When the entire world seemingly shut down in early 2020, dance schools were thrown into a precarious limbo. Many summer intensive acceptance letters had already been sent out while programs faced the question: Could they still hold their sessions during a pandemic? If so, how to safely?
Program directors landed on many creative solutions. And while everyone hopes for a return to vibrant studio life this summer, they now have alternate strategies in case summer 2021 is similarly affected—and even some new ideas they'll carry forth into post-pandemic programming.
To Zoom or Not to Zoom?
The chance to experience life and dance in a new city is a major draw for summer intensive students. Pacific Northwest Ballet School often asks its upper-level students to train elsewhere during the summer to widen their horizons while welcoming new talent into its Seattle studios. Before the 2020 summer session started, PNB's dorm facilities shuttered at the last minute, and the choice to go fully virtual soon followed. Around 60 percent of PNB's accepted summer students registered for the virtual option at reduced tuition, after which PNB opened up registration to its local students.
Summer intensives relying on international exchange may have been hit hardest. The Russian American Foundation's Bolshoi Ballet Academy summer intensives bring Russian teachers stateside to New York and Connecticut each year. The organization made the difficult decision to host the programs virtually in 2020. Rina Kirshner, director of the intensives, says that a lot of artistic and logistical discussions were required in order to move forward with drastic modifications to class length and structure. "Our program is known for the rigor in training and the focus on technique," she says, and "none of those can be really transferred in the virtual format, especially in the home environment of the students and the teachers." The program waived all tuition fees, and Kirshner says that all of the administrators, teachers and student teacher-aids worked for free, and often late at night given the time difference.
Socially Distanced Studios
Even programs hosting in-person classes had to adapt. The Sarasota Ballet School's hybrid program drew approximately half of the usual number of students. Class size was around 12 to 14 students, and school education director and teacher Christopher Hird says that they maintained strict closed bubbles, with health and safety protocols and social-distancing practices. Each group had the same teacher throughout the four-week program. Daily start times were staggered so that different classes wouldn't congregate in doorways. Everyone wore masks, and students had dedicated barre spots and taped squares in center, where they stayed through the end of grand allégro. "At no point did a student have to cross another," says Hird.
Unlike in typical years, students were required to find their own lodging so that Sarasota wouldn't be responsible for any elements outside of the strictly controlled studio environment. Students could also choose to register and pay the 40 to 50 percent reduced tuition on a week-by-week basis.
Across the board, physical dancing hours were fewer. Sarasota held two classes on-site in the morning from 9:30 am to 1 pm: technique followed by pointe, variations, or rehearsals for a culminating theater performance that had no physical audience but was filmed and sent to families. Afternoon classes were held over Zoom and consisted of a second technique class or other styles, like character or Latin jazz, and seminars including stage makeup and meet-the artist sessions.
The Joffrey Academy of Dance in Chicago also leaned heavily on seminars in addition to technique classes. "We wanted to make our program really different from any other intensive," says director Raymond Rodriguez. "That's why we made it specifically Joffrey-centric." They made up for fewer and shorter movement-based classes with deep dives into The Joffrey Ballet's repertoire. Students learned choreography from Mammatus, a ballet Annabelle Lopez Ochoa created for The Joffrey Ballet, and Lopez Ochoa herself led a session on her life and work as a female choreographer. "With everyone on a pause, we were able to connect with many dancers around the world, from principal dancers to artistic directors to choreographers that we never before had this opportunity to expose our students to."
Pacific Northwest Ballet School managing director Denise Bolstad found that seminar offerings actually worked much better in the virtual format. Fitting numerous levels into one building shared with the company is usually a challenge. Zoom made seminars in topics like injury prevention and mental health more feasible.
From a technical standpoint, going virtual—whether fully or partially—proved to be the biggest learning curve. PNB capped its class sizes at 25. "That's basically as many bodies as you can see on a Zoom without having to scroll over," says Bolstad. Joffrey tried three different virtual-meeting-room systems, including Microsoft Teams, before settling on Zoom. Even then, Rodriguez realized they needed multiple accounts with different settings depending on the class type. He learned the hard way that wired connections were more reliable than wireless, but this was difficult to control in students' and teachers' homes. "It was frustrating; you'd think the dancers are dancing off the music, but it's only the delay," he says.
While Sarasota did not broadcast in-person summer classes to students at home, the school started mounting simulcasts in the fall for all classes. That's meant an investment in $5,000-plus worth of equipment, including 65-inch television screens, webcam packages, TV stands and other accessories.
Livestreaming a class from Pacific Northwest Ballet School
One of the biggest pandemic takeaways has been the great cooperation and collaboration between schools. Through a school directors' chapter of Dance/USA, Sarasota and other pre-professional programs are talking about joining forces for summer intensive auditions this year. For example, Hird might teach a Zoom class while teachers from other programs, like Kansas City Ballet School and the School of Pennsylvania Ballet, watch to scout students—and then vice versa. "It's not, 'Our program is better than yours' or 'We're not telling you anything we do.' Everyone has really come together. I could pick up the phone and call any of these school directors, and there would be an open dialogue that's been a really valuable part of this pandemic."
Rodriguez sees the opportunity to reach a wider audience. He recounts a student in China who had been accepted into the program gladly tuning in at midnight her time when the virtual option was offered. In other years, many international students who might have participated didn't because of travel costs or complications. The proliferation of remote options makes worldwide participation more feasible.
Bolstad says that PNB staff ended up connecting with students in a new way in the virtual format. "They had to get much more intimate and connect on a much more emotional level, finding different ways of interacting with them," she says. The students felt it. One letter from a summer student's parent recounted her child's feedback: "He reports every instructor has a big, infectious personality, which we think definitely helps with Zoom classes. And he says the upside of not being in class with other kids is he is forced to focus only on himself."
Bolshoi Ballet Academy faced an extra challenge of language barriers between Russian teachers and American students, normally bridged by in-studio interpreters. Yet, Kirshner says, they were able to bring Russian students from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow into Zoom classes to demonstrate Vaganova combinations. "The students saw Academy dancers who have been living, training in this technique from the youngest age demonstrate it in a very accurate, age-appropriate form," she says. Feedback from families said it was an inspirational alternative to the status quo—one that wouldn't have been achieved in a live format. Kirshner says, "We always say within our program that ballet transcends cultural barriers, and physical borders. I think the takeaway is a reminder of how resilient we are and driven by love for this art form."