After months of working from home, there are things people miss about the office. For ballerina Heather Ogden, it was the floor.
The National Ballet of Canada distributed pieces of flooring to dancers early in the pandemic to assist in their training at home, but the sprung floor at its studios in Toronto provides extra cushioning. Without it, Ogden found jumping – a helpful exercise to stay in shape – more taxing than usual.
“It’s really nice to be back on our floor," Ogden said of the dancers’ return to training together just a few weeks ago. “I had to stop jumping in my house. … We’re dancing in the worst footwear ever. So it’s nice to have support.”
Dancers attend class four to a room, in taped-off squares with a barre to themselves, to maintain distance. A teacher and pianist work in one studio, and dancers in the other rooms watch via video link. Dancers are greeted at the door with a sign that reads, “Get in. Dance. Get out,” with detailed instructions on safety measures such as not removing masks until they are in their squares and leaving the building within 15 minutes of the end of their class.
The company is cautiously returning after months away from the stage and studio, and at the same time is grappling with the financial impact of cancelling first the remainder of its spring season, and then its fall season and the all-important holiday run of The Nutcracker.
Shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic have been catastrophic for arts organizations that depend on live performances. The National Ballet implemented wage reductions across the organization and was forced to furlough some hourly and part-time employees – including a portion of its administrative staff as well as some working behind the scenes on the new Swan Lake created by artistic director Karen Kain. That production, as well as the celebrations for Kain’s retirement, and her 50th anniversary with the company, have been pushed back to next year. The search for her successor has also been delayed.
“We’ve basically stripped our budget down to salaries,” executive director Barry Hughson said. “We’ve prioritized protecting our artists because, quite frankly, for dancers it’s not a matter of flipping a light switch. … The only way that we return to the stage fully, is if we keep our dancers going and we make sure that they’re getting the training and conditioning that they need.”
The ballet has received support through the federal government’s emergency wage subsidy, and a one-time $831,500 grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to help cover salaries. The recent realization that further cancellations were required was a blow – The Nutcracker accounts for roughly $4-million in ticket sales out of an annual total of $13- to $14-million, Hughson said. But relief has also come from subscribers, 81 per cent of whom either donated the value of tickets they had purchased to performances that were cancelled, or agreed to exchange them for seats at future performances. The company does not intend to dip into funds from its Endowment Foundation.
“It’s really important as we work through this crisis that we do everything we can not to steal from our future to solve what we hope will be a relatively short-term problem in the scheme of the history of the National Ballet,” he said.
During the time away, dancers have been hosting online classes and helping to create videos to stay connected with audiences.
“The company is generally very good on social media, but they really handed it over to the dancers more,” Ogden said.
The company is launching a virtual season that began this week with the release of a filmed work by choreographer Robert Binet, and two more by fellow choreographic associates Guillaume Côté, and Alysa Pires slated for this month. The company has commissioned new work from Canadian choreographers Kevin Ormsby and Jera Wolfe, which will also be presented digitally.
“There is no virtual or digital opportunity that can replace a live performance – or quite frankly, can replace the revenue required to support our organization,” Hughson said. “But that said, I think the greatest progress that will come out of COVID-19 for the arts and culture sector is the development of digital capacity. We knew we were behind. This crisis has shone a light on how far behind we were. We went into the crisis with almost no broadcast-quality digital content in a library.”
To address this, the ballet is collaborating with the Canadian Opera Company on a funding proposal to the Department of Canadian Heritage to outfit performance spaces in Toronto with equipment to film and live-stream performances – those include the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, where both companies perform, as well as rehearsal spaces for the ballet at the Walter Carsen Centre and the opera’s Imperial Oil Opera Theatre.
“This will be a slow recovery for the arts sector,” Hughson said. “ … If we can combine live audiences with some digital accessibility, that’s going to aid in the slow ramping back up again to whatever our new normal will be.”
As it stands, the plan is to resume live performance next March with a re-staging of Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite’s Dora Award-winning work Angels' Atlas, which premiered this year shortly before the shutdowns. The piece evokes the concept of human fragility; and features an ensemble of dancers catching each other as they fall and move together to a pulsing score. It’s a work that Hughson believes audiences will process much differently the second time around.
Second soloist Kota Sato is happy to create digital work that will be available to audiences who may not have seen ballet before, or are unable to attend in person – including his own family in Japan, who are always keen to see him dance. But for him and for many dancers, nothing replaces live performance.
“I feel the audience so much,” he said. “Some moments onstage, I can hear them breathing. It’s hard to explain, but it feels like we become one thing – the [orchestra] players, and us, and 2,000 people in the audience. This connection is so special.”