When the coronavirus pandemic forced The Sarasota Ballet to cancel all live performances more than 15 months ago, it wasn’t just a loss for its audiences. It was also devastating for the company’s dancers, who director Iain Webb says basically lost a year and a half in what are already short-lived careers. “Our immediate reaction was, ‘How are we going to keep going?’” he recalls.
One way: filming a much smaller group of dancers—just 12 originally, out of 36 company members—in short excerpts that could be performed safely as they rehearsed, masked, in isolated pods. While some dance companies have relied on using archival footage of past performances to keep audiences engaged during this time, Webb says, “We very much wanted to highlight our dancers of today, right now.” He acknowledges the digital programs, presented online to audiences, “are not the same” as live performances (and require, he estimates, about four times as much hard work as putting on a regular performance). But he did find a silver lining.
“We’ve had [online] views from nearly every state, and from just under 50 countries,” he says. Those are audiences who might never have seen the company at work before. “And it was exciting to see the comments online,” he adds. “People said things like, ‘When are you coming here to perform?’”
Of course, that couldn’t soften the sting of missing out on the troupe’s 30th anniversary season plans to perform at the Joyce Theatre in New York City and at the famed Jacob’s Pillow dance festival in Massachusetts, nor of having to rethink the launch of a five-year project focusing on female choreographers.
He and the dancers found solace in the fact that, through the generosity of the board, supporters and Paycheck Protection Program funding from the government, “We were able to pay the entire staff, and the dancers through the end of their contracts last April,” Webb says. They’ve continued to pay about 75 percent of the dancers’ contract amounts in 2021, along with medical benefits, even for those who have not been performing.
According to Webb, the 12 dancers who performed in the first digital productions felt fortunate to still be able to rehearse and perform, and supported the decision to pay the other dancers. Normally, the ballet features two or three casts on different performance dates. The company also continued to offer its summer dance programs, which brought in students for small, socially distanced classes. It was even able to purchase tablets so that its at-risk students in the Dance—The Next Generation outreach program could take online classes at home.
The re-imagined digital season concluded last month (May 21-25) with performances by a larger cast of company dancers of the full ballets of Sir Frederick Ashton’s Birthday Offering (“featuring seven of the most difficult solos of all time” for the company’s ballerinas, according to Webb) and Nine Sinatra Songs by Twyla Tharp (“a treasure of American dance,” Webb adds). But although technology has been a blessing for the past year, moving forward as a business, Webb says, the ballet must return to live performances to be successful.
And so, the company announced its upcoming 2021-22 season last month. Just a few highlights: Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring and a world premiere by Ricardo Graziano, in October; Sir Peter Wright’s Summertide, in November; Wright’s Giselle, in December; Dame Ninette de Valois’ The Rake’s Progress, in January; a first-time presentation of the Mark Morris Dance Group and a world premiere of Sir David Bintley’s A Comedy of Errors, both in March; and the company premiere of Morris’ The Letter V, in April.
For the complete schedule and ticket info, call (941) 359-0099 or go to sarasotaballet.org.