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Dance Is Tricky In A Pandemic. St. Louis Ballet Looked For A Way To Do It Safely

St. Louis Ballet Executive and Artistic Director Gen Horiuchi, far left, leads a socially distanced rehearsal.
Jeremy D. Goodwin
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Ballet Executive and Artistic Director Gen Horiuchi, far left, leads a socially distanced rehearsal.

On a recent afternoon at St. Louis Ballet’s studio and school in Chesterfield, dancers were dotted along the hallways, finding corners in which to stretch and loosen up. They wore masks to protect each other from the coronavirus.

It wasn’t the crowded scene that would have filled this space before the pandemic, but it was a sign of life following months of dormancy.

Some performing artists, from those in theater companies to St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, have found ways to work during the pandemic. Yet dance, with its call for extended, close contact among performers, is particularly tricky in a time of social distancing. Gen Horiuchi, St. Louis Ballet’s executive and artistic director, composed a piece to fit the times.

“This is Who We Are” features solo dances, short ensemble sequences and three duets, or pas de deux. Horiuchi designed it to be performed and rehearsed with virus safety protocols firmly in place.

Viewers can watch a film of the production, recorded last weekend at Touhill Performing Arts Center, online Saturday through Tuesday.

A season interrupted

The troupe was rehearsing for a planned April production of “Swan Lake,” a key piece of Horiuchi’s 20th season leading St. Louis Ballet, when the pandemic struck.

The company paid its 19 dancers as if the production had gone forward, but limits on public gatherings and an emphasis on social distancing meant that many dancers’ offseason lines of income were interrupted.

For Michael Burke, who usually teaches dance during St. Louis Ballet’s offseason, it was the beginning of a long period of not being able to work. “It was a lot of staying at home, trying to stay in shape and just kind of waiting it out,” he said.

Staying in shape isn’t so easy when ballet studios are closed, so Burke pushed his bed into the dining room of his new apartment and made the old bedroom a makeshift studio.

Fellow company member Rebecca Cornett also looked for ways to keep up with her dance steps at home. “Ballet and carpet is not fun. I do not recommend,” she said.

Fortunately for her, she was already moving into a new apartment with the suddenly crucial amenity of hardwood floors. She laid down some vinyl dance flooring, and a makeshift studio was born. With no idea when St. Louis Ballet would perform again, she picked up a side job testing recipes for her mom’s gluten-free bakery.

Gen Horiuchi sits in a studio that would typically be filled with dancers warming up before rehearsal. Instead, his plan for social distancing creates a much different atmosphere.
Jeremy D. Goodwin
St. Louis Public Radio
Gen Horiuchi sits in a studio that would typically be filled with dancers warming up before rehearsal. Instead, his plan for social distancing creates a much different atmosphere.

“This is what we do”

Horiuchi stayed in touch with his dancers, leading weekly workouts via Zoom beginning in June. He also watched how ballet companies across the country grappled with providing some sort of content to their audiences during a pandemic, including video streams of past productions.

“They’re showing productions, performances from the past. But I’m so tired of watching their old performances,” he said, “or performing outside with the street shoes. So I wanted to do something new, something at the theater. Ballet performance.”

Horiuchi devised a way to use his full company without having too many dancers in the rehearsal studio or on the performance stage at the same time.

This Is Who We Are” is about 50 minutes long. It’s divided into three parts, each a series of solo dances culminating in a short ensemble section with dancers spaced out. Each section has one pas de deux. The piece is set to several of J.S. Bach’s solo piano pieces known as the French Suites.

Dancers perform on a bare stage against a black background. Horiuchi said the piece emphasizes the fundamentals of dance.

“This is what we do. We are individually a dancer,” he said, “and we train ourselves to perform. So hopefully viewers can see individual dancers’ strength, their uniqueness.”

To allow the dancers to work in close proximity safely, Horiuchi assigned two of the duets to pairs of dancers who lived together. For the third, he asked Burke and Cornett to form a pandemic bubble so that they could forgo social distancing.

The two dancers sat down with Burke’s fiance to hammer out safety protocols that would let Burke and Cornette dance together while protecting against the virus.

“That was a really interesting dynamic. The three of us sat down,” Burke said, “before any of the rehearsal process started, just to kind of make sure everything was OK.”

They landed on many common precautions: avoiding indoor dining, only socializing outdoors and passing on a return to their gyms. When Burke’s family visited from out of town recently, he declined his father’s offer of a hug.

Company members Michael Burke and Rebecca Cornett rehearse for St. Louis Ballet's production 'This Is Who We Are.'
Jeremy D. Goodwin
St. Louis Public Radio
Company members Michael Burke and Rebecca Cornett rehearse for St. Louis Ballet's production, "This Is Who We Are."

Socially distanced rehearsals for a socially distanced show

Rehearsals began in early October. In the past, upward of 20 people would typically be present for a day’s warmups and rehearsal. The new safety protocols made for a different scene.

During a rehearsal last week, Horiuchi sat in a far corner of the studio as dancers came in, one by one, to rehearse their solos and duets. Five or six dancers stood in the hallway outside, trying to stay loose, watching through a window and waiting for their turns.

Rehearsal director CiCi Houston gave the dancers notes on their work, from a distance. Horiuchi did the same, counseling Cornett and Burke on their duet but not stepping in to demonstrate as he would have pre-pandemic.

After one group of seven dancers had rehearsed for about an hour, they left the building as another group arrived.

Dancer Roxy Shackleford finished her rehearsal day and said the process has been a bit awkward, but still was a big relief. “It was great — after so long, being able to come into an actual studio and do class, rehearse, do what we do,” Shackleford said.

Julia & Roxy 2

Still, some performers found it awkward to transition from the everyday isolation of pandemic life to rehearsing up close with a dance partner. “With everything about the pandemic, every touch, you’re just more aware of how close you are with this person as you’re dancing,” Cornett said. “Every interaction has been heightened.”

Troupe members kept their masks on until it was their turn to step onstage for the filming of the production; there were individual spots for them to put them down backstage.

Burke said the mask didn’t curtail his moves at all, but it did dampen one form of communication.

“It’s very different seeing everybody dancing with their masks. Because so much of the emotion we are trying to portray comes from our face. And so being able to see people just from the eyes, trying to portray that, is very interesting,” Burke said. “So that’s always a reminder of: Yup, still in a pandemic.”

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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