The curtains opened, revealing a scene familiar to many Fort Worthians: the retro, brightly colored back alley sign that welcomes music lovers to Scat Jazz Lounge. Standing beneath the entryway, Texas Ballet Theater dancer Kamryn Spell began to strut as upbeat New Orleans jazz set a playful mood. Spell, with a beaming smile, erupted with buoyant foxtrot steps and spins as her solo performance turned late-night downtown Fort Worth into a magical stage that summoned the unbridled optimism of the Roaring ’20s.
Spectacle was choreographed by dancer/choreographer Riley Moyano as one of dozens of solo premieres performed, recorded, and edited by TBT dancers this past October. TBT artistic director Ben Stevenson, O.B.E., came up with the idea of featuring different dancers throughout that month.
“There were quite a lot of solos put out,” Stevenson said. “Some were really good. It was something exciting that we wouldn’t have done before. It doesn’t mean we are happy to have the virus, but we wouldn’t have come to that point in our imagination if we had not been thinking, ‘What can we do now?’ ”
In March, the rapid spread of COVID-19 across North Texas and the world necessitated the abrupt cancellation of in-person ballet performances. TBT executive director Vanessa Logan said the nonprofit’s classes were quickly brought online as in-person rehearsals and concerts were postponed. While other performing arts groups, like the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, were able to adapt to new safety guidelines in recent months by spacing musicians apart or using transparent shielding, ballet remains inextricably linked with proximity, she said.
“For our artform specifically, we are not able to social distance chairs as an orchestra can,” she said. “The nature of our art is to cross spaces, touch each other, and breathe on one another.”
Still, as other art forms have, ballet is adapting and moving forward. TBT has two premieres scheduled for next year. Both works make use of smaller groups of dancers that can socially distance, Stevenson said. TBT’s The Nutcracker will be offered online December 14-26, and there’s a new Nutty Nutcracker parody that promises to find humor in the turbulent year that has been 2020.
TBT is the resident ballet company of both Dallas and Fort Worth, but its roots and current home are local. The performing arts group was founded as the Fort Worth Ballet Association in 1961 under the direction of its founder and local ballet icon Margo Dean. In 1988, the company began producing performances of The Nutcracker in Dallas after the demise of Dallas Ballet. TBT’s current artistic director — Ben Stevenson, whose past career as a principal dancer with English National Ballet and ongoing work as a choreographer have won him international awards and acclaim — joined the organization in 2003.
The addition of Stevenson marked the beginning of TBT’s current reputation as an organization that offers beginner lessons to children as young as 3, careers for professional dancers, and opportunities for serious students to prove themselves on the stage of Bass Performance Hall in front of thousands of viewers. The company also provides free ballet lessons to more than 1,000 students through TBT’s CityDance program, which partners with local community centers and elementary schools across North Texas. TBT reaches an additional 30,000 students through free matinee shows of Peter and the Wolf and The Nutcracker.
March 13 marked the beginning of a new and unexpected turn for the performing arts group. That’s when TBT’s staff and dancers were told to begin working from home for the foreseeable future. Logan said her team pivoted quickly to allow instructors to continue providing group lessons to students in the TBT School.
Staffers “worked with what equipment they had and Zoomed from home, living rooms, and kitchens,” Logan said. “We did our best to MacGyver our way through that time.”
The pandemic created additional costs at a time when ticket sales became an impossibility. Fort Worthians showed generosity during those early months by donating tickets instead of asking for refunds, Logan said. The TBT Relief Fund was created to prevent layoffs and to allow artistic staff to continue training and preparing from home.
On June 22, TBT resumed in-person summer programming with smaller admission numbers and under strict safety protocols that were developed by working with medical professionals at UNT Health Science Center and Dance/USA, the national service organization for professional dance. Most of the 40 attendees were teenagers, Logan said.
This past August, TBT’s professional dancers were brought back for rehearsals. Dancers were placed in 10-by-10-foot partitioned spaces while instructors led the lessons remotely. Temperature checks and COVID-19 self-screening forms were also used to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Stevenson said the remote lessons posed several challenges.
“I like to work with a certain amount of humor in the studio,” he said. “There is [typically] a lot of fun going on. That camaraderie, it could be laughter or people asking questions. In the class, you can go up to someone and say, ‘Look at your foot.’ With Zoom, you just have a screen with a load of people on it. Dancers don’t have the personal attention they normally would. It’d be like going to church, and you are the only person in there.”
The dancers, he said, are the ones who really struggle from the isolation. Company dancer Carolyn Judson has faced the challenge of remaining in top form while largely training at home.
“As dancers, it’s part of the job description to have self-motivation,” she said. “This is taking it to new limits. You lose so much by not being physically next to people. It’s a challenge, not just for dance but for mental health. We don’t have that physical contact.”
It’s the small things that Judson realized she missed most.
“You do your tendus and suffer alone in silence without that person next to you making that face and saying, ‘Uh, quite a day today?’ ” she said. “There’s something nice about the camaraderie. With Zoom, you can’t talk all at once. That must be difficult for the teacher. You can’t hear the feedback. Ben has been choreographing from behind a screen. I can’t imagine how difficult that is, thinking, ‘I hope she’s getting it.’ My favorite part about dancing is dancing with other people — sharing in that experience. We haven’t gotten to do that since March.”
Stevenson said his dancers have done a commendable job, given the circumstances. Beyond Solo Premieres, the remote learning environment has led to a surprising number of new opportunities.
“It is amazing how everyone has knuckled down and worked with this virus,” he said.
He gave the example of a Zoom-led masterclass featuring Marianela Núñez, principal dancer with The Royal Ballet, and another master teacher who taught a recent TBT masterclass from Buenos Aires.
“That shows how technology has changed” how we can reach artists from around the world, Stevenson said.
Judson said that some of TBT’s classes, which are available to the general public, were taught by professional dancers who normally would not have been available due to the long hours they typically put in during studio rehearsals.
“The kids have enjoyed that face-to-face time with a professional dancer,” Logan added. “There have been challenges with teaching virtually, but it has also offered these different opportunities. It’s a different way to reach students.”
The challenges brought by COVID-19 have pushed the TBT team to rely on one another like never before, Stevenson said.
“Even though we are farther apart [due to remote work], it has drawn us closer together,” he said. “Some amazing things have happened that I found thrilling.”
Logan said COVID-19 has forced ballet companies across the country to seek new ways of collaborating to counterbalance strained resources. That spirit of cooperation will shape TBT productions in the years to come, she said.
Fort Worth’s resident ballet company is best known for lavish performances, but lessons taught to children through dance classes are an equally valued part of TBT’s work, Logan said, adding that dancers gain skills and traits that are highly valuable in any workplace.
Employers should know the value of hiring a dancer, she said. “Regardless of the career choice, dancers understand focus, dedication, and attention to detail. They pay attention to the energy in a room so they can navigate it. They are extraordinary, talented people.”
Dance lessons since the age of 3 and a subsequent career in ballet have taught Judson how to take critiques and directions, Judson said.
“Our first job is to listen to what is expected from us,” she said. “That’s valuable outside of the dance world. To hear criticism and not just shut off, that’s something we all learn.”
TBT’s annual production of The Nutcracker will soon be offered online. Each ticket can be used by an entire household. The virtual concert features 2012’s production and a brand new Nutty Nutcracker. Donations of ticket sales helped TBT meet its financial obligation last spring. The loss of performances of The Nutcracker at Bass Performance Hall will inevitably lead to a precipitous drop in much-needed earned income that can be made up only through private donations, Logan said.
TBT will focus on digital programming for the early part of 2021. Plans are in the works to perform three works, including two world premieres, when public safety concerns allow for in-person concerts. Those currently postponed concerts will each feature Serenade (a Balanchine classic set to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for String), Star Crossed (a pas de deux of the famous lovers Romeo and Juliet), and a world premiere by TBT associate artistic director Tim O’Keefe.
“Our goal is to not make too many decisions early on so we can pivot if needed,” Logan said, referring to the upcoming spring season. “Ben will have some live premieres. It won’t be a ballet of 42 dancers at once.”
Judson said the TBT dancers have learned to be creative in an environment that no one saw coming.
“I don’t think any dancers were like, ‘Ah, right. I was waiting for this — only being able to dance outside on the grass,’ ” she said with a laugh.
Learning to film and edit solo dances is just one example of new skills TBT’s professional dancers now have, she said.
“All of the editing, I don’t think anyone thought they’d do that,” she said. “That’s something we can use to reach someone who wouldn’t normally come to our live shows.”
The online programming and world premieres are a part of TBT’s continuing work to grow the visibility of the venerable organization, Stevenson said. Over the course of the group Zoom meeting, the dancers and directors voiced a common goal. Texas Ballet Theater, the largest and most prominent ballet company in the region, has reached the highest levels of artistry under the guidance of Stevenson and TBT’s artistic staff. The leaders of the nearly 60-year-old performing arts organization appeared focused on finding new and innovative ways to reach ever-larger audiences, whether that be through traditional concerts or online experiences.
“The more we are appreciated, the better it is for the dancers and company,” Stevenson said. “I have the most amazing group of dancers. We are lucky to have them in the Metroplex.”