Grand Rapids Ballet: A Season of Hope and Inspiration –
A Look at the 2020-21 Season and “The Nutcracker Experience”
By Adrienne Warber
We need the arts, and the arts need us. Art in many forms has been a source of hope during the challenge of the pandemic. Artists pour out their heart and soul in their masterpieces, and this special gift reaches us, the audience, like a lifeline. The lifeline is important for both the artist and the audience. This is so clear in Grand Rapids Ballet’s 2020-21 Season, which opened in November with an inspiring performance of “Business as (un)Usual,” and continues this weekend with “The Nutcracker Experience.” West Michigan families can still keep their annual “Nutcracker” tradition alive, right in their own living rooms, with Grand Rapids Ballet’s virtual “The Nutcracker Experience,” which is available for unlimited streaming from Dec. 18-27 for $15.
Grand Rapids Ballet’s 2020-21 Season – Art Created with Love
Grand Rapids Ballet has an exceptionally talented cast of dancers led by a visionary artistic director, James Sofranko, who continues to grow Michigan’s only professional ballet company into an exquisite creative voice on both the national and international stage. The 2020-21 Season is 100% virtual for public safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. The company has turned the lack of a live audience into an opportunity to offer something new to their audience – professionally filmed shows by SALT: Creative Production Studio, unlimited performance viewing, and a closer look at the creative process. This was also an opportunity to grow their audience since a virtual performance can be viewed anywhere in the world. Their resilience of turning a challenge into a new opportunity for artistic expression is inspiring.
Artistic Director James Sofranko talks about the challenges of planning a ballet season during the COVID-19 pandemic, “Preparing for this season has been challenging, and involved numerous scenarios that would be revised or scrapped from week to week. It was so hard to predict what was going to happen, and what that would mean for our company. Closer to the beginning of the pandemic, we were planning for a return to the stage as normal in the fall, then we started working towards only performing outdoors, some of which worked out, others which fell through. Finally we made what seems like a good decision now, to turn the whole season into a virtual season, and pushing what we had planned for 2020/21 until 2021/22. That allowed me the freedom to piece together a season that could lend itself well to a virtual platform and also maintain Covid safety protocols.”
Grand Rapids Ballet worked on their virtual season by running rehearsals in small groups or pods for safe social distancing. Sofranko comments on the experience of choreographing and running rehearsals in pods, “We have organized the dancers into small pods of no more than 6 dancers. Each pod takes class, rehearses, and performs for the camera, only within their pod. So we’ve in effect divided the company into 5 sub-companies. Each choreographer and piece needs to have sections that have no more than 6 dancers, and those sections cannot be filmed in sequence. My piece “Calling Forth,” for instance, has five sections, and each section is a different pod, so I never saw the full piece together until we edited them together for the final video. Also, the process of choreographing was a challenge. I was not able to be in the same space as the dancers, so I was choreographing from the seats in the theater, and I could not try any of the partnering choreography. This was so unusual for me, as I love to get up and try everything, and work on the partnering mechanics myself, but I had to just describe what I wanted and then the dancers had to do their best to figure out what I was wanting! I also enlisted the help of my wife Cindy at home when I wanted to try some partnering steps!”
Grand Rapids Ballet is also excited to reach a worldwide audience with their virtual program. “One benefit of the virtual season is that anyone, anywhere, with an internet connection can enjoy our performances. We hope to expand our reach beyond just Grand Rapids, we are Michigan’s only professional ballet company after all, and we would love to serve those communities beyond our hometown. Also, our dancers come from all over the world and some of their family members have never been to Grand Rapids, but now they can see our performances at home! And one more benefit is that with the cameras, we can show close ups of the dancers, so in a way the performance can actually feel more intimate than a typical live performance. Nothing will replace the live performance energy and excitement though, and we still look forward to the day we can welcome audiences back into our theater,” says Sofranko.
A Successful Season Launch – Business as (un)Usual
The 2020-21 Season opened with “Business as (un)Usual” on November 13-15 and featured eight different works by some incredibly talented established and emerging choreographers that beautifully blended classical ballet and contemporary movement. The show included three world premiere works by Princess Grace Award-winning choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie (“Three Offerings”), Grand Rapids Ballet Artistic Director James Sofranko (“Calling Forth”) and Grand Rapids Ballet company dancer Yuka Oba-Muschiana (“Wave.”) It was a celebration of dance art that showcased the talent of company dancers, some of whom also choreographed for the show, and the creative minds of some of today’s most inventive choreographers. The show was available for unlimited viewing for 72 hours, included a version with commentary to give the audience insight into each work, and an interview between Sofranko and Moultrie.
The fact the performance was a film instead of a live show allowed the use of artistry in the community. We see violinist Gene Hahn playing music outdoors and dancers dancing their way through the city on their way to Grand Rapids Ballet. It was quite an emotional moment to see the dancers in masks, dancing through the city streets toward the theatre with longing, just like all of us wishing for a return to normalcy.
“Business as (un)Usual” was a strong start to the 2020-21 Season and demonstrated how dance is a gift of hope and beauty to the world. Grand Rapids Ballet’s company dancers are extraordinarily talented, with strong dance technique, creativity and acting skills that make performances come alive for the audience. The collection of eight works came together in a memorable and entertaining showcase. Grand Rapids Ballet Artistic Director James Sofranko’s lovely world premiere “Calling Forth” captured the love of dance and the excitement of returning to stage in a series of beautiful trios and duets in classical ballet technique. Matthew Wenckowski’s “Such As You” was a contemporary movement male pas de deux filled with skillful expression and creativity. Gretchen Steimle’s “Be Here Now” was a clever, enjoyable contemporary piece with dance reminiscent of 1940s musical theater and Gene Kelly movies. Darrell Grand Moultrie’s world premiere “Three Offerings” was a moving statement on loss and hope in the community expressed through a beautiful blend of contemporary movement and classical ballet. Grand Rapids Ballet Resident Choreographer Penny Saunders’ “The Happy Prince and Other Wilde Tales” excerpt was a pas de deux for two male dancers filled with passion and gorgeous contemporary movement. Yuka Oba-Muschiana’s world premiere, “Wave,” was a beautiful blend of dance styles, including Spanish flamenco and Argentine tango elements, exquisite movement, and emotion. Penny Saunders’ “One To Three” was an enjoyable combination of contemporary movement and classical ballet. The show ended with the beautiful classical ballet pas de deux from Christopher Stowell’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that took the audience back to the romance of ballet and the unique beauty of this art form.
The 2020-21 Season continues with Grand Rapids Ballet’s holiday masterpiece, “The Nutcracker Experience” on Dec. 18-27, a celebration of some today’s most inventive choreographers, “Collective Force” on March 26-28 2021, and a showcase of the choreography of Grand Rapids Ballet dancers, “Jumpstart: On Film,” on April 30-May 2, 2021.
Grand Rapids Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker Experience’
It is “Nutcracker” season and now you can see Grand Rapids Ballet’s beloved holiday ballet in the comfort of your home with unlimited viewing between Dec. 18-27. “The Nutcracker Experience” features Val Caniparoli’s beautiful choreography, favorite moments from the family classic, Tchaikovsky’s music played by the Grand Rapids Symphony, and behind-the-scenes interviews, all hosted by WOOD-TV 8’s Rachel Ruiz and Jordan Carson.
Artistic Director Jame Sofranko discusses Grand Rapids Ballet’s “The Nutcracker Experience,”I’m very excited about the upcoming Nutcracker Experience (Dec 18-27), which will showcase our beloved holiday production in a way never seen before. We have filmed many segments of the ballet, all in the pods of dancers, but in such a way that we can composite the shots together, so it will appear as if we have a stage full of people. SALT Creative Studios is our video production partner, and they have been working very hard to make this “movie magic” happen, and also to film behind the scenes segments of all of the moving parts that it takes to get Nutcracker onto the stage and screen. If you love the Nutcracker already, you will be tickled to see how we filmed it, as well as to see your favorite dancers close up, and if you’ve never seen Nutcracker before, its the perfect introduction to what we do here at Grand Rapids Ballet.”
‘The Nutcracker Experience’ Ticket Information
Individual tickets are available for $15 for unlimited online access to the “Nutcracker Experience.” Season subscription are also available. There are also two levels of season subscriptions, which give access to extra benefits. The $75 Patron Subscription provides unlimited private access to all virtual shows, first opportunity to buy in-person tickets, if they become available in the future, and pre-show artist talk videos. The $150 Patron Plus Subscription gives unlimited private access to all virtual programs, first chance to buy any available in-person tickets, pre-show artist talk videos, program commentary videos, opportunities to view company ballet classes and rehearsals, Zoom video interviews with dancers, and limited video access to past performances. To purchase tickets, visit Grand Rapids Ballet’s website.