Courtesy Kamei

What It's Been Like Performing Throughout the Pandemic

The world looked different when I started rehearsals for the world tour of The Phantom of the Opera. It was January 2019, and my only concerns were to put on the best show possible and to enjoy my time on tour. That December, we settled down in the city of Busan to begin our nine-month run in South Korea. Who could have imagined that in a few months we would be "perhaps the only major show running" in the world?

In February, I started to hear about coronavirus, and I initially thought it would disappear soon. Not many people knew anything about it. But small changes and worries infiltrated our tour. Company management advised us to wear a mask when in public, and we saw most of the audience members and people on public transportation wearing masks.

After the Busan season, we all returned home for three weeks to spend time with our family and friends as planned before flying into Seoul to start our run in the Blue Square theater. While I was in New York City, which had only a few confirmed cases at the time, I watched the numbers in South Korea rise every day. Cast members were texting each other: "Are we safe to go back there?" The producers, general management and company management attempted to calm our fears and prepared us with the safety protocols and guidelines we'd need to follow.

On March 11, the day I arrived back in South Korea to start our Seoul run, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. I remember thinking, "It's serious. Are we really going to open the show?" Little did I know, we would not only open the show but would have 146 performances from March 14 to August 8.

How did we "survive" the pandemic?

Performers, crew members, venue staff and audience members were all given instructions on how to adapt their behavior to minimize the risk of transmission. The company was given a number of day-to-day guidelines: Temperature checks before entering the theater were mandated; everyone was required to wear masks backstage; and performers were only allowed to take them off starting at our one-hour call. Company members were required to file a track-and-trace form when they got to the theater, recording which areas we'd visited during the day so that in the event that a COVID cluster arose, company management would be able to support us to act swiftly.

Hand sanitizer was available everywhere in the theater, and everyone was washing their hands carefully. In addition to regular cleaning, all our costumes and props were sanitized daily by our hard-working crew. I felt safe (considering the world's situation) because everyone was following the rules. South Korea seemed to have a solid hold of this virus. The daily case numbers have steadily and significantly lowered since March. Despite some spikes, they remain relatively low.

Author Ayaka Kamei

Bohyun Yoon, Courtesy Kamei

When one of the performers tested positive on April 1, every single company member and all venue staff underwent tests for active COVID-19 and for antibodies. Given that we spend so much time close together, I was certain that others would have the virus too. To my surprise, only one other person tested positive. The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did forensic tracing and determined that the transmission didn't take place in the theater. As a precaution, we all had to quarantine, and after three weeks, everyone was tested again to ensure nothing was missed.

Most of us sheltered in place in our hotel rooms, where we would wave at each other from our windows. We had meetings, ballet classes and quiz nights on Zoom. I took virtual dance classes from all over the world—with my old teachers from the Metropolitan Opera, plus New Adventures, Hofesh Shechter Company, learning Gaga and Cunningham techniques and more.

We resumed our performances on April 23. To my surprise, the audience returned with their masks, and we played almost consistently to a full house. All of my worries disappeared while performing. I was overwhelmed by gratitude that people still wanted to see us, and that the producers and company managers had kept us safe.

Still, I did have moments of doubt. With the slightest headache, I would become worried. "Do I have COVID-19? Is the show going to close because of me?" I was scared to go outside, so for a while, I only went to the theater and straight back to the hotel. We all had to be responsible and deal with the pressures of being possibly the only performing company in the world.

But we did it. We finished our five-month run in Seoul through the pandemic. Yes, there were stress and sobs thinking of people back home, but I also had happy tears and felt pride. Words cannot express how thankful I was to see the audience at the curtain call every show.

On August 18 we opened in Daegu, our third and final city in South Korea. Unfortunately, following a recent spike in coronavirus cases across South Korea, the Daegu season closed three weeks earlier than scheduled. Another reminder that we have to handle this virus day by day, taking no performance for granted. Now I'm going back to New York City before departing for Taiwan, where we'll resume the tour in November.

Throughout all this, I've learned that it takes both a personal and a community effort to stay safe and healthy. I have hope for the future based on our successes in Seoul. I'm confident that over time, with the resilience and creativity of the performing arts world, things will come back stronger than ever.

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021