“I had the nerves of ‘Okay, do I remember how to do this?’ ” said the 31-year-old ballerina. “But then it was great, like, ‘Oh, I’m doing it again. Back to work!’ ”
Performing once again is the ultimate reward for dancers like Lavine, who’ve struggled to keep doing basic barre workouts in their kitchens or living rooms over the past several months. Yet in this case, going back to work looked — and felt — quite different.
Gone was the grandeur and prestige of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, ABT’s home for spring and early summer. Instead, Lavine drove two hours to Tivoli, N.Y., a village in the Hudson Valley countryside, where she performed a two-minute solo on a modest outdoor stage in a field behind a barn.
That’s where the Kaatsbaan Cultural Park — a long-standing site for dance residencies and creative retreats — is hosting its first summer dance festival, with outdoor performances on weekends through Sept. 27.
With live performances canceled around the globe, dancers have experienced two seasons of confinement, artistic emptiness and existential heartbreak. At ABT, for example, a new generation of dancers was poised to take the reins this spring at the Met. Among those slated to get their big breaks were soloist Calvin Royal III, who was to star in “Giselle,” “Romeo and Juliet” and Alexei Ratmansky’s newest ballet, “Of Love and Rage,” and Lavine, a corps de ballet member, taking on a principal role in Ratmansky’s “The Seasons.”
The pandemic swept those opportunities away.
Losing what would have been “a monumental season,” said Royal, who’s also 31, “was like having the wind knocked out of me.”
Like other dancers, Royal lost the summer’s typical guest appearances, too. Such major U.S. festivals as Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts and Colorado’s Vail Dance Festival were scratched, and travel for gigs in Europe and Asia isn’t possible.
But it turns out that doing plies and pirouettes at home has paid off. Earlier this month, Royal and Lavine finally made it back to the stage, if only for a few sweet minutes.
When historians write the saga of How Covid-19 Changed Everything for Everyone Forever, these very brief dance performances on a former farm may not appear as even a footnote. The significance of the Kaatsbaan Summer Festival 2020 — its motto: “Celebrating a Return to Movement and the Arts” — is difficult to quantify. It brings in no money. Tickets are free, and each evening’s program of four or five solos and duets is only about 30 minutes, to discourage bathroom visits and travelers from afar. (The run is sold out, but you can get on a wait list by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Yet from this vantage point early in its run — and I’m pronouncing this with my fingers crossed that no virus outbreak occurs — the festival can be seen as a cultural marker in ways both subtle and magnificent. It’s a psychic harbinger, a sign that performing arts survive and that smart, creative planning can win — at least for the small audiences each night, who are screened on arrival and sit on socially distanced blankets or benches, or watch from their cars, and for the coronavirus-tested artists performing there. (Upcoming performers include ABT’s Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside; Broadway’s Robbie Fairchild; and Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana.)
Kaatsbaan Artistic Director Stella Abrera, the recently retired ABT principal, reached out to Royal to join the festival’s advisory committee and to curate the opening weekend to honor Black dancers and choreographers. Abrera’s invitation, Royal said, “was life-changing.”
“To bring people together again for live performances, to see the energy — it’s given us something to look forward to,” he said. “A sense of purpose. Even just a nugget of hope that we are going to get through this.”
For his program, Royal choreographed two solos. One for himself: “The Dividing Line,” using a Gershwin prelude to explore “what I was feeling inside about my career.” The other was for Lavine, a close friend since the two were teenagers training together: “The Dream Continues,” accompanied by an excerpt of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Royal’s program also featured other artists of color: Melvin Lawovi, an ABT apprentice, tap dancer Léonardo Sandoval and bass player Gregory Richardson.
All through the shutdown, Lavine has taken part in ABT’s daily technique classes over Zoom. She has gone on short runs, worked her core and executed calf raises to keep in shape for jumping. But she’s mostly taken it easy, as she tore her hamstring during last year’s Met season, dropping into a split in “Manon,” and with constant performing, it never fully healed. This was a chance to rest it.
Then came the text from Royal, asking her to embody “a hope for the future and for Black lives, which is really important for me and throughout my whole life,” she said. “His choreography is asking the audience to listen and hear what we’re saying, and bring about change.”
Soon they were rehearsing twice a week in a rented Manhattan studio, wearing masks and staying distanced.
The mask part: As uncomfortable as you’d think.
“Hot,” said Lavine. “My face got really sweaty. You notice it at first, then you sort of get used to it.”
“On the one hand, it was a sci-fi moment,” Royal said. “On the other, there was this sense of freedom, feeling free in my body.”
“We may not necessarily feel like we’re at that level where we were five months ago,” he added, “but the work we did is still in our bones.”
Perhaps the most lasting benefit of their brief moments back onstage is this: seeing silver linings braided through the months of confinement. Lavine’s hamstring finally healed in a way it never would have had she danced all spring and summer. Royal has had the luxury of devoting a couple of hours every day to a new endeavor, “to listen to music and let my mind run wild” with ideas for making dances.
And those performances?
“It was amazing to get back onstage,” Lavine said from the car taking her back to New York. With the audience sitting so close, in the soft light of early evening, “I could see everyone’s faces. It felt really personal.”
“Now it feels like leaving summer camp, where you’ve made all these new friends,” she said, sighing. “I’m kind of sad. I want to go back and do it again.”