Grand Rapids Ballet’s ‘Virtual Programs’ lifts spirits with the joy of dance
By Adrienne Warber
Grand Rapids Ballet shows their love of the West Michigan community and the art of dance through the launch of their new “Virtual Program” series to uplift people’s spirits during this challenging time. Artistic pursuits like dance both inspire hope and soothe anxiety during hard times. Grand Rapids Ballet began their online outreach through Grand Rapids Ballet School classes on YouTube and Zoom, and an online tribute to healthcare workers in a special performance, “Virtual Hug” that appeared on all of their social media platforms. Last Friday, Grand Rapids Ballet aired the first part of their online program, “Virtual Program I: Classic & Contemporary” on Vemo. The production was made available for donations of any amount as both a celebration of art and a way for the community to contribute to Michigan’s only professional ballet company.
Grand Rapids Ballet, like most art organizations across the nation, has experienced financial challenges due to the cancellation of programs and activities due to COVID-19. Providing online performances and online classes are ways for the company to keep things running in a safe manner during the pandemic. This also creates an opportunity for Grand Rapids Ballet to reach a larger audience and spread the joy of dance across the state, nation and world through the Internet.
Grand Rapids Ballet School offers free beginner and intermediate Adult Ballet classes and Moving with Parkinson’s classes on YouTube available to the public. The public classes are great introduction to learning ballet and fitness activity that provides a healthy, low impact, full body workout. The school also runs private structured level classes on Zoom for their enrolled students. Current Grand Rapids Ballet School students are able to keep up with their normal ballet level skills through these classes. The school also periodically offers special online classes for alumni and family classes where people of all levels can dance together. Times for these classes vary. Check Grand Rapids Ballet School’s Facebook page for the current dance class schedule and special offers.
Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Virtual Programs” series features popular classical ballet and contemporary works from their repertoire and new works from some of today’s leading and emerging choreographers. These performances represent high art and some of the most exciting ideas in dance today. Their “Virtual Hug” performance that premiered on May 5 was a way for Grand Rapids Ballet and the dancers to honor healthcare and other essential workers on the front lines and show solidarity with the whole community during the pandemic. 14 dancers wore blue to show support for the medical field and each danced from their separate locations to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major played by Jeremy Crosmer of Grand Rapids’ Eclectic String Music Ensemble shown in split screens. The lovely performance culminated in all dancers moving their arms to artistically hug the audience. James Cunningham, Steven Houser, Ingrid Lewis, Celeste Lopez-Keranen, Madison Massara, Alexandra Meister-Upleger, Yuka Oba-Muschiana, Emily Reed, Gretchen Steimle, Nigel Tau, Julia Turner, Adriana Wagenveld, Matt Wenckowski and Nathan Young all volunteered to dance in this special tribute video. The video can still be viewed on all of Grand Rapids Ballet’s website and all of their social media platforms.
“My wife had been finding articles about messages of support having a positive impact on the mental state of workers in the healthcare industry, so we started brainstorming about how we, as ballet dancers, could use our talents to send a special message of our own,” said Artistic Director James Sofranko. “It is heartbreaking to me that the very people tasked with solving this pandemic may end up suffering from PTSD. I am very proud of the dancers of Grand Rapids Ballet who have volunteered to participate in this one-of-a-kind video message to offer our moral support. It is our desire that this video will offer them strength and encouragement during the difficult times. We hope this message can be shared with healthcare workers across the state of Michigan and the entire country. We will not get through this without them, and we must do everything we can to show our gratitude. We are behind them, we are inspired by them, and we stay home for them.”
On Friday, May 15, Grand Rapids Ballet aired “Virtual Program I: Classic & Contemporary,” on Vemo for people who made a donation of any amount to view the performance anytime for 72 hours, starting at 7 pm. “Virtual Program I” featured George Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante,” Danielle Rowe’s “November,” and Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Extremely Close.” The program begins with an introduction from Grand Rapids Ballet Artistic Director James Sofranko and ends with an interview between Sofranko and the choreographers Rowe and Cerrudo. The production is a nice blend of classical ballet and contemporary movement, and the choreographer interviews gave a behind the scenes look at their works. When Grand Rapids Ballet performed these works on stage, they were both critically acclaimed and audience favorites that sold out. The access to view the show multiple times at viewer convenience for 72 hours is also a nice perk of this online offering.
“As the COVID-19 crisis continues, I have been looking for new ways to fulfill our mission of lifting the human spirit through the art of dance,” said Artistic Director James Sofranko. “Our new “Virtual Programs” seeks to replicate the experience of attending one of our performances by offering an evening of ballets handpicked by myself to reflect our times as well as highlight the talents of our company.”
Whenever George Balanchine’s classical ballet “Allegro Brillante” is performed set to the music of Peter Ilyich Tchiakovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 75, the audience notes both the beauty and the athleticism of the piece. It is a joyful blend of Russian and American classical ballet from the father of American ballet, George Balanchine. Grand Rapids Ballet did an exceptional job on “Allegro Brillante.” Yuka Oba-Muschiana, Josue Justiz, Connie Flachs, Isaac Aoki, Cassidy Isaacson, Steven Houser, Madison Massara, Branden Reiners, Emily Reed and Matthew Wenckowki all danced with masterful technique in this performance from October 2018.
Choreographer Danielle Rowe’s haunting “November” is an elegant and emotional contemporary work that examines the many aspects of love. Rowe was inspired to create this piece based on a quote on love from Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the creator of the hit BBC series, “Fleabag.” Set to music by Sergei Prokofiev and Max Richter, “November” features five dancers and blends both modern and classical movement. The dancers’ movements and the use of lighting, a mirror and platform create moments of beauty like various panels of a painting. James Cunningham, Emily Reed, Adriana Wagenveld, Matthew Wenckowski and Nathan Young all gave strong performances in the piece that appeared on stage in February 2020.
“Extremely Close” by choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo is a visual feast of contemporary movement that incorporates lighting, falling feathers and moving panels in the dancing. The piece is set to music by Philip Glass and Dustin O’Halloran and features eight dancers. The inventive piece shows multifaceted creative possibilities of dance with a ballet base. Isaac Aoki, Cassidy Isaacson, Yuka Oba-Muschiana, Emily Reed, Nigel Tau, Levi Teachout, Adriana Wagenveld and Matthew Wenckowski all danced with great artistry from their performance on February 2019.
Grand Rapids Ballet’s next “Virtual Program II: An Evening with Penny Saunders” will premiere on June 12 and feature the works of their Princess Grace award-winning resident choreographer Penny Saunders. Saunders will present a world premiere of “Amiss,” and her popular works, “Again,” “Testimony,” and “Ghost Light,” performed by Grand Rapids Ballet dancers.
“This project emerged to remain connected to my craft and to try and create something meaningful during this time of uncertainty,” said Resident Choreographer Penny Saunders. “Over the years, Grand Rapids Ballet has become a creative home for me, and I felt the need to express my gratitude to such an amazing community. Quickly, over 30 individuals from across the organization – from young students to board members – answered the call and offered to join me in this collaboration. Dance, as it often does, provided comfort and connectedness. “Amiss” is a love story of sorts, highlighting what we cherish about our humanity, our creativity, and our arts community.”
A link to view “Virtual Program II: An Evening with Penny Saunders” will be emailed to people who make a tax-deductible donation of any amount between May 16-June 11. When the video becomes available on June 12, it will be viewable online for 72 hours.