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| Art |

Delicate Balance: COVID-19 Is Keeping Colorado Ballet on Its Toes

Asuka Sasaki and the Colorado Ballet.
Asuka Sasaki and the Colorado Ballet.
Mike Watson

After COVID-19 forced the Colorado Ballet to cancel The Nutcracker in its sixtieth season, the company began cutting salaries and furloughing dancers, teachers and administrative staff. Now the nonprofit has launched a relief and recovery fund.

“We have identified three million as our need for the organization, but every dollar counts,” says Gil Boggs, artistic director of fourteen years. “We are assessing the ballet’s overall situation at least twice a month. The relative success of this campaign will certainly factor into our decision-making, and we will make adjustments accordingly.”

The company hopes the sixtieth season picks up again in 2021 with The Great Gatsby (February 5 to 7), The Wizard of Oz (March 5 to 14) and Giselle (April 9 to 18). But these performances are far from guaranteed. Denver Arts & Venues, the city cultural agency that runs the Denver Performing Arts Complex, has shut down the Ellie Caulkins Opera House until January 2021. State safety policies continue to be restrictive, and there are no signs that will change without a vaccine.

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Also, since ballet is an up-close-and-personal art form that requires touching, lifting and the like, it's impossible to rehearse group shows under any sort of social distancing standards, says Boggs. “For us to perform these three productions, we need to be able to first safely return to the studios for rehearsals, and in rehearsals, the dancers need to be able to work together without social distancing. We are working with the city’s Arts & Venues on protocols for everyone to safely return to the theater.”

Melissa Zoebisch, a demi-soloist dancer entering her seventh season, finds these changes depressing. “We have short careers and short seasons that cut the amount of time we get to spend on stage, so this only makes it worse.”

Apprentice dancer Everette Larson is frustrated because not only are dancers' livelihoods on hold, but the performing arts industry has been ignored while government officials have done backflips to bring back professional sports.

“Many countries, especially in Europe, have created multibillion-dollar grants for their performing arts, and the U.S. has barely done anything,” Larson explains. “The Broncos get to play with an actual audience in their stadium. I would like to see that same level of commitment and energy put into the performing arts so we can get back to work.” 

Artists of Colorado Ballet in Feast of the Gods.
Artists of Colorado Ballet in Feast of the Gods.
David Andrews

Although Colorado Ballet took some devastating blows from the pandemic, the company has taken extra initiatives to keep it in what Boggs refers to as a state of "prolonged intermission" while still offering virtual programming to patrons. 

“Over the summer, we released online our full performance of The Move/MENT, an original work choreographed by Cleo Parker Robinson for her ensemble and Colorado Ballet’s dancers,” Boggs notes. “In August, our ballet master, Sandra Brown, choreographed an original work called HOPE that two of our dancers, who were quarantining together, performed outdoors at the arts complex. We will be releasing a special video featuring this virtual performance in a few weeks.”

The Colorado Ballet is also in talks with Rocky Mountain PBS about televising a previous recording of the company's annual Nutcracker performance. Boggs says the purpose of these efforts is to keep patrons engaged during the pandemic. Then, when the pandemic ends, they can eagerly run to the Colorado Ballet with open arms.

Like many public schools, the Colorado Ballet Academy is offering virtual learning this year, a choice that director Erica Fischbach and principal Domenico Luciano felt was the right move for the safety of students and faculty.

“The current pandemic situation continues to change daily,” Luciano says. “We are doing our best to plan for the unknown.”

“The health and safety of our students, families, teachers and staff is of the utmost importance,” adds Fischbach. “We are not willing to compromise anyone.” 

The academy has faced its own set of trials, including Zoom burnout among students and faculty. However, instructor Erika Sandre, who has taught Cecchetti-style ballet at the academy since 2015, appreciates how virtual learning has helped her grow her teaching arsenal.

“When teaching in person, you’re faced with finding ways to mold your teaching style to suit the learning styles of your students,” Sandre says. “With an online platform, not only is this still the case, but we’re also trying to find new ways to tailor our classes to suit our students as well as find innovative ways to ensure that our message of movement vocabulary and technique translates through a screen.”

Kevin Gaël Thomas and Artists of Colorado Ballet
Kevin Gaël Thomas and Artists of Colorado Ballet
Mike Watson

At the end of the day, though, Sandre finds solace in the fact that whether conducting in-person or virtual teaching, she can still have a positive impact on her students.

“I recently had a parent reach out to express how grateful they were for the energy and enthusiasm that I brought to my classes,” Sandre recalls. "They were so relieved and appreciative of their child being excited to take online classes.

“I simply want to teach,” she continues. "To share my love of dance, be a small part of a student achieving an ‘Aha!’ moment, and making them feel safe and supported.”

Virtual learning is working better than Fischbach originally expected, and the school has a high fall enrollment.  “Our virtual summer intensive was very successful,” she says. “Families were so impressed with our virtual training that we had 35 students register for our virtual fall semester from out of state because of their summer experience or because they had heard about how wonderful our virtual program was.”

As the pandemic continues to ravage the world, the Colorado Ballet is working to get people back on stage.

“I am definitely in the later part of my career, but I still have more to give at the level I would like to,” says principal dancer Francisco Estevez. “This is a very physically demanding profession, and once you feel your body hesitant to move the way you did when you were younger, it's time to start thinking about the next steps. But not yet.”

Zoebisch hopes that when she returns, her performances will transform Colorado Ballet's returning audiences.

“I hope they feel like they have been transported into a different world, to feel something that they don’t feel in their everyday lives," says Zoebisch. "Ideally, something that they want to come back to [and] experience again.” 

Donate to the Colorado Ballet Relief and Recovery Fund at the fund's website; for more information and to see Sandra Brown's HOPE, visit the Colorado Ballet website.

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