Amy Wolfe says the show must go on.
Seven months ago, Wolfe, artistic director of the Manassas Ballet Theatre, gathered her dance company together and broke the news that its performance of “Les Sylphides And More” at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Just utter devastation in the room,” Wolfe said. “And I sent them home with the promise that at some point or another, we would regroup.”
Wolfe kept that promise. On Sept. 19, the Manassas Ballet Theatre resumed its 2020 spring season and streamed “Les Sylphides And More” virtually on Vimeo. Starting this past Saturday, the ballet began streaming its second virtual ballet performance, “Don Quixote.”
“We are showing the whole world that you can go on,” Wolfe said.
When businesses, schools, and performing arts venues began closing because of the pandemic, Wolfe said she initially thought everything would be shut down for just a few months. She anticipated that the ballet would be able to perform onstage again early in the summer. But Wolfe eventually realized that her dancers would not be performing in front of a live audience again, probably for a long time.
In the middle of March, Wolfe sent her students at the Manassas Ballet Academy and the professional dancers home for a few weeks so she could brainstorm.
“It gave me that week to figure out what I would do,” she said. “By the second week, we were on Zoom. And the students were taking classes from home. The teachers were teaching from home.”
Eventually, Wolfe found creative ways to bring a limited number of teachers and students back to the studio, following social distancing guidelines.
Next, Wolfe decided to figure out how her students could perform the annual holiday ballet, the Nutcracker, and came up with the idea of a virtual performance. Wolfe held auditions virtually. Over the next few weeks, her videographer recorded and edited footage of her students dancing in the studio and over Zoom, which they sent to all the families.
“The families loved it,” Wolfe said. “And so, I looked at this, and I thought this is how I can proceed forward for Les Sylphides and Don Quixote.”
Wolfe bought piping and drapes and transformed her rehearsal studios into a black box theater. In two weeks, Wolfe and her staff reinvented the production of “Les Sylphides.”
Wolfe made sure proper safety protocols were in place during rehearsals. Dancers were split into separate studios so they could be socially distanced. Wolfe said that so far, no one has contracted COVID-19.
It was a moment of triumph to be performing again for an audience. But Wolfe said that for many of the dancers, performing for the camera was challenging.
“Normally, you get on the stage, you do your very best, and whatever happens, you leave it there,” she added. “But, now, knowing that every moment is recorded, and will be there for all time, the additional stress to be absolutely perfect every moment that you’re on the stage increases.”
Wolfe noted that the ballet does not have a large budget, sophisticated recording equipment, or lots of editing experience to make their virtual productions top notch. But the Hylton Performing Arts Center has agreed to let the ballet livestream its performances from the Hylton stage going forward.
“The whole theater space is bigger,” Wolfe said. “So, now, the cameras can be farther from the performers, so it’s not as difficult to catch everything in the camera.”
The ballet’s budget has been reduced drastically since it had to cancel in-person performances, and it is looking at a $300,000 loss in revenue. But Wolfe said she hopes that by selling virtual season memberships and improving the quality of productions, they can make it work.
“I’m hoping that as we move into our current season with Frankenstein and Nutcracker that it will sell better because of the way that it is from the Hylton stage,” she added. “So people know that even though they’re not sitting in their seats, the picture of what they’re watching is the big beautiful picture.”