Nutcracker performances have been canceled, theaters sit empty, and dancers all over the world are wondering how to salvage their careers.
But BalletX artistic director Christine Cox has not let coronavirus prevent her company from leaping into the future.
“There was a panic moment,” Cox said. “At first you’re managing the crises by shutting down your performances, which is something we did early. And then slowly as the season was developing, in my mind, [there was] this idea of going big.”
The plan, which Cox announced Tuesday morning, is a new series launching Sept. 10 celebrating the company’s 15th anniversary with world premieres by 15 choreographers. She sees the season in terms of a subscription-based film festival with nine shorts and six features.
The shorts will be dance films presented on a new virtual platform hosted on the company’s website called BalletX Beyond. The features are intended to be performed live in the spring or summer, depending on public health concerns, but they, too, may be turned into films, if necessary.
“We’re excited to view this as a wonderful learning opportunity and learning curve,” Cox said, “and a chance to potentially meet new audience members in their city in their homes and just actually broaden our audience if we do it right … So the glass is half full here for us.”
The dancers have been able to maintain their 38-week contract, they will work with choreographers all over the world, and while the company’s 2020-2021 budget has been reduced, its $2.5 million is still up from last year’s.
“We once had to create a ballet via Skype a couple of years ago” when a choreographer was unable to make it to the United States, Cox said. “So we have some experience.”
BalletX first shipped ballet barres and pieces of marley vinyl dance flooring to the dancers’ homes so they could keep in shape. Now the dancers are allowed to come two at a time to the studio to rehearse with choreographers and BalletX artistic staff via Zoom. The space is separated by a divider, allowing social distancing.
Most of the filming will be done by the dancers themselves, either in their homes or outdoors.
“A lot of them are learning a whole new skill set,” Cox said. “Not only are they filming themselves, but some of them have taken this opportunity to learn how to edit, learn how to code, choreograph for film.”
They will perform mostly solos. Two sets of dancers who live together may be tapped for pas de deux. And through the magic of film editing, there will also be works where the dancers appear to be dancing together.
Cox wants the films to pop in the way Hamilton did on Disney+, to “penetrate into the audience’s home.” She also wants the choreographers to think big. There’s talk of doing some filming by drone. There may be a horse in Penny Saunders’ cowboy ballet. The 15 choreographers also include BalletX cofounder Matthew Neenan, former New York City Ballet principal dancer Robbie Fairchild, Brazilian choreographer Mariana Oliveira, and French choreographer Manuel Vignoulle.
Loughlan Prior, a choreographer in Wellington, New Zealand, had been talking to Cox for years about making a piece on BalletX.
“I think it’s actually crazy that this project has come about because of coronavirus,” he said, although in New Zealand, where coronavirus has been eradicated, audiences are back in theaters.
He is planning to use animation on top of the dance for his short, Scribble, “inspired by chalk on a blackboard or the inception of a brand new idea.” A self-taught filmmaker, he enjoys integrating technology into his dances as a storytelling device.
For Scribble, he wants to create a “total infinity” by filming in a black box space — possibly the Wilma Theater — with 360-degree shots. The animator will later create white lines to form various structures and ideas into the film.
“That’s the beauty of film, you are able to add this extra element to the choreographic language,” Prior said.
Hope Boykin, a New York-based choreographer and former dancer with Philadanco and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, will be creating one of the features.
Cox has been a sort of dance big sister to Boykin for many years. Like Prior, Boykin had often talked with Cox about making a work for BalletX. Hers will be one ideally presented on stage, but its beginnings have already been presented virtually.
She choreographed a solo for new BalletX dancer Ashley Simpson — who, serendipitously, she had already been mentoring. That piece was presented in the Guggenheim’s Works & Process series, which, like everything else, went virtual this spring.
“Technologically, I’m a little bit ahead of some of my friends,” Boykin said. “I’m not afraid of the camera or the editing. I’m a budding filmmaker.”
The Guggenheim piece is a start of a full-company work Boykin has planned. She hopes it will be performed live but also be available virtually. Like Cox, she sees the glass as half full.
“Not to make light in any way, shape, form, or fashion, of the heartache and distress and loss of life that we’re experiencing with COVID. But I believe that if there’s something to learn from this time, it’s up to the artists to create it. We have to be open and prepared for shifting and being more nimble than we were.
“Alvin Ailey formed a company in the middle of the civil rights movement. You have Odetta, who Dr. Martin Luther King called the queen of American folk music, who said you have to use art as a weapon for change. We hear Nina Simone talking about it’s an artist duty to create work that represents the times in which we live and that’s where we are.
“Art is what’s going to save us.”
BalletX Beyond, launching Sept. 10, is $15 a month for the basic plan and $30 for the plus, which includes access to a rotating selection of dances from the archives, and behind-the-scenes documentaries. A discount will be available for annual subscriptions purchased before Sept. 4. balletx.org