When Canadian ballet master Curtis Foley arrived in Ostrava, Czech Republic, in early March, he planned to spend five weeks with the National Moravian-Silesian Ballet, serving as a part-time ballet master. The former Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Les Ballet Grandiva dancer had spent the previous four years as a ballet master at the Polish National Ballet, and had recently gone mostly freelance.
But five days after he landed in the Czech Republic, COVID-19 sent that country into a state of emergency, with one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe. Most of the foreign artists working with the company swiftly left before the borders closed. But Foley felt a sense of duty to stay. "I was supposed to be here to help these dancers for five weeks, and if I were to leave, coming back could be difficult since I don't have Czech residency and I'm not an EU national," he says. So he remained, hunkering down alone inside an apartment on the third floor of the theater.
With travel remaining complicated, his original five-week stay has ended up lasting for four months.
"The joke I started with my friends is that I'm the phantom of the opera," says Foley. "There's no one else here but me in this massive labyrinth." Although a skeleton crew of administrative and janitorial staff have come in to work during the weekdays, Foley says that starting at 4 pm every Friday, he knows he'll be on his own until Monday morning.
"It was a novelty at first," he says. "I definitely roamed the halls, thinking, This is never going to happen again! Then that wore off. Now it just feels like home."
Being the only person in the building most of the time has raised logistical questions. "During the first few weeks, the company and I were having discussions like, Is it okay to turn off the heat to save money?" (He said it was.)
But there's been more to do than wander the hallways. The dancers took just one week off after the lockdown, then Foley started teaching company class on Zoom. Soon, as the Czech Republic got the virus under control, five people at a time were allowed in the studio (including Foley and an accompanist). Throughout all of June, he's been able to teach the entire company at once in person again.
In addition to giving class, he also prepped dancers for an International Dance Day performance, including a Don Quixote pas de deux and a couple contemporary excerpts.
During his free time, he's been feeding the ducks at a nearby river as part of his daily routine. He's also been cooking—mostly poached chicken, soups and pasta—in a communal kitchen right outside his apartment (which is outfitted with all the typical appliances except an oven).
It's now been 16 weeks, and with the European Union opening its internal borders, Foley is finally returning to Warsaw where his boyfriend lives. He admits that he's a bit anxious to leave. "This has become my new normal," he says. "Being there for the dancers has given me the motivation to get through the pandemic, to get out of bed every day and think this isn't weird."
He's grateful for the intimate relationship he's built with the dancers while going through this crisis. "It typically takes years to create this kind of relationship, but we got to do it really fast," he says. Soon enough, he'll be back—though hopefully not haunting the theater at night all on his own again.