THE RICHMOND BALLET OPENS THE 2020-2021 SEASON: Studio Series with Precautions
A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: The Richmond Ballet’s Canal Street Studios, 407 E. Canal Street, Richmond, VA 23219
Performances: September 15-27, 2020
Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $25-$101; Virtual Tickets: $20/One-week access to recorded performance, only one ticket required per household
Info: (804) 344-0906 x224 or etix.com
For decades I have attended live performances of dance and theater multiple times a week – occasionally squeezing in two shows in one day. But it has been six months since I have attended a live show, six months since the COVID-19 Pandemic turned our world upside down, six months since COVID-19 made us rethink everything in our lives – including our life-giving arts. In July I forayed out to a socially-distanced exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and in September I received an email from the Richmond Ballet asking if I wanted to attend a live performance of their Studio Series.
The Richmond Ballet is one of the first – if not the first – major dance companies in the US to return to live performances. To be sure, even if they are not the first, all eyes will be on them to see how this turns out. So, before I even address the actual performance, let me tell you how Richmond Ballet has addressed COVID-19.
First, Richmond Ballet is in the unique position of having a studio theater in their own space. That means they have control over the space, who enters, and how many. Seating capacity has been reduced from 250 to 70.Seats are blocked off with large, easy-to-read signs; and if you don’t see the sign, there’s a large metal hook over the seat holding it in place that’s sure to get your attention if you accidentally lean back against it. (No, I didn’t do that, just conjecturing.) The seats are reconfigured for each show, and Brett Bonda, the company’s Managing Director, says it takes 45 minutes to complete each set-up. If you come with friends or family, you will be seated together, but apart from other attendees.
The tickets have been digitized for touch-less entry; just scan your phone at the kiosk in the lobby. The programs have also been digitized; I advise you to read them on a tablet rather than a phone if you are over age 35. But there’s more. Ticket holders receive an email with the House Notes for their performance. Arrival times are staggered by row and seat number. Other precautions are also included in the email, and are shown on a large screen before the start of the show. Masks must be worn at all times; even the dancers perform in masks. The bar is closed, and there is no intermission. That reduces contact with other people even further. At the conclusion of the program, the audience is asked to remain seated until the row in front of you has left. There was even a can of hospital-grade disinfectant spray in the women’s restroom.
Nothing has been overlooked. The Richmond Ballet has been very, very thorough in their efforts to make people feel comfortable, safe, and welcome.
Studio performances have generally followed a formula. There is most often a classic work, a contemporary work, and a new work. This program differs somewhat. There were six works, ranging from a brief 3 or 4 minutes to 20 minutes in length. The entire program, without intermission, ran just under an hour, yet it did not feel rushed. Also, the number of dancers was limited to just eight, performing in solos, duets, trios, and quartets.
The program, overall, was a triumphant tribute to the power and joy of dance, beginning with excerpts from Dennis Spaight’s “Gloria.” Abi Goldstein, Izabella Tokev, Lauren Archer, and Matthew Frain performed the “Laudamus Te,””Domine Deus,” “Qui Sedes,” “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei,” “Domine Fill Unigenite,” and “Cum Cancto Spiritu” sections of Antonio Vivaldi’s lush music. Craig Wolf’s original lighting and a few simple projections created a cathedral-like atmosphere. The women, dressed in claret-colored and purple dresses that swirled around their legs, appeared to move spontaneously and reverently, embodying Spaight’s musicality in this beautifully complex yet simple work that pays homage to the choreographer’s mother’s faith.
On Wednesday I saw Thel Moore, III dance Matthew Frain’s “To This Day,” one of two new works by current company members. Dressed in jeans and a black tank and using an umbrella as a prop, Moore began this contemporary work by throwing a handful of light against the backdrop. This beautiful solo is a contrast of light and darkness, and builds up in mood and intensity along with the dramatic music by Shy, Low. At one point Moore sits in a golden circle of light, reaching up. “To This Day” could be about loss, or making a decision, or life changes, or a pandemic. . .It lasts only 5 or 6 minutes, but “To This Day” may become one of my favorite contemporaty works by this company, and I applaud artistic director Stoner Winslett for supporting new works from inside the organization. Moore alternates in the role with Ira White and I would love to have a chance to see if White brings different nuances to this solo.
Izabella Tokev and Khaiyom Khojaev performed “Alone, Beside Me,” a work by Associate Artistic Director Ma Cong, one of my long-time favorite choreographers whose work I first saw performed by The Richmond Ballet. Pianist Douglas-Jayd Burn played the Franz Shubert score that accompanied the duet. Shirtless and wearing black pants, Khojaev contrasted with Tokev’s negligee-like white dress, but the major contrast was between the soft piano chords and the often angular and sometime harsh movements of the dancers. The contract and release, clinging and lifting, and the physical and emotional tension were palpable and riveting. And as for social distancing, Tokev and Khojaev are married to each other in real life.
The company’s artistic directors were deliberate in their choreographic choices and in keeping the program socially distant, physically safe, and relevant, there were several subtly humorous moments incorporated in the evening. For the “Drum Trio” from Val Caniparoli’s “Street Songs,” Thel Moore III, Abi Goldstein, and Mate Szentes came loping out, each claiming an individual circle (more social distancing). For 3-4 minutes they performed a series of movements that, with the drum accompaniment, reminded me of classic modern dance classes from the 1940s.
In contrast to the tribal delights of “Drum Trio, “Salvatore Aiello’s “Solas,” performed by Elena Bello, was a stark lament with all the drama, but not the sound, of a classic flamenco solo. Bello entered in darkness, treading the path of a stream of light, shrouded in a dark fringed shawl over a dark dress. She sat on a chair and rocked back and forth to the wordless lament of a woman’s voice in the music by Heitor Villa-Lobos. Bello looks back, mourning an un-named loss that seems to pull her back to the past. When a light appears that seems to draw her into the future, she moves towards it, stretched beyond her physical limits, but circles back, knocks over the chair, crawls back to it, and pulls her shawl back over her head, keening as the lights go out. She leaves us to wonder, is she mourning the loss of a loved one, or of something bigger…
The evening ended with “Waltzes Once Forgotten,” an exuberant new work by company member Mate Szentes. The dancers, seen in silhouette, move forward as if emerging from the pages of a long forgotten photo album. Their ivory-colored costumes have a vintage feel, with one of the women wearing a little hat and one of the men wearing a newsboy cap and short pants. There is a little humor a little rivalry, a little nostalgia. Szentes was inspired by the Spanish Flu of 1918, which introduced masks and social distancing to a world reeling under the effects of a pandemic much like we are today.
Without saying a word, The Richmond Ballet reminded us that the more things change, the more they stay the same, that there is nothing new under the sun, and that we are resilient, and we survive.
The September Studio Series runs through September 27, with a total of 16 performances. The October Studio Series will be October 13-25, and the November Studio Series will run November 10-22. For the first time since 1980, the company will not be performing the traditional holiday classic, “The Nutcracker.” It simply requires too many people, too many rehearsals, and too much of everything we have to put on hold for now.
Left: Ira White and Thel Moore III in rehearsal with Matthew Frain. Right: Cody Beaton and Sabrina Holland in rehearsal. Photos by Sarah Ferguson.