By Steve Sucato
As the world gets used to the global pandemic imposed new normal, Grand Rapids Ballet is forging ahead with its new 2020-21 dance season entitled Moving Beyond and the new realities on how to deliver that season to an audience. Third-year artistic director James Sofranko says because of the pandemic Grand Rapids Ballet has had to turn away from live in-person performance in favor of presenting the season in a virtual space.
To make the new season a reality and stay on track financially as an organization, Sofranko says they had to make some cuts including furloughing staff and reducing the number of work weeks for the company’s dancers. In addition, the company has broken up its complement of 31 dancers into isolated pods of 6 or less to limit the potential of exposure to COVID-19 if any one dancer contracts it. Those pods take classes, rehearse, and will perform together in the upcoming season. Following state mandated safety protocols, the dancers also wear masks, social distance when possible and often work together virtually over Zoom.
The company’s new virtual season will feature a mix of recorded traditionally staged works and those created especially for film. “We are doing what we always do for this coming season, some ballets will be ones we have performed before, their will be some classics, and new works that push the art form forward,” says Sofranko. “The difference is that they will be delivered virtually to you in the comfort of your home.”
The season begins this Friday, November 13 with the aptly named program, business as (un)usual (and running through November 15, 2020). On it will be a pas de deux from Christopher Stowell’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2007) set to music by Felix Mendelssohn. The full Midsummer ballet was to be performed by GRB last season but was postponed because of the pandemic. Sofranko chose to the pull the Titania/Oberon pas de deux as a bit of a teaser for a time when they can perform the full production. GRB is the first company outside of Oregon Ballet Theatre to perform Stowell’s ballet. Also, on the program will be a world premiere work by Sofranko to music by Bach and featuring West Michigan Symphony Orchestra associate concertmaster/violinist, Gene Hahn.
Says Sofranko, “Bach’s music has this underlying humanity to it and to me right now that humanity is reflected in a will to keep dancing and creating art that brings a ray of hope to an uncertain world.” In addition, GRB dancer Yuka Oba-Muschiana and Beyoncé choreographer, Darrell Grand Moultrie will present new creations.
“[In making work] Darrell forms a connection with his dancers which is amazing to watch especially over Zoom,” says Sofranko. “He is getting the dancers to do things through the computer that I don’t know how you would do in person.”
Rounding out the program will be reprises of dance works by GRB resident choreographer Penny Saunders and company dancers Gretchen Steimle and Matthew Wenckowski.
Perhaps the biggest loss due to the pandemic for GRB and many ballet companies across the country is not being able to perform their annual The Nutcracker ballet in theaters. In tis place GRB will present the nutcracker experience (December 18-27, 2020), a specially created holiday program packaging together newly filmed highlights from GRB’s beloved live production featuring choreography by Val Caniparoli and musical accompaniment by the Grand Rapids Symphony. “It’s going to be like shooting a movie,” says Sofranko. “A lot of the big scenes will be shot in smaller chunks and then edited together. Also included in the hourlong program will be behind-the-scenes interviews with the dancers and musicians, rehearsal footage and much more.
The most intriguing of the new season’s programs has to be collective force (March 26-28, 2021). Slated is a mind-blowing roster of some of the finest choreographers working today including Saunders; former Australian Ballet dancer Danielle Rowe; Cincinnati Ballet resident choreographer Jennifer Archibald; Katarzyna Skarpetowska formerly of Parsons Dance; Adam Hougland, principle choreographer for Louisville Ballet; former Sacramento Ballet artistic director, Amy Seiwert; BalletMet artistic director Edwaard Liang and award-winning choreographer Trey McIntyre. The hourlong collection of short works will also include a new ballet by Sofranko to the music of Michigan-based cellist Jordan Hamilton.
“Every piece on the program will be new to Grand Rapids Ballet, either world premieres created on our dancers or existing works that will be making their Grand Rapids premiere,” says Sofranko.
Capping the season will be jumpstart: on film (April 30 – May 2, 2021), a continuation of GRB’s annual showcase of company dancer choreography this time in the form of dances made for film. Aiding the dancers in realizing this new layer of creativity and expression in their work will be season video sponsors Salt Creative Production Studio.
“Having seen the works our dancers have created for this program over the past few seasons, they have a lot of great ideas floating in their heads about how to make something new when the feeling is that everything has been done already,” says Sofranko.
For tickets and information visit grballet.com or call 616.454.4771 x10.
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.