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Masks, coronavirus tests and dancer ‘pods’: How the Washington Ballet tackled its new digital season

Sona Kharatian and other Washington Ballet dancers in “Forbidden Endearment” by Tamás Krizsa. (XMB Photography/The Washington Ballet)

A career in ballet, like any athletic pursuit, is inherently finite. So when the pandemic forced the Washington Ballet to put its pirouettes on pause this spring, artistic director Julie Kent wasn’t going to let her company of 40-plus dancers lay dormant indefinitely.

“You can’t just stop,” Kent says. “A dancer’s life already requires such incredible devotion and commitment at a very young age. To ask a dancer to take a year off or not continue to dance is crushing. Our body is our instrument, and you can’t just leave it alone. Otherwise, you never get it back.”

This summer, as pandemic-related financial setbacks shrank the Washington Ballet’s annual budget from about $15 million to $9 million, according to spokesman Scott Greenberg, the company explored options for creating a fully digital 2020-21 season. The result was an alliance with Marquee TV, marking the international arts-streaming platform’s first partnership with a U.S. ballet company. Although some American companies have had productions streamed on Marquee in one-off, third-party agreements, this is the first time one has entered an ongoing relationship to create new content for the platform.

The cornerstone of that collaboration is an initiative called “Create in Place,” featuring four newly commissioned works, recently performed and filmed by the Washington Ballet under health and safety protocols. Last month, the first two “Create in Place” performances — “Chronos,” choreographed by Xiomara Reyes, and “Forbidden Endearment,” by Tamás Krizsa — began streaming on Marquee TV. In January, the subscription service will release Helga Paris-Morales’s “Womb of Heaven” and Andile Ndlovu’s “Something Human.”

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“[The Washington Ballet] really just went full force into doing a digital season,” says Kathleya Afanador, Marquee TV’s head of content. “They didn’t dally around and tiptoe around doing one production here, maybe one production next year — they really wanted to pivot completely into a full digital season. So that was one reason why we were so enthusiastic about this partnership.”

To execute its “Create in Place” vision, the company split its dancers into four 10-person “pods,” each assigned to one production. Every dancer had to test negative for the coronavirus before starting rehearsal and again before filming. The performers wore masks during the weeks of rehearsals, and they used an app to regularly log their temperature and other medical information.

“Dancers are, by nature, disciplined, committed and take their art very seriously, and they see that there are not many companies that are back in the studio dancing,” Kent says. “Dancing in a mask and the restraints of the protocol, I mean, nobody loves it. But in comparison to not dancing, really, it’s nothing. It’s what you have to do in order to keep going.”

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The “Create in Place” parameters didn’t present unique challenges for the dancers alone. American composer Blake Neely, who wrote the music for “Forbidden Endearment,” used Zoom to sit in on a recording session with the Budapest Art Orchestra, contribute feedback and deliver that original score. The choreographers had to design routines in which the only dancers touching each other were those who live together as roommates or partners. Social-distancing measures also made running rehearsals tricky, since only five dancers were allowed in the studio at a time.

“You would have people upstairs in a different studio, rehearsing through Zoom,” says Paris-Morales, the “Womb of Heaven” choreographer and a member of the Washington Ballet’s Studio Company. “I would be downstairs with the other dancers, looking at what’s happening, and then I would stop after an hour and run upstairs and see what they’re doing.”

After rehearsals were complete, the performances were recorded outdoors in Maryland — “Chronos” and “Forbidden Endearment” at the Washington Ballet’s storage warehouse in Landover, Md.; “Something Human” at Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City; and “Womb of Heaven” at Wheaton Regional Park. It wasn’t until the cameras were rolling that the performers removed their masks, all 10 dancers stepped onstage and the full choreography played out as envisioned for the first time.

“Part of what we do as performers is we deliver when the time comes,” Kent says. “When the curtain goes up, you have to bring it.”

Although there were no specific instructions regarding the “Create in Place” works’ themes, certain through lines relevant to 2020 — such as grief, isolation and the human experience — permeated through the different productions.

“It’s really important to me that this moment in time is captured, and that it’s understood that these works were produced under incredible duress,” says Kent, who retired in 2015 after a decades-long career with American Ballet Theatre. “If a year ago, we were invited to be a part of Marquee TV, what production would you put on there? Well, that would be a whole other thought process. But now, this is sort of a testament to the human spirit. We will continue, and we are forging the path forward, even under very challenging circumstances.”

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Beyond the “Create in Place” initiative, the Washington Ballet’s partnership with Marquee TV also includes smaller-scale projects, such as last month’s “Together/Apart,” filmed with two dancers on the steps of Washington National Cathedral, and the upcoming “Clara’s Christmas Eve Dream.” Long term, Kent and Afanador expressed optimism that their collaboration will continue once in-person audiences return, as reaching a global audience via streaming potentially becomes a fixture of the troupe’s creative ambitions.

“This isn’t just a quick fix for one season,” Afanador says. “I think this is going to be kind of a hybrid approach going forward. So I foresee, hopefully, a lot of deeper collaboration. There’s a lot of creativity coming out of that company, and I’m really excited to see what ideas they have for developing content and artworks that could potentially have both a live component and a digital component.”

“It’s been made abundantly clear that for performing arts to survive,” Kent adds, “we need to be expanding our own ideas.”