Washington Ballet officials say that in putting together the virtual gala, they followed all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and D.C. Department of Health guidelines. But the illnesses raise valid issues of public concern, namely: Did the ballet make the right choices to fundraise in this way, and how much can we trust it on health matters in the future?
Whether due to perception or reality, the ballet may have squandered that trust. After all, the same officials in charge of the gala’s health protocols will be the ones shepherding the dancers back to the studio when the ballet reopens.
They’ll be the ones assuring audiences that it’s safe to come back to the theater.
It bears noting that the dancers are especially vulnerable in this situation. They can’t really say no when asked to help out at a gala. Whether there’s a pandemic or not, there’s little job security in the highly competitive dance world.
It’s never easy for dancers to tell their bosses, “Excuse me, I don’t feel safe” when others are waiting in line who won’t complain. Imagine saying that when you haven’t seen or danced with your colleagues for months, and here’s a cheery get-together and also, your company needs the money.
Ballet culture surely played a part here. But there’s a critical lesson for the wider arts industry: Similar outcomes to this one, or worse, are a risk for all arts groups and patrons facing a return to studios and theaters, and they should heed the lessons of this gala.
Working with RJ Whyte Event Production, organizers retooled it as a stylish online event, combining taped performances with events broadcast live from the ballet’s Wisconsin Avenue NW building. Other arts groups have streamed virtual galas, but the Washington Ballet went a little further with the live portions involving dancers and gala leaders in the studios.
In one of the broadcast’s live segments, for instance, gala co-chairwomen Ashley Bronczek and Sara Lange were grouped at a table with a dancer. With the dancer serving as bartender, they sipped cocktails, chatted and laughed while addressing the online viewers. None of the three wore masks for this, though a ballet spokesman says they were seated six feet apart.
Asked why the ballet chose the live format, board chairwoman Jean-Marie Fernandez said last week, “We were sad to not be able to have the biggest fundraising event of the year in person, and we wanted to try to keep some of that energy.”
The gala had energy to burn and it was a financial success, raising about $850,000. It captured nearly 15,000 viewers. But soon after, a cautionary tale began unfolding, telling a story about what can happen among well-meaning people who gather, even briefly, in the midst of a pandemic when so much about the virus’s spread is still unknown.
The takeaway from the gala is that keeping artists and staff safe in their place of work may take more than adhering to guidelines. Arts groups have to be more aggressive. They’ve got to be tighter, more militaristic.
This may call for a cultural shift within arts groups accustomed to the looser atmospheres that allow creativity to flourish. It may mean awkward encounters when social groups collide. Say, high-paying donors and the directors, dancers and staff who depend on them.
Strict, hard-hitting health rules may mean sacrificing some freedoms, and perhaps aesthetics — requiring masks, for instance, even for those in evening wear. These were conspicuously missing from the gala broadcast.
Fernandez said mask-wearing was part of the event’s protocol, with one exception.
“Everyone was wearing a mask except for when speaking during filming,” she said. “They all were required to wear masks except when on camera and speaking. And they were socially distant.”
Sifting through the protocols won’t tell us much about how and when the virus slipped in. But whether they walked in with it or walked out with it, at least three people participating in the gala became infected.
At first, the focus was on gala co-chairwoman Bronczek, who, as reported by The Washington Post, got sick the day after the gala, along with several guests who attended a watch party at her Spring Valley home. But the story is no longer confined to a soiree-throwing socialite. Neither Kent nor any ballet employees attended this party, according to a ballet spokesman.
Kent revealed in an Instagram post that she tested positive for covid-19 “a couple weeks ago.” (She did not return calls and messages asking for comment.)
The dancer who became ill “had a non-dancing role in the gala,” according to the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), the dancers union.
“We are pleased that he has made a full recovery,” AGMA said in a statement last week.
We all want and need the performing arts industry to get back on its feet. But its employees and artists need to know they’re not taking undue risks. And audiences need to know that when they attend a performance, they’re patronizing a tightly run ship, where every detail has been locked down to combat the virus.
Washington Ballet officials say that they encouraged hand-washing, that they had hand sanitizer stations, and that staff members made sure that best practices were followed. These are reasonable measures, but apparently they were not enough.
We’ll never know what went wrong. We can only guess. Maybe the indoor events complicated things, with dancers performing together (the ballet says they were all observing social distance) and speakers talking and laughing together on camera.
“We really went over and above, thinking about every possible precaution we could take beyond what the CDC guidelines were,” Fernandez said. “If we knew what was enough to protect everyone, we wouldn’t have the stories that we see on the news every day.”
It’s very easy to sympathize with her, and with everyone in the ballet’s circle. What more can an organization do?
Here’s how the Joffrey Ballet is looking ahead. As it contemplates a possible reopening in September, with dancers returning to the studio for socially distant classes in small groups, the ballet intends to work with an industrial hygienist and consult a physical therapy group on ways that dancers can wear masks while working out and rehearsing.
“We’re not experts in medicine,” Joffrey president and chief executive Greg Cameron said recently, “but we’re going to make sure we tap into those elements.”
These are approaches that go beyond the status quo, and envision even deeper levels of employee protection. This is the kind of proactive inquiry that’s necessary to stay ahead of this virus, and in doing that, to win the public trust.
For the Washington Ballet, the good news is that within the turbulent aftermath of its gala lies the path to recovery — if it learns from the past and takes a hard look at the future.
Asked what the ballet took away from the event, Fernandez said, “Like every organization, we are trying to look forward and help our organization and figure out a way to live in this new world. And I think we’re all trying to find a way to do that within the guidelines that are set. And it’s not easy.”