Each time a class leaves the two studios at Denton Ballet Academy, owner Eldar Valiev wipes down the bars, doorknobs and any spot he has seen a dancer touch.
He cleans the bathroom and sprays the floors and carpets with industrial cleansers. He cleans the upholstered benches in the waiting area outside the larger studio, and cleans the chairs lining the front entrance. On Saturday, volunteers monitored dancers, asking them to spread out and keep their masks on.
When COVID-19 shuttered nonessential businesses in March, Valiev wasn’t sure the studio and its affiliated company, Festival Ballet of North Central Texas, would mount its annual production of The Nutcracker.
The stakes were high, and Valiev said he knew immediately that he, his students and their families were in the pathway of a serious risk.
But could the company let 2020 pass without the ballet tradition or the indelible score by Tchaikovsky?
“We’ve just been, you know, thinking about each detail of this situation. After careful consideration, we made the decision to move forward,” said Valiev, the artistic director of the Festival Ballet. “The cast and their health is our first priority.”
Retrofitting the preparation
After the academy closed on governor’s orders, Valiev and the faculty launched virtual classes. As the state reopened, the academy continued online classes and added weekly in-studio classes for the older and more advanced dancers. For Valiev and his students, study is more essential than producing The Nutcracker. But if the company could restructure auditions in August, and maintain smaller groups in the already-snug studios, the board of directors could imagine making the holiday dance classic happen.
The company decided to slash the number of dancers. In a typical year, the company’s Nutcracker features about 200 dancers from ages 4 and up. The company decided to cast 90 to 100 dancers. In addition to disinfecting the studio and holding online classes, the company mandated that dancers wear masks at all times in the studio. Adult volunteers wear masks while fitting costumes, and a volunteer takes temperatures for everyone who comes inside. Valiev and the board continually coach the dancers to skip rehearsals if they feel sick — even if a dancer suspects they’re having symptoms of seasonal allergies.
“Parents can’t wait inside the studio,” Valiev said. “They must wait in their cars in the parking lot or return to the studio to pick them up. We have to reduce the number of people in the studio. They understand.”
Dancers who were cast had to sign a COVID-19 consent form to proceed with classes and rehearsals at Denton Ballet Academy.
Then came the news: Texas Woman’s University would close the Margo Jones Performance Hall — the auditorium where the company has performed the ballet for more than 30 years.
“Really, the question was, could we even do it?” said Christina Cost, the president of the Festival Ballet Board of Directors. Her 17-year-old daughter, Bridget, has danced in The Nutcracker for nine years.
“Losing the venue was a huge challenge,” Christina Cost said. “If you can’t find a place to do it, you’re not going to do it, period. It’s like this: Everything you did this year, you did five times. It’s just like with the schools. They announce ‘we’ve made this decision’ at the start of the day, then they make a different decision in the middle of the day. At the end of the day, it’s something else.
“That’s how we’ve been here. You decide something, and you have to change it. But you keep going. And I have to say, Eldar came into this with an open mind.”
Finding a space
Valiev said the company couldn’t find a new venue in Denton County.
“We eventually searched in Dallas-Fort Worth,” he said. “We found the Gaylord, and it was really good for space. They have a huge space.”
The management of the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center in Grapevine met with company leaders and determined that not only could the company make use of the large stage in the Texas Ballroom, but the audience could be configured so that families can sit together at a safe distance from other groups. And partitions will allow groups of about eight dancers to have dressing and offstage space.
“This is the most space we could have, ever, in this North Texas area. They have plenty of chairs and about 60,000 square feet of space,” Valiev said. “Regulations state [that businesses can operate at] 75% capacity right now. With this space, we can have room for the audience that would be at Margo Jones. We understand that moving to Grapevine might be difficult for people. But they will have room, much room.”
Christina Cost said each decision about the ballet created more decisions.
“The venue costs whatever it costs,” she said. “You hope you can meet some of that with ticket sales and the program. You see companies thinking outside the box to raise money. For us, the question of venue led to deciding how do you seat everyone, socially distance them and meet fire code.”
Cost said a smaller cast helps keep the ballet manageable. There are fewer little angels, baby buffoons and just one dancing star. The smaller cast means fitting, repairing and maintaining 200 costumes instead of 400.
“Some of the older dancers have more roles,” she said. “My daughter has four costumes.”
Dancing in the time of COVID-19
The Nutcracker always happens in the midst of flu season as it is. This year, the company’s dancers have an additional virus with which to contend. Valiev and his faculty already caution dancers in the show to eat light and healthfully, drink a lot of water and get enough sleep. Some dancers said volunteers and parents extol the virtues of multivitamins on top of diet during classes and rehearsals.
“I never thought it was an option to not have the show,” said Bridget Cost, 17, who dances the roles of lead reed in the “Dance of the Reed Flutes,” the Harlequin Doll, Icicle and a flower.
“I knew there was a risk,” she said. “But I also know Eldar, and I knew he would be doing everything he possibly could to keep us safe.”
Gracie Sedach, an 18-year-old TWU student and Denton Ballet Academy student, said Valiev never dismissed the danger of COVID-19.
“Eldar is the first person I knew to take the virus seriously,” Sedach said. “I haven’t done anything specifically because Eldar is already sanitizing every inch of this place.”
The dancers said wearing a mask during class and rehearsals is the most difficult adaptation.
“At first I didn’t really mind,” Sedach said. “I like it a little bit, even. I think it looks really cool. My family owns a baby blanket business on Amazon, and when they shut everything down for essential businesses only, we switched to making masks. I’ve been wearing them almost as soon as everything shut down. But dancing in them is kind of hard. Like today, when it’s humid up there [in the studio], it’s so hot. And then you do those really big combinations, it’s harder to breathe.”
Bridget Cost said it was an adjustment.
“When you start dancing with the mask, it’s extremely difficult. It’s definitely hotter with it,” she said.
Finding ways to celebrate
Christina Cost said The Nutcracker is a tradition for ballet buffs. For dancers, it’s the culmination of years of work and hours of training. Because so many of the dancers are in school, Cost said, the past eight months have been marked by loss — loss of school, graduations, after-school activities.
“This could potentially be my daughter’s last Nutcracker,” she said. “Yes, looking from the outside, I can see how people would be, ‘It’s The Nutcracker. What’s the big deal?’ But what you don’t see is that this could be 10 to 15 years of work and commitment to be at this point and to do that role. It’s a lot like a football player in that way. The big game is more than the big game for the players. This is something that comes from years of commitment. And it’s a community, too.”
Bridget Cost said canceling the ballet would have cut her to the quick.
“I would really be heartbroken,” she said. “I’ve done it for so long. You’d never think a pandemic would shut so much down. ... Every year is special. This year, I’ve really put it in perspective — what everyone is going through. I’m here with the people I love and who love me. There are some people who wouldn’t choose to be here, and I respect that.”
Sedach said canceling the ballet would have thrown the season into an alternate universe.
“Over the last six years, the fall is all about this,” she said. “Our lives are about this every fall.”
Sedach said the dancers would lose the tribe they form each September through December. The dancers become family. They follow their artistic director’s lead and keep politics and religion out of the studio. Instead, they help each other sharpen their technique, talk about their characters and hold each other to a high standard.
Valiev said he and the board will monitor the COVID-19 infection rates daily, and will continue to follow the guidelines promoted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state and local officials.
“We were hoping it would be improving,” Valiev said. “It looks like it’s getting worse. But we will continue. We wanted to keep the Christmas spirit alive. The situation is really kind of scary too, but we will put the dancers’ health and safety first. I feel blessed and fortunate to have these dancers, these volunteers. I also feel so blessed to have this beautiful choreography and the gift of this show from Mr. [Hugh] Nini,” the Festival Ballet founder and creator of the local ballet.