,” he said. 

AGMA and the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC) publicly released their “Return-to-Work Playbook” Monday, which only members had initially had access to. It lays out some key protective measures for singing, dancing, stage management, choreography and directing. Louisville Ballet is not a member of AGMA, but there is some overlap.

“Ensuring a safe return to work is now at the forefront of our work even as we continue to navigate the devastating impact of the pandemic on our members and the industry at large,” SDC executive director Laura Penn said in. a press release, adding that this is a living document that will evolve as “new information comes to light.” 

Arecent coronavirus outbreak at the Mariinsky Ballet, one of Russia’s preeminent ballet companies, signaled that it might be a long road back to the theater and big productions. The New York Times reported that European companies had been keeping an eye on the Russian ballet’s steps back to a traditional proscenium stage.

Kat Bower, director of dance medicine with Miami City Ballet and co-host of the podcast The Dance Docs, thinks “we're going to see a lot more spaced out ballets for a little bit of time.” 

And by spaced out, she means more than six feet. 

“We know that with dancers, and anybody who's exercising indoors, the social distancing measures have to increase. So, six feet isn't enough,” Bower said.  

Louisville Ballet will have dancers working 10 feet apart from each other in all directions.

Bower said proper mask wearing will also be key to dancer health, something she fields the most questions about and a topic to which she and her colleagues dedicated an entire podcast episode

“We don't want fidgeting with your mask and... making sure that once that mask gets sweaty, you do have a mask that you can change into,” she said, explaining that a sweaty mask is less effective and can “become a breeding ground for other things.” 

She said she knows of some companies, in which the dancers have made pacts with each other to abide by strict measures outside of the studio as well.

Bower, who also co-wrote Dance/USA’s guidance on returning to dancing and dance training, encourages dance companies to take a holistic approach to bringing their dancers back into the studio because the possibility of infection isn’t the only risk they face returning to work after more than five months of training from home. Bower recommends a progression back to strenuous activity, something the ballet in Louisville said it’s doing, to reduce the possibility of injury. And be mindful of dancer mental health, she said. 

“Dancer mental health is huge throughout this whole process, especially because there is so much unknown, and dancers do tend to live slightly in a world of higher anxiety,” she said. 

Louisville Ballet artistic director Robert Curran said they’ve designed the virtual season to shut things down quickly if the pandemic escalates in the area or if someone at the ballet gets ill. He believes they have to at least try to resume though, because the long-term effects of not doing so could be devastating. 

“Like a scar that we won't be able to remove on the art landscape and on the artists themselves,” he said. “And there's too much crap going on at the moment to not have the potential for moments of inspiration.”

The fears beyond COVID

Louisville Ballet dancer Sanjay Saverimuttu said it felt good to get back into the studio with his colleagues recently, both as a teacher in the school and during “pre-contract” classes offered the two weeks leading up to the start of rehearsals. 

That’s not to say he hadn’t been anxious.

In July, he wrote an essay called “I’m Scared of Going Back,” speaking to a variety of fears he had, from being in front of a mirror all the time again, to losing his passion for the art form and his career, to concerns about racial inequities that have long existed in dance and ballet.

Here’s an excerpt: 
I'm scared I'll become complacent.  I'm scared I will no longer speak out against injustice.  I'm scared of not getting a raise.  I'm scared I'll just be grateful to have a job.  I'm scared they'll use this against me.  I'm scared Black Lives won't matter anymore.  I'm scared our industry won't change.
Saverimuttu, who identifies as Sri Lankan American, said he’s glad the dance industry is talking about racial justice in the midst of nationwide protests. But he wants it to go beyond posting a hashtag. 

Stephanie Wolf | wfpl.org

“It’s not just saying, ‘Black Lives Matter,’” he said. “It’s we're inviting Black students into our spaces... We’re employing Black dancers, Black teachers, Black administrators, and that's also the same for racial diversity and gender diversity.”

Plus "cultivating" Black donors and board members, said the only Black dancer in Louisville Ballet's main company, Brandon Ragland, who has danced with the company for 10 seasons. 

Louisville Ballet recently launched an initiative to address racial disparities in dance training called “Ballet Bound.”

Though both Saverimuttu and Ragland hope the dance industry as a whole will work to advance equity with the same rigor they've seen in the work to adapt to the pandemic. 

"I've been so impressed and moved by the outpouring and support that the dance community has given each other during this time," Ragland said. "I would hope that, moving forward, the dance community would do the same in trying to diversify dance companies around the world and continue to push each other and hold each other accountable."