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by Maria Di Mento
It was Friday, March 6, when the curtain rose on opening night of the San Francisco Ballet’s production of George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The ballet is an audience favorite the company hadn’t performed in decades. Few in the War Memorial Opera House that night knew that it would likely be the ballet company’s last live performance of the 2020 season, only seven weeks into many months of planned performances that were to include more than a dozen ballets.
It’s still unclear when the ballet company will be able to perform live again. But the many unknowns about what the future holds haven’t kept the company from moving forward. Helgi Tomasson, the ballet’s artistic director, decided in June to announce a plan for the company’s 2021 season. Called “Leap of Faith,” the new season is scheduled to run from January through June and include seven programs that Tomasson has designed to allow for the greatest flexibility. That might mean filming the ballets without an audience and streaming them online, performing live in the opera house as in normal times, or in small-group settings outdoors.
Calling the season a leap of faith signals what Tomasson and executive director Kelly Tweeddale hope the audience will do — have enough faith in the company to commit to buying tickets for the season’s performances whether they’re live in the opera house or streaming online.
“We have to look ahead, and we have to hope that we will be able to perform in the opera house in the upcoming season,” Tomasson says. “If for whatever reason it’s not possible or it’s too early, well then we have made provisions for that.”
Those provisions include spacing out the season and repertory. The first few months of the season are made up of smaller ballets that include fewer dancers than the big-story ballets that typically have huge casts. The smaller works will be easier to rehearse in the company’s dance studios while conforming to the city’s safety protocols. They will also be easier to film for streaming if the company hasn’t yet returned to live performances.
The large two-and-three-act story ballets will appear late in the season. Then, Tomasson hopes, the pandemic is more likely to be under control, larger casts of dancers rehearsing together won’t pose a danger to the health of the dancers, and audiences will be able to return to the opera house.
From the first days of the pandemic, Tomasson and Tweeddale were sure of one thing: They needed to take immediate action if the 87-year-old troupe — the first professional ballet company in America — was going to survive.
Keeping a world-class ballet company withabout 360 employees (including dancers, musicians, faculty, technical and administrative staff, and others) and a $52 million annual budget afloat is a challenge during the best of times. During a historic pandemic it’s unchartered territory. There is no playbook performing-arts leaders can turn to for guidance.
Within a few days of the company’s last performance, the organization launched the SF Ballet Critical Relief Fund, an emergency fundraising effort with the goal of raising $5 million from 3,126 donations — the number of seats in the opera house —so the company could continue to pay salaries and benefits.
“Helgi and I were unified that our messaging had to be about supporting our artists and our work force because without our artists, we’re not a ballet company,” Tweeddale says.
The fundraising campaign was an organizationwide effort. Tweeddale and Tomasson got to work persuading the unions that represent artists (including choreographers) and others to temporarily remove licensing or other restrictions so the organization could stream on its website archival footage, new works, and recent creations of dancers performing on their own or in pairs around the city. The goal is to keep its audience interested and engaged.
Some of the company’s dancers got personally involved in fundraising efforts with their own crowdfunding page, as did staff who started individual crowdfunding pages on the ballet company’s website.
The dancers have also appeared in videos where they talk about what their lives have been like sheltering in place. In one video, principal dancer Sasha de Sola and her dog Tilly thanked people who gave to the relief fund and read comments from supporters who wrote messages about why the ballet company matters to them.
The company exceeded its goal, raising more than $5 million from more than 3,200 donors in about four months. Most of the money came from individual donors and family foundations, as well as board members who matched up to $1 million in donations. Tweeddale says 58 percent of those who gave to the relief fund were first-time donors who gave modest gifts of $5 to $25. One new donor, however, gave $1 million.
“The small gifts came first, and that’s what actually inspired the bigger donors later on,” Tweeddale says.
The company plans to launch another fundraising campaign in mid-September.
Tweeddale and Tomasson said they originally projected a revenue loss of about $9.5 million by year’s end. But the new infusion of cash combined with some cost cutting has brought that down to $3 million to $5 million.
The troupe got a loan from the Cares Act Paycheck Protection Program to help pay its artists and other employees through June 30. To reduce expenses, it implemented wage freezes and short-term furloughs from July through September, pulled all of its advertising, and put planned capital projects on hold. Since it was not performing at its home theater, officials at the War Memorial Opera House waived rental payments for the part of the season that was canceled, Tweeddale says.
Tomasson said the company will be able to honor the dancers’ contracts and pay them for the entire 43-week 2020 season. Tweeddale said she doesn’t yet know whether there will be staff layoffs.
As hard as Tomasson and Tweeddale are working to ensure the ballet company’s survival, they recognize many in their city are struggling. They’re finding ways to make use of the company’s resources to help others. Every Monday since April, the Chris Hellman Center, which houses the company’s studios and offices, turns into a pop-up food distribution center for the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank with dancers, staff, and others volunteering.
Tomasson spent the summer experimenting with digital offerings. In August, the ballet released “Dance of Dreams,” a mesmerizing short dance film by Benjamin Millipied, a choreographer and former ballet dancer who founded L.A. Dance Project, a contemporary dance troupe. It features six dancers performing new work by four choreographers, who donated their time to the effort. Each piece is set to music from the iconic 1958 Alfred Hitchcock movie Vertigo and was filmed at some of the Bay Area’s most scenic outdoor locations like the Golden Gate Bridge and the Palace of Fine Arts.
The film is no slapdash effort. Making it required about a dozen production personnel and permissions from local agencies and artists’ unions. Dancers learned the choreography at home, and social-distancing rules had to be observed during the filming process. Dancers in the pas de deux (dances for two people) sections have been sheltering in place together since the pandemic started. The music, Scène D’Amour, by Bernard Herrmann, was recorded remotely by more than 60 musicians from the ballet’s orchestra. The tracks — more than 150 of them — were mixed and mastered by Martin West, the orchestra’s music director.
The film has given Tomasson and his artistic and technical teams one more way to test what the company can do with digital content. At the end of the film is a message asking viewers to donate via text to help with the company’s fundraising efforts.
Still, Tomasson hopes that most, if not all, of the 2021 season will be performed live. Remember that much-beloved production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that closed suddenly in March? Tomasson is bringing it back next year. He hopes to see it performed live in front of an audience in the opera house, as much for the audience members who missed out on it this year as for his dancers whom he worries are losing precious time to an unprecedented moment in history.
“This is like nothing else we’ve gone through,” Tomasson says. “The careers of dancers are short careers, and if they are losing a whole year of performing opportunities, that’s sort of devastating for them.”