City Ballet School creates full schedule of recorded and online classes, rehearsals
City Ballet School has been working toward an active and exciting spring and summer full of events and productions.
The Hagerstown-based academy for dance education has been collaborating with the Maryland Symphony Orchestra for several years on the world premiere of “The Spell,” a full-length ballet that is scheduled to debut at The Maryland Theatre at the end of May.
A Night Under The Spell Gala that was planned for late March has been cancelled.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic is in full swing as are closings and shutdowns related to it. City Ballet, like other businesses and organizations, is working to respond quickly with innovative steps to sustain operations.
On Sunday, the school unrolled an online platform offering videos to guide students through lessons and rehearsals on a private YouTube channel, as well as a full schedule of live interactive workshops and classes.
“It's been a wild week,” said Danielle Horochowski, artistic director of The City Ballet School.
“I was really committed to having some kind of in-studio program until we were told not to."
Following the Monday, March 16 ban on gatherings of more than 50 people, the school shut down classes but continued with rehearsals, and when the ban was extended to groups of more than 10 people on Thursday, March 19, rehearsals also came to a halt.
“I never thought that being 'off' could be twice as busy as a regular day,” Horochowski said. “We've had to take new steps, and it's challenging because every day is different. It takes a while to come up with a plan, and no sooner do we come up with something then a new plan is necessary.”
The school serves around 200 students, plus adult classes and special programming, and is open seven days per week. Various levels of weekday technique classes run simultaneously and rehearsals for shows take place on weekends. Older dancers typically spend 20 hours a week in the studio depending on rehearsal schedules, and many younger dancers enroll in a full schedule of classes as well.
Despite the volume of classes and rehearsals and their intricacies, just one week after closing its doors, City Ballet had 50 hours of dance instruction filmed and posted, as well as a full, ongoing offering of live interactive workshops.
“We have no idea if we will be out for a couple of weeks or a couple of months, so I felt like I couldn't really wait to see what was happening. I wanted to take the most efficient approach as soon as I could,” Horochowski said.
The school hired a videographer to film and manage the online project, and the faculty of around 10 instructors is participating. Some classes with similar lessons plans have been combined in the videos.
“The online curriculum is designed to replace student time in the studio until they are able to come back,” Horochowski said. “If that lasts longer than the material we have prepared, we will upload new material.”
The school also is offering livestream classes through the remote conferencing service Zoom.
“There are so many platforms people can use when they are working on developing new systems and we haven't had a lot of time. We've had to do it now, on the fly,” she said. “We are artists. We have to be creative.”
Strengthening technique and artistry
To create the videos, teachers went individually to the studio with the videographer and sometimes with a couple of students to demonstrate classwork. In the lessons, instructors give corrections that they would give in class so students remember key elements to work on.
City Ballet students have access to the whole library of videos, not just their own classes. The school has also posted additional content including pilates and stretch, dance history, and story time for younger dancers.
In creating videos, teachers had to shift their focus away from lessons that would be done in studio, as much of it cannot be done at home due to spatial restrictions.
“We had to ask questions like, 'What do we want to offer?' Students will not be working on big jumps at home, but they could be improving balance and alignment,” Horochowski said.
At-home lessons feature increased focus on foot stretches, turning and extensions, and mat work to strengthen the core.
“We hope they come back with new strength and flexibility. They are not doing all their regular classwork now, but they could come back being more able to do it after having done some of these other exercises,” she said.
Online classes are designed to be not only technically but artistically challenging.
“Home can be reflective. This can be a positive thing in figuring out who you are as an artist,” Horochowski said. “Hopefully the safety of your own home, the comfort of your home where no one else is watching, can be a blessing, a free space to explore something you want to do next artistically.”
Feeding the hunger
Western Maryland City Ballet Company dancer Kallie Green, 14, of Williamsport, will attend a five-week summer intensive at Kirov Academy Of Washington, D.C. Her mother, Karen Green, said that Kallie has been able to continue with barre exercises at home using the kitchen counter or a kitchen chair while takes online classes.
“It's so wonderful that City has been able to continue instruction,” Green said. “Dancers at Kallie's level and at the level of other company dancers, are used to dancing several hours a day, so being able to do classes online is a great way to structure the day. It's at least one part of their routine they are able to keep.”
Kallie, who has a lead role in “The Spell,” said she was nervous when City Ballet shut down. The premiere of the “The Spell,” in which she has a lead role, makes it an especially exciting year.
“I take the online classes to keep my body in shape. My body is my instrument. I want to do what I need to do to still be able to do 'The Spell' if we are going to do that.”
Horochowski said the dancers “have the hunger.”
“They are here to work,” she said, “so as faculty, it's our responsibility to find a way to push them while they are not in the studio.”
Top photo: City Ballet student participating in online classes at home during restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak. (Submitted photo)