GU Dance Program practice

GU Dance Program dancers practice masked and distanced, to follow COVID-19 regulations.

Since last March, COVID-19 has forced performances everywhere to continue virtually, if at all. Such is the case for this academic year at Gonzaga. 

Junior Mia Cretarolo and senior Peyton McKenny were both performers in GU’s second annual "Dance Presents!" held at Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center on Nov. 14. Original choreography was created by GU’s Ballet Ensemble with the help of Kyle Davis, a principal dancer with the Pacific Northwest Ballet. 

“We began Zooming with Davis on Saturday mornings in October," Cretarolo said. "During the month of September, we trained and conditioned in-class ten feet apart every Friday night and Saturday morning, which made it different from most dance performances that have partner work or formation dances. We’d rehearse two to three hours every night of performance week, with time between each run to get feedback from Davis before re-rehearsing it.”

Davis was unable to choreograph in-person, due to COVID-19.

Rehearsing virtually came with inevitable challenges, but there was a silver lining to the new Zoom platform.

“The most difficult part was having to tell the directions of Davis’ movements, even for smaller details because the camera showed a mirror reflection,” McKenny said. “The best part was being able to record him showing us the steps, so we could rewatch the rehearsal and practice on our own time.”

Although the livelihood of in-person events was absent, neither Mckenny nor Cretarolo thought the virtual setting took away from the performance’s value. 

“The technical side of things came a long way from the beginning of the semester as they were able to change camera angles and zoom in on the dancers if needed,” Cretarolo said. “Davis and his girlfriend zoomed in to start the performance and showed three Screendance films they created together. Afterward, our costume designer, Leslie Stamoolis, discussed her inspiration for the costumes we wore, which were knee-length dresses, long-sleeved blouses and head scarves.” 

Then came the 16-minute ballet performance, which was inspired by a poem about a rose garden. 

“On the night of the production, links were available to the public on YouTube and Facebook, and around 250 people joined the livestream,” McKenny said. “My grandparents watched from North Carolina, so sharing it with people who couldn’t have attended in-person was significant.” 

About 25 students sat in assigned seats in the audience, masked and socially distanced.

“It still felt like everybody got something out of the performance,” Cretarolo said. 

The story is similar for the Gonzaga Symphony Orchestra.

“First of all, the greater distance between performers creates a delay in sound and greater difficulty in hearing one another and trying to play cohesively,” said senior first violinist and concertmaster Ariah Mann. “Second, to have as few people in attendance as possible, only the performer and the student ‘on-deck’ are allowed in the building during recitals. This means having to adjust to the acoustic properties of the hall during your performance. When the adrenaline is pumping and your nerves are already going wild, this is definitely not ideal.”

Usually, concerts and soloists are booked a year in advance. Everything GU Symphony Orchestra does as a group is in preparation for those dates and the repertoire they plan to perform. Last February, in their final performance before COVID-19, they worked with Midori Goto, an internationally renowned Japanese violinist.

Since then, Mann said they have started exploring repertoire and the logistics and nuances of playing in an ensemble by reading a vast array of different pieces.  Kevin Hekmatpanah, director of GU Symphony Orchestra, has allowed for students to play concertos or try their hand at conducting, like the Chamber String Ensemble has. 

“I’m incredibly grateful for the ability to share with others over Zoom, but any musician would tell you it comes nowhere close to the excitement, emotion, connection and overall experience of live, in-person performances,” Mann said. “In a normal season, a huge part of the Symphony are the community members that perform with us.”

Hekmatpanah hopes for a normal return of GU Symphony Orchestra in the fall. He is planning future events for a variety of contingencies, given COVID-19’s unpredictability. Hekmatpanah has been creative with activities this year, as difficult as COVID-19 has been. 

“We have experimented with playing conductor-less. When you play in a large group, it’s much easier to blend in and hide behind other players," Hekmatpanah said. "But in a small ensemble, every voice is heard and contributes to the whole."

On Oct. 9, GU Dance Program hosted its second annual "60x60 Dance" show. The performance was live streamed with a mixture of screen dances and live performers. 

"60x60 Dance" featured 60 pieces of music, each under 60 seconds and representing a unique contemporary style. Although it has only existed since 2003, its website explains it has since become immensely popular and has spread worldwide.

“I witnessed firsthand the resiliency of the students, staff and faculty," said Liz Ehnert, student assistant director of "60x60 Dance," "We had about 40 dancers and technical staff, and were able to perform on stage in-person.”

Ehnert said she appreciated the creative virtual format in the show, since it allowed her parents watch from North Dakota.

McKenny says there will be more music and dance performances in the future, including the spring dance concert. All auditions are being held virtually, and the event itself may be virtual and only include her classmates and the performers, or a very small audience.

“I’m also part of a performance group called the Human Rights Dance Company, which will travel to Florence, Italy this summer if that ends up being possible," McKenny said. "I’m grateful there is still a lot happening in the dance program even with COVID-19.” 

Ostersmith believed it was still important to produce concerts in the fall, even with COVID-19. Although the Spokane community couldn't watch a live performance, the students still gained the benefit of practicing their craft and presenting it, she said. This optimism is continuing into spring semester.

Ostersmith and Dr. Hekmatpanah are also collaborating on a performance called Dance as Cura Personalis which will happen Friday, Feb. 12. He will play the cello on stage with eight people, each ten feet apart, dancing around him. They plan to have a small student audience with everyone masked and socially distanced. To watch virtually, a link is available on Zagtivities.

For more information on upcoming events, or to watch past ones, you can follow GU’s dance, music, symphony, and theater pages on Facebook and Instagram. 

Alex Bhayani is a staff writer.

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