When COVID-19 restrictions in March forced the cancellation of San Francisco Ballet’s spring performances and kept its typically physically close dancers apart, the pandemic threw the company off balance like no other challenge it has faced in its 87-year history. But the company and its dancers have adapted in nine months to remain very much on their feet, newly creative, and exploring additional opportunities on the brink of 2021.
The troupe is closing 2020 with an online presentation of “Nutcracker,” its traditional holiday offering, paired with a tour of the Opera House, streaming through Dec. 31. It’s also presenting a virtual season starting Jan. 21 that includes films of classic favorites (captured from the archives) and three world premieres: a work by SFB soloist Myles Thatcher; Danielle Rowe’s first main-stage production for the company, and Cathy Marston’s “Mrs. Robinson,” her choreographic take on the memorable temptress from “The Graduate.”
Nonetheless, the pandemic’s impact on the company’s artistic direction has gone beyond switching to an online-only format and rescheduling canceled spring productions such as “Jewels” and “Romeo & Juliet” to the 2021 season.
“There are some ballets that we would have loved to have filmed for this season, but couldn’t because we were not allowed to have that many people together on site at once,” says Helgi Tomasson, artistic director and chief choreographer, who adds that the premieres by Rowe and Thatcher have been scaled down. “Both had to adapt their previous visions around the restrictions in place,” he says.
Some productions have been postponed, including a new work by New York-based Mark Morris, who prefers to choreograph in the studio, and “The Seasons” by Alexei Ratmansky. Tomasson says, “It would have been a company premiere and had been taught to the company, [but it] has such a big cast that it was impossible. … We simply cannot do, are not allowed to do, ballets with large casts.”
Despite scheduling and production disruptions, the company continues to place priority on groundbreaking programming it is known for — on Christmas Eve 1944, it was the first dance group to stage a complete production of “Nutcracker” in the U.S., for example — during the virtual season.
“When Helgi Tomasson and I discussed pivoting to a virtual season, we wanted to make sure it reflected the uniqueness of San Francisco Ballet,” says executive director Kelly Tweeddale. “We are rooted both in classicism and in creating new work.
“We also wanted to push ourselves in not only doing what seemed possible, but rather pull off what at the time seemed impossible — basically creating work that would last beyond a short social media post, something more expansive than a two-dimensional Zoom room. Helgi moved forward with three commissions and then curated works from our archive that represented the broad perspective of the company.”
To develop audiences for the future, the company is also emulating the Churchillian objective of seeking opportunity in the midst of crisis by banking on the combination of innovative productions and the wider exposure an online format provides.
“We are mastering new ways of working by telling our stories and showing the art form through film,” Tweeddale says. “Our expectation is that through the virtual platform and the ability to watch on demand, we will remove barriers to a larger audience, including price, geography and flexibility of schedule.”
But steps toward the creativity and success of the virtual season have not been easy, particularly for the dancers. After the springtime cancellations, dance classes were held virtually — not exactly the optimum setting for a genre that relies on up-close-and-personal interaction.
“When the stay- at-home order was put into place I continued taking ballet classes in my living room, and initially this was very exciting,” says principal dancer Tiit Helimets. “It was nice to meet daily — virtually, of course — with our entire company and figure out this new normal together. But as the months progressed, the act of being physical and active became increasingly more difficult. Suddenly there was no goal to work toward.”
Rehearsals didn’t resume at the company’s studio until September, with dancers wearing masks, divided into pods and tested for COVID-19 three times a week. Still, the return to close contact raised concerns.
“I must say it was very stressful to be in the same room with the rest of the dancers in my pod,” Helimets says. “Every time I was around other dancers, I experienced an extremely heightened sense of self and awareness of others. The danger was when we started to get used to one another, when the vigorous testing gave us confidence that we were not infecting one another. We often got reminders from the staff to keep distance, and that testing does not mean we can now all loosen up and give each other high fives.”
As Helimets adds, working and dancing in masks is incredibly hard.
“Initially, I was hyperventilating after every exercise and my instinct was to want to rip the mask off so I could breathe,” he says “This has definitely gotten better as the weeks have progressed, but it is still not easy.’
The performers had to make due with resources they had at home to maintain their dancing shape during the period before they could return to the studio.
“Dancing from home is survival and you can maintain some form of dancing shape, but for the most part it is a huge blow to one’s technique,” Helimets says. “I cannot say I had an effective solution for how to keep myself in a good dancing shape. … To do so it always meant I had to leave my house to go somewhere, and that meant potential exposure to infection, so I did what I could to stay at home and not interact with people outside my household in person.
“That being said, my Zoom schedule was pretty active. Multiple meetings a day kept me busy and my mind off the pandemic.”
The sudden isolation imposed by COVID was jarring, but also an incentive to improvise at home to try to stay in shape as well as adjust to the new reality.
“It was very difficult at the beginning of the lockdown as our season was canceled before it really started,” says principal dancer WanTing Zhao. “At first it felt so unreal; I felt trapped mentally and physically. Professionally, I couldn’t do much besides try to stay in shape. What worked best for me was to develop a daily routine that consisted of doing yoga in the morning and, after that, taking an online ballet class in my kitchen.”
Principal dancer Wei Wang says, “I pretty much transformed my living room space into a tiny dance studio. It was definitely difficult to keep up with my physical form, what I have when I am doing shows and rehearsals, but I had hoped the best I did would result in a little less ‘suffering’ when I actually got back to the studio one day. Now that we’re back in the studios, I think I did OK.”
The uncertainty about when they might return to a more predictable way of life is another challenge the dancers are facing.
“I saw this when San Francisco Ballet made plans and every week the new plans got ripped down,” Helimets says. “The company made so many efforts to keep us all informed about the news, but eventually it all sank in that it will be very long before we see some normalcy in our lives.”
Production plans also were affected. In November, unexpected circumstances required quick thinking and adaptation when the company was filming a section of “Mrs. Robinson” with principal dancers Sarah Van Patten and Joseph Walsh in a “generously donated” suite at the Fairmont San Francisco.
Ballet master Anita Paciotti says, “The process got off to a great start, until the day before the shoot when new mask orders went into place in The City, requiring masks indoors at all times. The option was to film the sequence outdoors on the roof deck of the hotel! Quick rethink! Much of the outdoor filming took place between 8:30 and 11 p.m. on two very chilly, damp nights. Sarah and Joe were absolute champions of the situation, and I believe that we got a remarkable capture.”
As for the Ballet Orchestra, music director Martin West says its members are sociable animals who need to play together to keep their playing up to standard.
“We rely on seeing and breathing with each other to play as one, and it is something that needs to be done constantly in order for an orchestra to stay in peak shape,” West says. “It was very strange to come back to work with the strings last month and start conducting with everyone so far spaced apart. It took us all a while to get used to the feeling of ensemble again.”
During COVID, the orchestra’s pandemic-necessitated practice of recording music instead of performing live in front of the dancers has required some adjusting as well.
“Personally, it is very strange to record music for the dancers, when I don’t have them in front of me,” West says. “I have realized how much I rely on seeing them to shape my performances in the pit. I have had to re-create my performances from memories only.”
While the dancers have been able to carry on without live music and were finally reunited under controlled conditions for rehearsals in September, they still miss the experience of performing before a live audience.
“Live audiences are a vital part of what we do and of the experience a dancer has in performance,” says ballet master Katita Waldo. “Missing the opportunity to share our work with people in a theater has been very difficult.”
And, as Paciotti points out, “Every performance has its own life, its own vibrancy, and no two are exactly the same.”
Despite the move to digital productions, the dancers have remained focused on giving peak performances.
“The dancers have been extremely disciplined throughout in their efforts to maintain their physical shape and stamina,” Waldo says. “Taking classes on Zoom until we were given the go-ahead to return to the studio was a huge part of their regimen as well as cross-training with other types of activities. It was wonderful to see how well they had maintained themselves and how quickly they have come up to speed physically.”
That process of getting up to speed physically proved a motivating factor when the dancers returned to the studio, which, in turn, made for stronger bonds among them.
“I find that I have gotten to know my coworkers better on a personal level,” Helimets says. “Maybe the result of this pandemic has been that we are a lot closer as a company than we were before.”
The company is eager to return to live performances when that becomes possible, but, in the meantime, it hopes to learn from pandemic-posed challenges.
“In a sense, we’ve experienced a newly recharged sense of discipline, a new commitment to innovation, continuing to create and share while being adaptive during trying times. These are some of the things I hope we can carry forward,” Tomasson says.
Presented by San Francisco Ballet
When: Streaming through Dec. 31
San Francisco Ballet Digital Season 2021
Tickets: $289 all access; $34 for single streams
Virtual Benefit: “Leap Into the New Year” includes excerpts from the 88th digital season and a delivered catered gourmet meal. Tickets start at $3,000 for two; reserve by Dec. 31 at https://www.sfballet.org/support-us/special-events/2021-virtual-benefit/. (6 p.m. Jan. 14)
Program 1: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by George Balanchine (Jan. 21-Feb. 10)
Program 2: “Let’s Begin at the End” by Dwight Rhoden; Myles Thatcher premiere; “Sandpaper Ballet” by Mark Morris (Feb. 11-March 3)
Program 3: “Symphony #9” by Alexi Ratmansky; Danielle Rowe premiere; “Swimmer” by Yuri Possokhov (March 4-24)
Program 4: “Jewels” by Balanchine (April 1-21)
Program 5: “7 for Eight” by Helgi Tomasson; “Mrs. Robinson” premiere by Cathy Marston; “Anima Animus” by David Dawson (April 22-May 12)
Program 6: “Romeo & Juliet” by Tomasson (May 6-26)
Program 7: “Swan Lake” by Tomasson (May 20-June 9)