Dance Happens Everywhere. That’s the title of our 20-21 digital season, and it’s true; dance does happen everywhere. I’m not just referring to different cultures around the world; dance happens in homes and parks, on sidewalks and stages. Right now, it’s happening in PNB’s studios as a few students return to class and Company dancers prepare programs for you. In any other year this wouldn’t be news, but in the midst of a global pandemic, it is truly remarkable.
We brought two dancers back to work at the end of July and a dozen more the following week. By August 17, most of the dancers were back, working in groups of four, spread out across our seven studios. Dancers don’t just show up and dance anymore; they start their day by answering questions on a PNB-customized COVID-19 app, which involves symptom assessment, contact analysis, and temperature taking. Masks are worn at all times and there’s plenty of sanitizing. Street shoes stay in the hall and access to dressing rooms is a no-go. Basically, we’ve adopted a pod system. Dancers only see the other three members of their pod, unless it’s through a window. You should know there’s a great deal of enthusiastic waving and virtual hugging going on through those windows. Pods have designated pod rest areas and rest rooms, dressers, rehearsal directors, fitters, pianists, and even pod therapy days. With extensive and meticulous planning, it seems to be working, which means we can make dance happen everywhere, including on our stage and on your flat screen.
Like a square peg in a round hole, pods of four and traditional programming do not necessarily fit. Long ago, I planned to open this season with George Balanchine’s Jewels. You may remember in 2017 we raised the curtain on exquisite new designs for this masterpiece. In Diamonds, seventeen women graced the stage in tutus that seemed to blush under imperial tiaras, while seventeen gallant men wore Swarovski-encrusted tunics. Thirty-four is not four—not even close. In this program, you’ll see a solo from Emeralds, the pas de deux from Rubies, and the Scherzo from Diamonds. The excerpts from Jewels are splendid, but the ballet in its entirety is not an option.
Over the past six months, we have reevaluated programs for more reasons than just health and safety practices. We have taken a hard look at our art form and our institution. PNB is looking within. George Balanchine has his place, and so do many others who have defined ballet for us over decades and even centuries. But the whiteness of our institution and our traditions, and the lack of opportunities for under-represented artists and individuals, has become glaringly obvious. PNB accepts and embraces the work we must do. We have lessons to learn and actions to take.
A new program emerged full of solos and socially distanced gems alongside opportunities to represent more choreographers. The nine choreographers in the new line-up reflect our community: black, white, biracial, female, male, American, immigrant, gay, and straight. This is not something I should be pointing out; it should be common practice, understood, accepted—a non-event—and yet it is news. You have my commitment to program with greater equity, diversity, and opportunity, just as I commit to more diverse hiring practices and making PNB a truly anti-racist institution. It’s a commitment I share with Ellen Walker and everyone at PNB. We share it with our friends, too. Thank you for joining us.
I wish I could hear the excited chatter coming from the other side of the red velvet curtain, mixed with the cacophony of our orchestra tuning. Some of you might have been running from the garage, pre-ordering at the bar, or purchasing a keepsake at the shop, while our stage manager called “Places please” and a ballerina tried a pirouette one last time before the hush fell. Most of those pre-performance steps have happened, and though we can’t see you at Doug’s pre-show lecture, or hear you welcoming Emil to the podium, I’m imagining a similar sense of anticipation as you settle in front of your screen with friends, family, or solo, with dinner or popcorn, in finery or in your favorite pajamas. You’re about to connect with PNB again, just as you always have. So cheer loudly; we’ll hear it. Applaud, laugh, gasp, cry, and savor all that is wonderful about dance. It’s something we can all share.
Featured photo: Peter Boal in studio with Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan and Kyle Davis. Photo courtesy of Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan’s Instagram.