Wednesday, 28 October 2020 14:24

Still Dancing: Grand Rapids Ballet

Written by  John Kissane
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Alexandra Meister-Upleger and James Cunningham. Alexandra Meister-Upleger and James Cunningham. Courtesy of Scott Rasmussen

COVID-19, far from disappearing, has lately taken stronger root; as of this writing, local cases have recently surged. New cases in Kent County hit their highest daily numbers since the beginning of the pandemic and hospitalizations at Spectrum Health doubled in the past week.

If the present is grim, the future may be grimmer. Experts have sounded the alarm, warning that things will get worse before they get better.

In the midst of that reality, cultural institutions, even (or especially) long-standing ones, have needed to get creative. Grand Rapids Ballet, now in its 49th year, has announced Moving Beyond, its virtual 2020/21 season.

Romeo & Juliet, cast live from Van Andel Arena on September 25 and 26, allowed a trial run. The show was staged by Grand Rapids Symphony and featured in some segments Grand Rapids Ballet dancers. The sight of masked dancers was both eerie and beautiful: a tribute to the importance of art in fraught times.

Artistic director James Sofranko found joy in the process of creating the show. “It was lovely to be able to be creative again. And it’s really wonderful to see art. I know audiences were happy to see that resilience.” 

Sofranko learned from the experience. 

“It gave me a better sense of how I’d want to frame shots and choreograph my own ballets. I found myself thinking about the camera when planning.” 

The realities of the pandemic meant the traditional ways of teaching choreography had to change. He could no longer lead a dancer by the hand; instead, he had to verbalize everything. “I’ve never used my mouth this much in my life.

The impact of our current realities weren’t limited to choreography. 

“We were scheduled to perform Balanchine’s Serenade in April, but that’s out the window.” The piece requires 20 dancers or more onstage together. It’s too risky. Instead, they’ve chosen pieces needing fewer dancers together, rehearsing in masks and staying sensitive to the dancers’ comfort.

There will be four shows in the upcoming season: Business As (Un)usual, which includes among other pieces a world premiere by Darrell Grand Moultrie, who has won a Princess Grace Award and has done work for Beyonce; Collective Force, featuring work by resident choreographer Penny Saunders, also a recipient of a Princess Grace Award, and more; and Jumpstart: On Film, which will be choreographed by the ballet’s own dancers.

And, of course, there will be The Nutcracker

As a ballet company, a large amount of the revenue needed to function comes from the annual Nutcracker performances. How can it be put on during a pandemic? “With a little bit of movie magic,” Sofranko said. “We’ll film different ‘pods’ of dancers and cut it together to create the illusion of a larger group.” 

It’s a solution, although not an ideal one. “It’s been tough. I won’t lie. This won’t bring in the same amount of revenue as usual. We can’t be virtual forever. That said, we’re strong. Artists are creative. We aren’t calling it quits.”

There may be silver linings. “We can reach people who can’t travel to Grand Rapids. There’ve been people out of state buying subscriptions. We’ve got an opportunity to bring live theater performance to those who can’t come to live events for whatever reason.”

On the Grand Rapids Ballet website, Sofranko writes the following: 

“Our mission is to uplift the human spirit through the art of dance.” That mission continues, pandemic or no.

Grand Rapids Ballet 

Business As (Un)usual, November 13–15

The Nutcracker Experience, December 18–27

Collective Force, March 2021

Jumpstart: On Film, April 2021

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