Monday, Oct. 5 was a big day for the Gonzaga dance program. It was the first night of rehearsal in preparation for the second annual “Dance Presents!” performance, an event involving a professional touring dance company that collaborates with GU in putting on a multi-faceted dance event.
This year’s performance features Pacific Northwest Ballet, and one of the company’s principal dancers, Kyle Davis was to begin his virtual residency with an ensemble of 12 GU ballet dancers that night as he was going to set his work to them for the first time. But before they could get him up on screen in the GU dance studio to introduce themselves to him, the campus wifi shutdown.
“We had everything set up so he could be big on the projection screen but we couldn’t get on it because the internet was down; I was sweating and everyone was stressed out because this was our first big moment with him,” GU Dance Director Suzanne Ostersmith said. “I figured out a way to get the dancers set up on smaller devices around the room, so they had to start by trying to see what he was doing on these tiny devices, and that was when I realized it was going to work.”
Just as how the dancers had to adapt ad hocly in that moment, the entire dance program has had to reconfigure everything about their preconceived expectations for what a dance performance would look like this semester in order to prepare for this collaboration.
Davis represents PNB, one of the top ten ballet companies in the United States according to Dance Data Project, so for GU to get the opportunity to collaborate with such a prestigious group took an inordinate amount of networking on behalf of Ostersmith and the rest of the university’s dance faculty. After hosting PNB’s Spring ensemble tryouts in the Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center in January, Ostersmith worked on setting up some form of a partnership opportunity with the company for the coming school year, and was originally able to schedule Davis and a few other company dancers to come and work alongside GU ballet performers to choreograph a piece in person.
“The building of the performing art center has really set off the school’s dance program because now we have opportunities for outside, professional companies to perform in a space that’s more open to the public,” said Kalleigh Wagner, a senior dance minor who’s a member of this performance’s 12 dancer ensemble. “It’s exposing not just Gonzaga, but Spokane to the dance scene which I think is really cool because it’s putting this place on the map as a place to go watch dance.”
When COVID-19 restrictions took effect, the arrangements for Davis’s residency and the “Dance Presents!” performance had to be altered. The new modified format resulted in a one week virtual residency where Davis would be the sole member from the PNB company to be working with GU dancers over Zoom throughout the week to teach them the piece that he had choreographed. The “Dance Presents!” performance on Nov. 14 is now going to be livestreamed for an audience who will get to attend a virtual lecture taught by Davis from his home in western Washington. And then get the chance to see the GU ballet ensemble perform their entire piece on stage at the Myrtle Woldson Center.
Aspiring students who wished to be a part of this performance auditioned for a role in early September, and the 12 dancers who were selected by Davis himself had been drilling technique with professor Pamela Erickson every Friday and Saturday leading up to Davis’s residency.
During Davis’s virtual residency with the ballet ensemble last week, he set the entire piece out for the ensemble; a 17 minute performance resplendent with bounds, leaps, jumps and spins set to Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, Op.35a, composed by Anton Arensky, played by Camerata Tchaikovsky. To learn such an extensive piece with professional-level technique associated with it is a substantial challenge for any collegiate dancer, and to do so over Zoom adds an extra layer of adversity to make this undertaking all the more precarious.
“For college students, they’ll typically do a three to four minute dance piece for a spring number, sometimes longer like eight maybe nine minutes - this is 17 minutes long, so that’s a big deal,” Ostersmith said. “At the first rehearsal I was watching, the level of complexity Kyle was teaching them via Zoom was really up there and I was a little bit nervous for the dance students, and they just went for it.”
Being 280 miles away from a choreographer who is instructing them on a new elaborate piece of art isn’t the only restrictive component that the dance program will have to deal with throughout the course of this entire process.
They’ve been practicing and are required to perform together in 10-foot bubble spaces to maintain social distance, posing peculiar circumstances in an artistic medium that is often reliant on expressing itself through the way that performers intimately interact with one another. A restriction like that would empirically obstruct many of the movements and the general sense of flow that is common to ballet, but Davis has managed to work around those compliances by frequently incorporating solos, duos and trios in complex arrangements throughout the piece to keep it illustrative and adherent to the guidelines.
“Dance is about movement and taking up space so we’re used to travelling and leaping, but when dancers are confined to ten foot by ten foot that can really limit the imagination,” Ostersmith said. “With a professional like Davis, these restrictions have actually expanded his imagination because the way he takes ten feet and creates this three-dimensional, rich movement using different directions and shifting through space has really been impressive to behold.”
An additional demarcation for this performance is a requirement that all performers must wear masks while performing in both rehearsals or during the show. For such an exertive task like ballet, masks are far from conducive to the performance of the dancers, but this has forced them to adapt by means of re-concentrating their energy and aiming their breath to a particular area of the body.
“What I found with wearing a mask while exerting myself is that breathing in is easy but it takes more energy to breathe out, so I feel hotter and like I get more fatigued quicker,” Wagner said. “Dance is all about how you breathe and control your breath, so it is a good reminder to moderate your breathing and then put your attention to other places and feel your breath from there.”
For the performance on Nov.14, the costume design team designated for this show have even been tasked with creating ornate masks to complement the performance's aesthetic.
Something that the production team can’t circumvent even with their collective purview of knowledge is the lack of Davis's physical presence during both rehearsals and the livestreamed performance.
After his one week residency where he dedicated every day to instructing and demonstrating the work that he has choreographed to the dancers, the dancers and faculty have become familiarized with the composition of the performance, and from here on out will be practicing the steps and procedures of the piece by themselves throughout the week with Davis scheduled to take them through group instruction for two hours every Saturday until the performance date.
“It’ll take a lot of trust because what he’ll be seeing on Zoom will be very different from what people are seeing live versus what’s being live streamed,” Wagner said. “I think that knowing your choreography is even more important because if you mess up and he’s not there, then you won’t know what to adjust.”
With all that the dance program has already navigated through so far, it’s hard to imagine that any new problems going forward could stultify the program’s efforts to put on their livestreamed “Dance Presents!” event with PNB Nov. 14. Because much like ballet itself, this entire process for the GU dance program has been about how they stay composed in uncomfortable situations, and so far the team has been able to hold their posture impeccably.