Some moments, Lisa Racina said she isn’t so sure how her company’s holiday dance classic, A Gift for Emma, happened.
Denton City Contemporary Ballet was all set to perform the holiday dance, celebrating classical and contemporary ballet as well as tap, jazz, hip-hop and modern dance.
But then came COVID-19.
“Bless their hearts, I have seven seniors this year,” said Racina, the owner of Denton Dance Conservatory and the artistic director and founder of Denton City Contemporary Ballet. “We went into Collage (the company’s annual showcase) last March. We get out of the Campus (Theatre), and four days later they shut down the NBA. We were like ‘OK?’ I did see the writing on the wall, I must say. After that, we had 59 dance classes set up all on Zoom. I’ve been in emergency mode all year.”
But Emma is special for the company. Created by Racina, the holiday fantasia in dance is a nod to The Nutcracker — a street urchin named Emma seeks relief from the cold in a dance studio in the winter. She falls asleep under the Christmas tree and sets off on an adventure in a dream. Like The Nutcracker, hundreds of students grew up dancing from the beginner corps, graduating each year until they tackled the difficult choreography and honed their technique. For those seven high school seniors, missing Emma would be losing a highlight to the pandemic.
Racina, the ballet company board and parents agreed that the show would go on, but with safety and social distancing in the studio (when they weren’t teaching or learning on Zoom calls). The company negotiated with Theatre Denton, which manages the Campus Theatre, and a plan was formed. Racina said it was the teenage dancers who suggested approaching the Campus Theatre when the company learned it couldn’t afford to perform in Margo Jones Performance Hall on the Texas Woman’s University campus.
“The most they would allow in the audience at that time was 250, and I couldn’t pay for the show with 250 tickets,” she said. “We decided to record the show and stream it.”
The show will stream at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 19, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 20. Tickets cost $25 and are available online.
The Festival Ballet of North Central Texas, a Denton-based company that stages the annual production of The Nutcracker, moved its ballet to the enormous Gaylord Texan, where it will perform in a ballroom with social distancing space requirements. Racina and her company would present the annual show, tweaking it for the screen. Racina said some scenes make the show “feel almost like a movie.”
Dancers rehearsed. Racina spent thousands on masks to match dancers’ costumes. Volunteers coordinated tasks and staffers from The Panhandle House, a local recording studio, prepared to shoot a recording of the show.
“We were ready to record the week before Thanksgiving, and then one of my dancers got COVID,” Racina said. “Of course everyone had been exposed for the three days before that. We couldn’t risk spreading it, so we had to cancel the recording.”
The company scrambled again, and went back to Theatre Denton to see if they could reschedule.
“I talked to (Managing Director) Mike Barrow, and of course they had to look at their schedule and he had to discuss us using the space later with his board, and we came up with an agreement,” she said.
The company got a second shot and spent last week recording the show. The youngest dancers were filmed at the conservatory, as were certain scenes with the lead, but the company spent each day last week filming an act over five hours.
“There were some things we couldn’t do,” Racina said. “Back in November, we were going to project scenery onto the cyclorama. But since we postponed, we had to record against a green cyc.”
Racina said the board required dancers to wear masks while rehearsing and performing. Everyone signed waivers, and for the younger dancers, only one parent could watch. The rehearsal classes with older and more advanced dancers are smaller, Racina said, and both parents could watch.
Racina bought UV-light air scrubbers for the conservatory, and bought a spraying device to disinfect all the conservatory’s soft surfaces every night. Teachers disinfected the high-touch areas and items, and Racina had the studios scrubbed professionally three times a week.
“We had to cut our class sizes down,” Racina said.
And some families opted to drop ballet, tap, jazz and other dance classes altogether.
“We pretty much lost 25-30% of our students,” Racina said. “I think everyone understands that, and I think I almost expected it. We got a PPP loan. We also got an OPEN grant, but that’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work. I think everyone really pulled together to help. We had a costume pickup day May 1, where you had to drive through to pick up your costume. We had to really rethink everything.”
Racina said the season has been hard, with each decision spawning what felt like a hundred more questions. But the project produced dancers who are more physically fit than ever, thanks to masked dancing, and a company with a renewed sense of family.
“You start to realize how resilient the dancers are and how strong they are,” she said. “It’s almost been a spiritual experience for me. In a usual year, we have a circle before the show where we talk about what the show means and what the experience has done. We say a prayer, and we say what we’re thankful for. This year we had to do that at the end of the filming.”
This year, the circle went on for more than an hour as dancers talked, laughed and cried.
“It was like group therapy,” Racina said. “They shared that their family at Denton Dance Conservatory made them who they are. You have to understand that I’ve been teaching some of these kids since they were 4. One girl has never had a mother figure in her life. It’s been just her and her dad. And she looked at me and said, ‘Miss Lisa you’ve been my mother figure all my life.’
“In my last breath I’m going to remember that. We all have something quite precious that we share.”