For the first time in six months, Boston Ballet’s dancers are together in person in the company’s Clarendon Street Studios. “We’ve been waiting for a long time,” says principal dancer Tigran Mkrtchyan. “It’s beautiful to see how hungry the dancers are to get back and how much they love dancing.”
“It’s a feeling of pure happiness to be back doing what we love,” adds second soloist María Álvarez. “We’re really a family, and we are looking forward to making art again. We didn’t know what we had until it was taken away.”
Since bringing the dancers back into the studio Sept. 21 to prepare for a hybrid performance season, it’s hardly been business as usual. Boston Ballet worked for months to devise a plan for a safe reconvening, working with a team of medical professionals and infectious disease specialists, as well as the American Guild of Musical Artists. The plan included facility upgrades to ventilation and filtration systems, plus new equipment for livestreaming between studios, allowing all the dancers to stay connected virtually during daily company classes. “Everything is super clean and organized,” Álvarez says.
Dancers, who had been furloughed since the week of March 23, describe the first day back as surreal. “When I walked into the building and saw people I hadn’t seen in a while and was so happy to be back, I teared up to think how lucky we are, says soloist Lawrence Rines. "I wanted to run up and hug all these people. But even though I knew the Ballet was being super safe, I didn’t know how people were doing, how serious people were taking the pandemic, keeping up with being safe.”
“We can’t forget about [the pandemic],” says principal dancer Viktorina Kapitonova. “Still inside me every day is this worry. But now we have our [designated] groups and can continue to be more real and dance with each other.”
The dancers are divided into five working pods of seven to 10, each with its own rehearsal director and a dedicated studio that is disinfected between uses. They self-screen daily and wear masks at all times, a challenge for such a physical art form highly dependent on the breath. “You get tired faster,” Kapitonova says. “And to communicate, there are more pauses than usual.”
“It’s tricky,” Alvarez agrees. “When we dance, we sweat, so it’s hard to keep the mask in place. I bring about five a day so I switch. But I’m getting used to it and get so focused on the combinations that my mind forgets I’m wearing a mask, so it’s doable.”
Physical conditioning after six months out of the studio is also complicated. “We’ve taken a very cautious approach to getting everyone back in shape safely,” says assistant artistic director Russell Kaiser, “progressing a little slower, shorter days, three to four hours at most, mindful of the ways we’re conducting rehearsals and giving people space and time to recover during the process.”
During the downtime, most of the company did their own living room workouts and took online classes. Some dancers initiated special creative projects or took advantage of Boston Ballet’s offer of free studio time during the past two months to work solo or in small groups. And many used the down time for other endeavors there hadn’t been time for during a packed rehearsal and performance schedule. Alvarez explored a longtime passion for art history. Mkrtchyan used the time for choreographing and writing music.
Rines adds, “COVID has been a very polarizing thing for people’s careers. Some realized after six months this profession is too hard [for them], keeping motivated and keeping the body in shape. But I felt the opposite. Six months of separation from [this] part of myself made me miss this amazing form of expression that you kind of take for granted. Having ballet be my job and my passion is so special. COVID felt like a semi-retirement I didn’t want. I fell in love all over again.”
And going forward? Kaiser references the phrase “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” He says, “We put a plan together through incredible work by the whole organization to be nimble and flexible to adapt to whatever comes. To keep the company strong and healthy is going to shape who we are in the future. I’m excited to see how it evolves. I’ve never seen such inspiration in the eyes of these dancers. I’m inspired that we’ll find new energy that this art form has wanted and needed for a long time.”
Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.