The nonprofit SF Ballet, facing the loss of $9.5 million and more than half of its season, has launched a crowdfunding campaign to make a $2.1 million biweekly payroll to keep its 78 dancers, 49 musicians, administrative staff and leadership paid through the coronavirus crisis.
One hundred percent of donations from the campaign, organized through the platform Classy.org, will directly help employees.
Donors to the company’s critical relief fund would receive one-on-one virtual interaction with dancers, downloadable music and even custom jewelry designed by a dancer. Contributions to this fund will aid the company in keeping all of its employees on payroll, covered with medical insurance and able to continue their training—virtually, as well as to provide continuing education to students at its dance school, which has been shuttered for the time being.
“We’ve gone through the many phases of, ‘Oh my goodness’ and ‘What does it mean?’ SF Ballet Executive Director Kelly Tweeddale said. “That 20 percent of our budget [of canceled performances] was really the first big breath we had to take because that meant that everything we couldn’t perform, as far as a ticket sales, was up for grabs. Our community could ask for their money back.”
The company countered by asking ticketholders to consider all options other than asking for a refund—to hold onto tickets as credit or donate them back to the company to potentially resell them and write them off on their 2020 tax returns. About 31 percent of people have taken that option, which can be completed with a few mouse clicks at the company’s website, while 5 percent have requested a refund, she said.
“Those are the dollars that we pay our artists with,” Tweeddale said. “And, yes, we could give you a refund, but we also put our people first. It’s heartening at the beginning that that is the response. Week by week, we are looking at how do we get through this with all parts of our workforce intact.”
The SF Ballet, the oldest operating ballet company in the U.S., is presumably the first nationwide to close its venue—the War Memorial Opera House—and the first to have its staff shelter in place. It debuted “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on March 6 and midway through, word got out that it would also be the production’s final performance. Over the next few weeks it announced more cancelations, until the season itself was suspended.
“[Dancers’] careers are usually about 15 years. It takes up to 10 years to train to become a really professional ballet dancer of a high quality,” said Helgi Tomasson, the company’s lauded artistic director and principal choreographer. “It means that any time they’re off, it just cuts into their length of how they can perform of their career. So this is very difficult for them to be sitting there and not doing anything.”
Tomasson, the artistic heart of SF Ballet, spends months planning out each season, and those plans have been completely shot. He’s dealt with it by acknowledging that for the time being, he has no control over the situation. But the leadership team has been regularly meeting about future planning, as well as figuring out how to engage with the ballet’s audience. That currently includes a weekly stream of a previous ballet performance and group Zoom rehearsals, across various social media platforms and on the ballet’s website.
The company films the first night of each new ballet, and through agreements with various unions and copyright administrators, the company is now able to show those.
He has also reached out to all of the dancers individually.
“I’m really so impressed how well they seem to be holding up. Their spirit is up there. They all say, ‘We’re going to get this over as soon as we can, and then get back to work.’ … It’s just not easy, for dancers, [to] not being able to move around in a big studio and leap across the floor, and they’re doing exercises and barre in their kitchens and their living rooms, which is better than nothing. … I’m just like everybody else; just sitting and waiting for this to be over with, and we will get there eventually.”
The dancers, many of whom are facing their own, individual challenges, are taking notice of Tomasson’s leadership during these difficult times. Corps De Ballet dancer Gabriela Gonzalez, whose 13-year-old chihuahua passed away just before the cancelations began, said his online presense has been reassuring mentally.
Principal dancer Mathilde Froustey said she’s proud how the ballet and many dancers are using online platforms available to reach people and ask for help, and added that Tomasson is the best man for the job of bringing SF Ballet back once the quarantine is over.
“If you would have told me a month ago that we would share a crowdfunding campaign on Facebook and Instagram, I would have laughed. But it’s great that San Francisco Ballet is adapting so fast,” Froustey said. “There is no shame in this. We need to use every tool we have to come back. … When Helgi took over 35 years ago, he made it one of the best companies in the world. So if Helgi cannot rebound from this, nobody will.”
In the absence of in-person classes at the company’s headquarters near San Francisco City Hall, the dancers have been busy taking classes online. Without regular exercise and practice, the dancers risk losing their muscle tone and skills, both Froustey and Gonzalez said.
Froustey has been sharing her workouts on Instagram.
“As a dancer, it’s really scary because it took us years to be able to do those pirouettes, to be able to do those steps, to have such control of your body and muscles, bones and ligaments. And right now we can lose everything,” Froustey said. “So it’s a matter of everyday training, no matter if there’s a pandemic and I need to do Zoom for the rest of my life.”
A donor has provided vinyl marley floor surfaces to each dancer who wanted it, allowing them to approximate the experience of dancing in a studio. And the ballet has been offering virtual classes run by two ballet masters (instructors) — one of the things the crowdfunding campaign, run through the platform Classy, aims to fund.
“They’ve changed a little bit to fit our spacing and they’ve done an amazing job changing the combinations to work the muscles without moving,” Gonzalez said. “And as a company, we have a group chat where we talk about what we can do online … to stay connected to our audience. Hopefully the audience and our donors see that and continue to support us. The company wants to come back as soon as we can.”
Both Gonzalez and Froustey have numerous concerns during this time; like most of us. Both are international dancers, for example, with families elsewhere. For Gonzalez it’s Mexico, and for Froustey it’s France. While Froustey’s parents and brothers live in a tiny isolated village, her dad is a politician and his job is exposing him to many people right now.
Gonzalez said she panicked for the first few days, not sure what to do when she couldn’t dance, go to the gym or a yoga class. Slowly, she saw an upside: She could relax for a change, so she’s taking the opportunity. At her apartment, she’s had time to make a new ballet skirt for herself.
“The freaking ozone layer is healing and the air is cleaner,” she said.
In an effort to pay off a mountain of veterinary bills following the death of her dog, she has started teaching online ballet classes over Zoom, taking donations through her PayPal account. Sometimes the classes include an appearance by her roommate, who’s working from home and needs to make a phone call.
“It has given me something to be excited about and something to do. I wake up and prepare my classes,” she said.
Froustey, whose husband is chef Mourad Lahlou, is splitting her time between exercising and helping him keep his two restaurants afloat on a paper-thin staff of five volunteers.
“I’m doing the front of the house at night for people who come in to pick up their food, I’m cleaning the kitchen, I’m prepping the food. I don’t have a minute for myself,” she said. “I’m working in the restaurant and I’m trying to stay a principal dancer, and it’s really, really hard. I haven’t had one day off in the last two weeks.”
She’s also worried about whether the fans will come once doors do open once again.
“For sure, we will be marked for life,” she said. “And I wonder if people will one day be OK being in a theater next to each other—next to somebody you don’t know. And when that person is coughing, are we going to be OK? When there is a war, things after years and years go back to normal. … I don’t see that happening soon.”
Tweeddale understands the effect the COVID-19 quarantine is having on the company’s dancers. It doesn’t just shorten their careers, but it may impact the future of the art form because the young students currently in the SF Ballet School also need instruction. A portion of the Critical Relief Fund will go toward creating online content and instruction for them.
“We have to protect our artists. … It is really our moral imperative,” she said. “We have the lives of all of these future professional dancers in our hands. They’ve all been sent home, and what do we do with their professional training?”
The likeliest scenario is that SF Ballet returns in December for its 2020-‘21 season, though Tweeddale said she’s been talking to SF Opera leaders, who primarily use the War Memorial Opera House in the late summer and fall, about other possibilities. Everything is on the table, but it also depends on how quickly the U.S. can recover from the coronavirus.
“We’re getting really good at doing scenario planning,” she said.
Tomasson, meanwhile, is also busy planning out next season’s productions. “Midsummer” is definitely coming back, but he also wants to bring back the other popular, canceled programs
“The sooner we can get this over, we can start working and start preparing for the next season,” he said.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.