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Ballet Survives Shutdown, Returns To In-Person Instruction

Setting The ‘Barre’

A Chautauqua Regional Youth Ballet student administers a temperature check to a younger dancer ahead of a class at the company’s Spain Building studios. Submitted photo

The sights associated with the Chautauqua Regional Youth Ballet’s third-floor, Spain Building studios might have changed.

But the sounds have not.

Masterworks of the Classical canon paired with the sound of pointe shoes on marley have begun to once again fill the dance studio.

No matter that a mask has become an added necessity to dancers’ wardrobe; no matter that a quick temperature check greets them as they arrive for their scheduled class and no matter that yellow circles taped to the wall spaced six-feet apart serve as their guide against the present circumstances.

The precautionary measures imposed as a result of the outbreak of COVID-19 do not phase the students nor their instructors — all are just happy to be back doing what they love.

Chautauqua Regional Youth Ballet students resumed in-person instruction on Sept. 14 and are adhering to New York state guidelines to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Submitted photo

“Everybody seems to be cooperating and everyone seems really happy to be here,” Elizabeth Bush, the ballet’s executive director, said. “The parents have been very good about it. We’ve had a couple kids the past couple weeks that weren’t feeling well and we’ve kept them home because we really emphasize that it’s better to miss a class and keep everybody safe.”

But, being back up and running comes with an awareness that their colleagues in larger cities and with larger ballet companies are not yet as fortunate.

“I can’t even imagine New York City ballet, Chicago, San Francisco — and that’s just ballet companies — what they’re dealing with in trying to survive right now,” Monika Alch, artistic director, said. “So many of these people are out of work, furloghed… It’s horrible. It’s affecting so many people.”

In-person classes resumed on Sept. 14 at the ballet’s 21 E. Third Street location with classes reduced to an eight-person maximum and with proper health screening processes in place.

“They have recommendations based on the size of the space and eight was the safe number, “,” Bush said. “Some of our classes are that size. This is classical ballet, it’s not like we have them jammed in here. … It’s working out right now and people feel comfortable being here because of that.”

The company was forced to cancel its annual Spring Gala but did receive a Paycheck Protection Program loan from M&T Bank in mid-May which allowed them to continue virtual programming through June to interested students.

“That was good because we were obviously losing all of our spring income and that enables us to keep our teachers working for eight weeks,” she said. “It gave us the chance to set up a Zoom account and offer our students at least to take lessons for those eight weeks so they weren’t losing as much.”

Local foundations also helped keep the organization operating during the most challenging spring season in its history.

“The foundations really have stepped up and have been very cognizant of who needed money first and who needed it for more food and quality of life. … But, they were also right there for the non-profits,” she said, noting that the organization did furlough some executive staff.

“There was a lot of grant writing going on and we were able to make it through the summer,” Bush added. “Otherwise we wouldn’t have made it to reopen. We just would not have had the funding.”

But instructing dance remotely did pose its challenges.

“At first it was great to be doing classes over Zoom, but after a few weeks it got to be pretty challenging,” Alch said. “Everybody really has been excited to come back to class.”

“For dance it just provides challenges. … I think everybody is a little bit Zoom’d out,” Bush added with a laugh.

Now, the organization is looking ahead. Current circumstances will prevent them from producing their usual performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” suite at the Reg Lenna Center for the Arts in December.

Instead, the company will ring in the Christmas season in June, performing the masterwork on the Chautauqua Institution Amphitheater stage.

“Almost every company — major companies, smaller companies — have canceled their ‘Nutcracker,'” Bush said. “Very few people, if any, will have a ‘Nutcracker’ this winter. So I think they’ll be anxious for people to come see it and I think we’ll attract maybe some people that we normally won’t. In the Amphitheater, I think people will feel comfortable because it’s so spread out.”

Alch is intrigued and excited about the possibilities the performance presents.

“I think it’s going to be great,” she said. “We had to switch gears and do something creative. …. I can see that snow scene in the summer with the snowflakes coming down. It’s going to be tremendous. The space itself is just tremendous.”

The company is also hoping to present a small-scale, semi-professional performance in February, similar to “Dance Noire” evenings of the past with cabaret seating and wine bar.

But, the “Nutrcacker,” was a priority to try and reschedule, Bush said.

“These kids love and live for the ‘Nutcracker’ each year,” Bush said. “They would devastated, especially those who are moving on soon that are finally on to doing solo roles, if it was canceled all together. That’s a big part of the ballet life.”

The company does have space available in creative dance courses for 3 to 4 year olds, pre-ballet courses for 5 year olds, Ballet 2 and Intermediate Ballet. Those interested can visit www.cryb.net, to access registration, COVID-19 guidelines and protocols and a student handbook link. Information is also available by calling the studio at 716-664-9766.

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