Every weekday at 10 a.m., Carolyn Judson logs on to Zoom for ballet class. In the dining area of her Fort Worth home, she rolls out her Mother’s Day gift and “prized possession”—a roughly three-by-five-foot piece of vinyl that keeps her from slipping on the hardwood floor. A shower handle affixed to her granite countertop acts as a makeshift barre, and when she does the smallest of jumps, a yoga mat squishes beneath her feet to absorb the impact.
As the coronavirus pandemic drags on, Judson’s barebones setup has grown increasingly sophisticated, but it’s still frustrating. She and her fellow dancers at the Texas Ballet Theater are teaching themselves online, instead of relying on an instructor in person—and there’s never enough space. “We’ve done all we can,” she says. “Even if we moved everything out, there still isn’t really enough room. Today even, I kicked the wall, and I was so annoyed.”
She’s one of countless dancers across the country who have had to improvise after the ballet world’s infrastructure, carefully constructed over centuries, caved under pressure from a public health crisis. The niche art form doesn’t jibe well with physical distancing or face masks. Not only would crowds at concert halls be dangerous now, but routine classes and rehearsals also carry a risk of contagion.
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“We are a petri dish, you know? We sweat, we partner, touch each other, breathe in each other’s faces,” says Judson, who has danced with the Fort Worth company for seventeen seasons.
On March 13, rain poured down as she and her colleagues at TBT cleaned out their locker room after class at their company studio in Fort Worth. That was the beginning of an extended hiatus. COVID-19 forced one of the state’s foremost ballet troupes, plus its campuses in Dallas County and Fort Worth, to close for months, canceling two spring productions, thirteen student performances, and gala events. The canceled galas alone lost the nonprofit more than $90,000 in expected revenue.
Ballet companies operate with thin margins, and many were barely scraping by long before the pandemic. Vanessa Logan, TBT’s executive director, says the nonprofit had no financial cushion to draw on when it was forced to close; then it immediately took a nearly $1 million hit from lost tuition payments and scrapped shows. During the freefall, its board identified two priorities, Logan says: keeping everyone safe and on payroll.
The company employs 73 staff members and faculty. TBT’s leadership honored contracts through the end of the fiscal year in June, and so far, they’ve maintained all full-time positions.
The nonprofit does have a line of credit, and roughly $902,500 from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program plus $338,000 from a newly minted relief fund in response to the pandemic temporarily softened the blow. But TBT has already had to slash its budget by $2 million, resulting in progressive salary reductions, shortened contracts, and a moratorium on live orchestra accompaniment at future performances.
“We have a long way to go,” Logan says. “The relief fund will be there for quite some time.”
Dancers, meanwhile, are staring down a new normal that’s difficult to envision in the abstract. Ben Stevenson, TBT’s artistic director, calls the pandemic “the worst thing I’ve ever experienced” during a decades-long career. He recalls studying the bubonic plague as a boy in England and thinks the comparison is apt.
“This has put a stop to rehearsing ballets really in the usual way,” he says. “So it’s been very catastrophic.”
Stay-at-home orders have made it difficult to keep fit, because “you can’t jump around your living room,” Stevenson says. Although Judson is doing her best to stay in shape, she worries about rolling an ankle and barely has space to move around her house. The last few months have been the longest she’s ever taken off of work, despite two pregnancies and many years with the ballet. For now, she trains while her infant son and three-year-old daughter nap or do art projects.
Sometimes, she tucks them in a double stroller and goes for a jog—the closest she gets to high-flying leaps. “I need to be in better shape than I am now,” Judson says. “I’m just not quite sure how to make that happen.”
TBT’s student dancers have also faced obstacles to their rigorous training. When the organization closed its doors, nearly six hundred students lost their dance spaces overnight, though staff members rushed to provide virtual resources. About 9 percent of the company’s revenue typically comes from more than seventy classes, and about 3.5 percent of that was lost when classes went online. Company members have contributed videos on everything from a favorite smoothie recipe to foot-strengthening exercises.
“When something like this happens in the world, kids sometimes get overlooked. They’re kind of thrown for a loop. And it was so important to my team to keep some kind of consistency with them,” says Daniel Tardibono, TBT’s director of schools.
As Texas’s unemployment rate hit record highs, Logan and her board shouldered a moral imperative to offer April and May classes for free, the lost income be damned. Logan was once a teen who lived for ballet, so she understands how much it means to the young people who train at TBT’s schools.
“We felt it was important to give those opportunities right now, without putting a paywall,” she says.
At first, dancers grabbed any space they could find in their homes, but as weeks went by, Tardibono and his colleagues eventually recommended they block off an eight-by-ten-foot area. Parents built barres out of pipe or sawhorses, and kids posed for photos in tutus after driving through a socially distanced pickup to get the costumes they would have worn at their end-of-year showcases.
As at academic institutions across the country, some students did experience virtual burnout and dropped off, especially the youngest children. But one of ballet’s core tenets is constant, intensive training, and older dancers stuck with it, Tardibono says, because “they knew it was important to keep going.”
Faculty have since welcomed back students for in-person classes, albeit with significantly lower enrollment capacity and stringent protocols. Throughout the summer, staggered pods of ten or fewer have rotated in for class, followed closely by a cleaning crew. Dancers have been assigned places to store their belongings in the hallway, and they have designated spots in the studios where they train.
Masks are now mandatory, barring a medical reason against them. Even then, students are asked to don at least a face shield. Teachers also have to wear face coverings, and they’re no longer giving the hands-on corrections that are typical in ballet classes. Despite these myriad precautions, TBT has still dealt with three COVID-19 infections at its facilities.
In the summers, aspiring dancers from around the country and abroad usually pour into Dallas–Fort Worth to train with TBT, and out-of-state students would normally account for half of the programs’ participants. But this year, the schools had to cancel their residential option. Attendees are now all locals, and many of them are enrolled because they had their own summer plans dashed by the pandemic.
“We encourage our students in the summer to leave and train elsewhere at these other very prestigious ballet companies,” Tardibono says. “This year, it’s a whole new world.”
The company’s professional dancers are still on break, and tentative plans for them to ramp up training have already been pushed back to August 24. It’s time to start preparing for this year’s production of The Nutcracker, currently the first bill of the new season after TBT’s fall production was postponed, though the company is still deciding whether to move forward with the holiday classic.
Judson wants to be able to move freely again, and that part of her identity is raring to go. The rest, though—protective mother and good samaritan—doesn’t feel ready yet.
“I like to be able to picture what I’m going into,” she says. “And because I don’t have that picture, I’m feeling a little bit anxious about the whole thing.”
Her family has significantly altered its lifestyle, mostly restricting visitors, stopping all childcare, ordering groceries, and wiping things down before bringing them into the house. She knows some of her fellow company members are being equally careful, but others are taking a less strict approach to life after shutdown.
That’s their choice, she says, but the situation poses a number of thorny unknowns. What happens if a dancer gets sick two weeks before a show? And can she ask her pas de deux partner not to go out for groceries?
“I don’t know if I’m allowed to say, ‘These are the guidelines you have to take in order for me to dance,’” she says. “There are so many questions, but that is what would make me feel comfortable—if I knew that my partner was quarantining as hard as I am.”
Stevenson is trying to conceive of how to safely set choreography, and likely won’t figure it out until he’s actually in the room. How, for example, can he rehearse a boisterous party scene—where “everyone’s touching everyone”—in pods?
“Heaven forbid, we might have to cancel The Nutcracker,” he says. “Just depends how bad it is.”
As confirmed cases and hospitalizations soar in Texas, it’s hard to imagine packed theaters any time soon. But that doesn’t mean that ballet is finished. TBT’s dancers still have an audience on social media, where they’ve demonstrated arabesques and chaîné turns, shot collaborative videos, and offered an intimate look into their lives at home. Even Stevenson has been working on a series of poolside chats, recording an oral history of his career in videos that will long outlast the pandemic.
“I think that we will go on, and I think this will pass, hopefully, and that we will rise like a phoenix again,” he says. “The ballet phoenix.”