Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, hard-hit by COVID-19 shutdown, takes gala event online
IF YOU WATCH…
What: ‘Dancing With Our Stars,’ Aspen Santa Fe Ballet virtual gala
When: Thursday, July 30, 6 p.m.
How much: Free to watch, donations encouraged
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s “Dancing with the Stars” gala has become the dance company’s signature fundraising event over the past 11 years, taking inspiration from the TV show of the same name to pair its dancers with non-dancing members of the Aspen community to buzzy results (Sheriff Joe DiSalvo paired with ballerina Samantha Klanac Campanile in 2016, for instance).
The odd couples would perform at the company’s big annual gala, which is normally hosted in a hotel ballroom with more than 300 guests and has raised in excess of $500,000.
This year, with dance company operations completely shuttered since March and for the foreseeable future due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, there will be no in-person gala. But the event — rebranded as “Dancing with Our Stars” — is going virtual and serving as a lifeline for an organization facing an existential threat from the pandemic’s shutdown.
“We felt that format could lend itself to a virtual format,” Aspen Santa Fe Ballet executive director Jean-Philippe Malaty said in a recent Zoom interview, “because it started as a television program anyway.”
It will stream for free online, with donations encouraged. Instead of pairing dancers with civilians, it will showcase hidden dance talents of company members.
“Obviously this is a big loss for us,” Malaty said of dropping the in-person gala. “This online gala may not raise half a million dollars. But we may get close to that.”
The COVID-19 crisis has placed the dance industry in an unthinkable situation where performing for the public in theaters and rehearsing in studios is not possible.
When the pandemic hit Colorado, the company was in rehearsal for its summer debut of Manuel Vignoulle’s debut work for Aspen Santa Fe — one of two new pieces that had been set to debut this season and are now on hold — while planning to host Diavolo in late March and head to Europe on tour in the spring. The School of Santa Fe Ballet — which teaches some 600 students in the Roaring Fork Valley — was at full speed.
All of it halted abruptly in mid-March.
“Everything stopped — we lost our entire revenue stream,” artistic director Tom Mossbrucker said.
Nearly half of the company’s $4.2 million budget comes from earned income like tickets and touring fees and school tuition — not from donations — so losing all revenue is as steep a challenge as the company could face.
With dual home bases in Aspen and in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the company has always depended upon a hybrid and diversified financing and operating model. This summer, in the pandemic, that meant navigating differing public health rules and restrictions across two states and four counties where the company has dance school operations.
Malaty and Mossbricker’s immediate actions included launching an Emergency Relief Fund to keep the company solvent. It drew wide support and came in addition to staff and company-wide salary cuts for their 32 full-time employees. The company also turned to a group of its board members to form a crisis management task force, offering guidance through the unknowns of the pandemic.
Like most organizations in the months since then, the dance company has made and then torn up countless plans for resuming operations — moving far past their plan B and plan C.
“Right now I’m at a plan Y and Z,” Malaty said. “I never thought I would be so far down the list, but here we are. … I’ve had to learn, as a leader, to say ‘I don’t know.’”
Receiving donor support and a Payroll Protection Program loan, the company has not yet furloughed or laid off any of its people.
Unknowns include plans for the company’s 25th anniversary in 2021, a year that was to include international tours and retrospectives of favorite commissioned works from the first quarter-century of Aspen Santa Fe, and performances in contemporary dance hubs that have helped breed the company’s international reputation like the Joyce Theatre in Manhattan and Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts.
“Now there’s no way you can even plan it,” Mossbrucker said.
Creatively, the toll is still unknown. With company dancers unable to rehearse together for months, the pandemic is a career-threatening event to careers that are already shortened by age.
“The clock is ticking,” Malaty said. “Dancing is a very short career and this is starting to add up.”
Some company dancers left the valley to shelter with family elsewhere, or worked on certifications and training for other professional interests, while company member Jenelle Figgins emerged as a leader of the movement for Black lives and the Roaring Fork Show Up — efforts for which the company has offered full-throated support.
The company’s dance school began offering Zoom classes to its students for free in the spring. But until very recently, Aspen Santa Fe shied away from streaming. While many arts organizations and dance companies began pushing out video content immediately as the pandemic took hold, Malaty and Mossbrucker held back. They wanted, they said, to respect people who were hurting financially and physically, and whose inboxes were overwhelmed with content in those early days. They also wanted to protect the integrity of their art form.
“Deep down we are traditionalists and we believe dance is meant to be experienced live,” Malaty said. “A communion between dancer and audience, it’s not something to be watched on a screen — let alone a tiny computer screen or phone.”
Both company leaders refuse the idea that dance has entered a “new normal” of at-home performance.
“You can’t do it in your living room,” Mossbrucker said. “A dancer needs to be on a stage. It’s really a compromise to be in your kitchen.”
They began opening the door to virtual performance early this summer with a pas de deux from Figgins and Anthony Tiedeman, broadcast at the virtual Aspen Ideas Festival from the stage in an empty Aspen District Theatre. The company also has slowly begun reopening School of Aspen Santa Fe classes, with limited class sizes, distancing, masks and temperature checks in place.
For the “Dancing with Our Stars” virtual event, audience members are invited to bid on their favorite performances as dancers compete. There also will be a live online auction. The program will include dancer Pete Leo Walker showcasing his hidden hip-hop dance talents, Jenny Winton going back to her days as a Broadway performer headlining the national tour of “Dirty Dancing,” and salsa dancing from the husband-wife duo of Joseph and Seia Watson. Students are also on the bill.
For the virtual audience, the online gala will offer a chance to see the beloved local company in action. For the company, it may help determine some of the future.
Malaty and Mossbrucker haven’t shied away from discussing the dire situation ahead. Malaty suggested one option would be “to hibernate” and “not shut down but to reduce operations to the bare minimum” until a vaccine is in place and the company could return to something like its traditional operations.
“Will people want to come back to a theater and sit with 2,000 other people?” Malaty asked. “Will a ballet ticket be a priority, even when there is a vaccine? What is touring going to look like? There are so many unknowns.”
What they do know, he said, is that it took Malaty and Mossbrucker 25 years to build Aspen Santa Fe Ballet and they will know how to rebuild it when the COVID-19 crisis ends.
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