Grand Rapids Ballet Pushes Forward with a New Virtual Program Series


By Steve Sucato

The Covid-19 Global Pandemic has taken, and continues to take a lot from all of us. But despite the financial losses and emotional hardships visited upon Grand Rapids Ballet (GRB), Michigan’s lone professional ballet company, artistic director James Sofranko is optimistic with a faith of the heart that has been bolstered by the support of company’s staff and dancers as well as the area community.

“The support from the [area] community has been amazing we have seen a lot of extra donations and people buying subscriptions for our next season which really helps us out both financially and morale-wise, knowing that people really want us to survive this and be just as strong as we were before this crisis,” says Sofranko. “I think when we do come back we will have a newfound energy and importance for what we do.”

Like virtually every arts organization big or small in the world, GRB lost a substantial amount of revenue from cancelled performances, outreach programs and the closing of its Grand Rapids Ballet School. That meant laying off staff and GRB’s company dancers 5-weeks earlier than their contracts were to end.

“That never feels good,” says Sofranko.It was hard to announce to them and the public. “The dancers are have been taking online classes with artistic associate Dawnell Dryja to keep in shape plus volunteering for other projects. I am really grateful for them wanting to keep contributing in these ways.”

Although they have a small nest egg in the bank, Sofranko says GRB’s board made the decision to preserve their finances as best they could by not dipping heavily into that.

“It is a hard time all around and we are definitely tightening our belts,” says Sofranko. “The dancers are on unemployment so we know they are being taken care of and we are doing our best to make sure we can come back when this is all over and hit the ground running to present our next season as planned.”

In the interim, the company has still been connecting with its audiences through weekly free virtual showings of prior performance works that were introduced by GRB’s dancers and/or the choreographers of those works to give insight into them.

Yuka Oba-Muschiana and Josue Justiz in George Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante”. Photo by Eric Bouwens.

The company has also recently initiated a new GRB at Home virtual program series featuring repertory from prior seasons handpicked by Sofranko. Program I: Classic & Contemporary, available online May 15 at 7 p.m., features full versions of an October 2018 performance of George Balanchine’s joyous 1956 classic “Allegro Brillante”, Australian-born choreographer Danielle Rowe’s contemporary ballet “November” about the strength it takes to love from this past February, and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo’s visually stunning “Extremely Close” from February of 2019.

Emily Reed in Danielle Rowe’s “November”. Photo by Ray Nard Imagemaker.

“Our new virtual programs seek to replicate the experience of attending one of our live performances,” says Sofranko.

Program I: Classic & Contemporary will be available online for 72 hours only to those who make a donation of any amount to the company.

Virtual Program II: An Evening with Penny Saunders, will be available June 12 for 72 hours with donation. Saunders, also a former Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancer turned dance maker will have four of her ballets featured including the world premiere of “Amiss”, a ballet she has been creating virtually with GRB company members and  collaborators from GRB’s staff, students from the school and others.

Yuka Oba-Muschiana in “Amiss”. Photo by Isaac Aoki.

Like many, Saunders is using Zoom video calls to work with the dancers on the “Amiss,” a work inspired by the pandemic about feelings of being alone and cut-off that she describes as a mishmash of chunky home videos mixed with choreographic material new and old.  “It’s really a love letter to my Grand Rapids Ballet family,” says Saunders.

Set to a music soundscape arranged by Saunders of music from Salt Lake City composer/musician Michael Wall along with voice recordings of several of the participants, the 10-minute-plus work is being edited and cut-together by New York based movement photographer and filmmaker, Quinn Wharton.

Creating the work remotely has had its challenges says Saunders. “It’s a different way of working that I am just starting to become more efficient at. It’s hard to work with a group of dancers because of the delays [in transmission] so building something one-on-one or in pairs [when possible] has been the go-to.”

Penny Saunders’ Testimony. Photo by Jade Butler.

Also being shown on Program II will be Saunders’ “Again,” that GRB premiered in October of 2019, “Testimony”, from February 2019 and “Ghost Light”, originally created on Kansas City’s Owen/Cox Dance Group that GRB presented in October of 2018.

To access the GRB’s Virtual Program Series visit: To support Grand Rapids Ballet visit

Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of


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