Katie Puder is hopeful. Although the artistic director and founder of Avant Chamber Ballet in Dallas had to cancel the final performances of the company’s 2019-2020 season, Puder sees opportunities in the challenges of the coronavirus epidemic.
Beauty and Beyond, the season finale, was scheduled for April 17 and 18 at the Moody Performance Hall in the Dallas Arts District. The program would have featured the company premiere of Christopher Wheeldon's Five Movements, Three Repeats which includes the famous “This Bitter Earth” pas de deux, world premieres by Kimi Nikaidoh and Jennifer Mabus, commissions of the 2020 Women's Choreography Project, and Puder’s staging of Aurora's Wedding: Sleeping Beauty Act III.
Avant Chamber Ballet’s outside ticket company automatically refunded tickets for the cancelled performances. “We have received about 20% of our ticket sales back in donations from patrons so we are very appreciative of them going out of their way to donate back to Avant Chamber Ballet,” Puder said.
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Puder became concerned when she began seeing a series of performance cancellations in other parts of the nation. “At the beginning of March, I started to worry a little bit,” Puder said. “On March 12, I sat down with the dancers and had a heart-to-heart with them.”
Puder released the dancers from rehearsals early, advising them to go to the grocery store and prepare for a shutdown. One of the dancers whose family is from China warned the company about what was coming: her extended family had not left their apartment in weeks.
The dancers’ last day in the studio was March 13. “It’s a very odd time. Most professional dancers haven’t taken more than a week off in a year,” Puder said. “So, dancers are taking classes on Zoom in their homes.”
Avant Chamber Ballet quickly set up virtual training options. The company offers pilates classes and group and private ballet classes, all via Zoom. A suggested donation for drop-in classes is $10 -$20. A private lesson is $50.
The ballet classes help dancers work on specific technical skills and the pilates classes help these graceful elite athletes maintain their abilities. “It actually works relatively well,” Puder said. “We can really work on the technical work of barre. Everybody is getting strong cores.”
Technology has played an important role in the company’s audition process. The pandemic forced Puder to cancel the company’s audition tour. Dancers submitted video auditions for Puder’s consideration. Videos are usually only one part of an audition. This year, it is Puder’s only way to assess a dancer. “We’ve never had to hire from video before. If I’ve seen a dancer I’m interested in, I can invite them to Dallas to take a company class,” Puder said.
Although the season was shortened, Avant Chamber Ballet provided a different perspective of 19th Amendment, a piece Puder choreographed with original music composed by Quinn Mason in honor of the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. Collaborating with MAKE, the video was filmed from the stands of musicians, offering a 360-degree view of the world premiere. The piece was filmed in February and the company shared the video in March, shortly after cancelling Beauty and Beyond. “It’s so cool, so different, so special to see it from the side as if you are in the wings,” Puder said. “I definitely want to do more projects like that.”
Puder sees possibilities in the use of technology, from more artistic collaboration to engaging audiences far and wide. “If you want to work with a choreographer or teacher across the country, it isn’t ideal, but it is an option,” Puder said. “I think our arts can travel farther and be more open. I hope some of this can stick around after this.”
In August 2019, Avant Chamber Ballet opened its own studio in the Dallas Design District, transitioning from being a project-based operation to an established company dedicated to developing a pipeline of professional dancers. Having the responsibility of the space is both a challenge and an asset during this crisis. “If we hadn’t opened our studio, we wouldn’t have any overhead,” Puder said. “And we wouldn’t have our trainee program. I wouldn’t be doing as many of our Zoom classes.”
The studio will play an important role as the company prepares for its 2020-2021 season. “I think this summer, we’ll be open for social distance classes,” Puder said. “As soon as they let us have ten people in a room together, we’ll be there.”
Uncertain of what performances may look like in the fall, Puder is remaining flexible with her season scheduling. She may opt to use the studio for more intimate performances to give patrons greater insight into the company. Puder hopes to incorporate the new work prepared for the season finale into future performances. “The moment we can be back making dance, we will be,” Puder said.
Learn more about Avant Chamber Ballet: http://avantchamberballet.org/