As the Chopin piece swelled to the grand coda, the dancers in gossamer white floated into their final, graceful positions, tulle settling in sighing little puffs around them, duh-dahhhhh.
And, silence. Zero applause at this ballet.
“It’s definitely weird,” said Josh Burnham, whose fluid, swooping performance as the poet surrounded by swirling sylphs en blanc ended without the thunderous applause that a good performance of “Les Sylphides” usually gets.
“It’s like these sports events with no fans,” said Burnham, the assistant ballet master with the Manassas Ballet Theatre, after his company revived its performance schedule, but on video. “It’s a different kind of energy when there’s an audience. An energy that’s missing.”
Amy Wolfe knew it wouldn’t be easy, getting all the dancers in costume and full makeup and in character and en pointe with only a couple of video cameras pointed at them.
“You’re not onstage, you’re not coming out for a bow, you’re not having the audience say ‘wow!’” Wolfe, the artistic director of the Manassas Ballet Theatre, told her company as they recovered from two hours of dancing. “Normally, we perform with a live orchestra.”
But five months after a global pandemic shut down their spring season, they found a way to dance again. And even if it’s in a strip mall studio swathed in pipe and drape to look a little like a grand theater stage, even if the only audience members are camera guys and a columnist, even if some of the dancers are doing the whole ballet miles away in their basements, on a Zoom call, it doesn’t matter.
“We are sending a message to the world right now that life goes on,” Wolfe told them. “We don’t have to hide.”
Their usual performance space, the Hylton Performing Arts Center, remains closed. And though the ballet academy’s classes slowly began again with all the pandemic restrictions that the state demands — social distancing, regular temperature checks, hand and surface sanitizing, masks — there were still some company dancers who weren’t comfortable with getting back onstage.
And then Wolfe had that pandemic revelation that’s setting off lightbulbs around the world. Lockdown can also create new freedoms.
“Zoom dancers! You see me? You ready? Give me a thumbs-up,” she said to the big screens in the studio last week, as they filmed the spring performance that will be streamed to audiences on Sept. 16 after the Zoom dancers are spliced into the main performance.
The dancers on-screen gave her their thumbs-up and took their positions.
“Aaaand, action!” the cameraman boomed.
“Les Sylphides” is the story of a poet who wanders into the woods and happens upon a swarm of sylphs (isn’t there one of those fun, group-of-animal names, like a “dazzle of zebras” or “murder of crows” for a groups of fairylike beings?) and joins in the dance with them. There’s no drama, conflict or even a story line.
It was a slightly shocking piece when it was unveiled more than 100 years ago as a short ballet that does nothing more than celebrate beauty, art and mood without a narrative. And it may be the perfect poultice to soothe our seething, divisive, diseased world today.
The new freedoms with this kind of presentation are more than giving audience members permission to go to the ballet in their sweats and letting dancers with vulnerable family members keep them safe. It also means that the scope of the audience is no longer bound by physical travel.
“All of the opera house can watch me now,” said Alice DeNardi, one of the Manassas Ballet dancers, who is from Milan. Most of her family and friends haven’t seen her perform in Virginia yet. Her husband, who is also a dancer with the company, is from Cairo. “It’s the same for my husband. His family can watch him, too.”
The audience will be different.
But there are deeper thoughts to be had about the drive to keep making art whether or not it is profitable, widely appreciated or acknowledged. Funding and patronage of theater, dance and music is always fragile in flush times, let alone during a pandemic.
But Wolfe told her dancers why they should keep dancing, why she found comfort and strength in dance even after her son was killed while serving in the Marine Corps 13 years ago.
“You know what I experienced,” she said. “I still came to the studio every day so I could keep living. Life. Life. Life.”
They’re about to begin rehearsing for their next show, “Don Quixote.” And after that, it’s “Frankenstein,” then “The Nutcracker.”
All of those shows seem about right for the times, too.