The Orlando Ballet
Back en Pointe and Back in Business
When Harriett’s Orlando Ballet Centre first opened its doors in January of this year, named after the late longtime local arts patron Harriett Lake, it seemed a new era had begun for the dance company that would call it home.
“The ballet had not had a consolidated space for a number of years,” said Executive Director Cheryl Collins. “From the standpoint of collaboration and proximity, having everyone under one roof feels like such a luxury and time saver.”
Just two months later, though, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced shutdowns in every industry, the doors to Harriett’s were forced to close. Newly appointed, Collins was forced to lead the team through something entirely unexpected.
“Nobody has this playbook,” she said of her appointment, first to interim executive director in April, before being selected to permanently fill the role in August. “So we’re all navigating this together.”
Collins had been director of development for the ballet since 2016, and prior to that she had worked for 15 years with Orlando Health, the ballet’s current medical advisor. Stepping into the lead position at the Orlando Ballet when she did came with its fair share of anxieties. But her strong relationship with each segment of the organization, including Artistic Director Robert Hill, gave her the push she was hoping for.
“I knew our core and had a deep passion for it, and I knew it was important not to have any major lag in this time,” she said. “And I do think that’s part of why we are where we are. We didn’t have to step back and do an onboarding process, and we didn’t have a learning curve for getting acquainted with our very unique market.”
In the Meantime
The Orlando Ballet, along with the rest of the world, was already dealing with enough of a learning curve in the spring of 2020, one that would last even after a reopening became possible.
“We knew we’d have to cancel the balance of the professional season, so that was two shows,” Collins said of the game plan they began to formulate in March. With the company’s dancers still contracted and paid through the end of May, they were able to shift their focus to finding new avenues of opportunity.
“It gave us the chance to work on pivot projects in the digital world,” she said. The Orlando Ballet introduced The Dance Accelerator, a virtual choreography competition, as well as a podcast with the artistic director. The organization’s educational programming shifted to virtual instruction, allowing students to finish the school year.
In the meantime, the corporate staff got to work planning the organization’s COVID-19 strategy. “We took this time to drill in and look for benchmarks and best practices for what we could commit to this year. We were able to refine the budget and manage the expectation of what sales had to be to allow us to go back.”
When they knew they could manage financially, it became a question of whether they could do it safely.
Getting Back to It (Safely)
With the contributions of each team member, the board, patrons and partners, the prospect of being able to produce a live 2020-21 season began to seem more and more realistic.
The doors reopened at Harriett’s 60 days after they closed, and the building itself proved an advantage for making safe, socially distanced rehearsals possible. “It’s built to current standards,” Collins explained. “It’s big, energy efficient and has great airflow and ventilation. That’s a huge reason why we’ve been able to stay with our mission.”
Putting on the performances will look a bit different, of course, for both dancers and audiences. From rehearsals, to classes, to conditioning, the dancers’ work weeks are strenuous. While in some instances, with medical supervision, they can conduct limited practices without masks, most have opted to wear them, and the artistic staff wears them at all times. Because while, yes, Collins said, it is harder to dance in a mask, every member of the company wants the show to go on. That means everyone must stay safe.
When it comes to the audiences, the Orlando Ballet has been working with the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, where the performances are held, and with Orlando Health to determine the right safety measures for patrons. Those will include limited admissions into the building as well as a protocol for getting people through the doors and a vetted socially distanced seating plan.
Of course, Collins said, the ballet professionals are ready to adjust as needed, and they know their audiences will do the same. “They want to see the show, and we want to put it on. They’re in the game with us.”
What Comes Next
The 2020-21 season runs October 22 through April 18. It starts with The Sleeping Beauty choreographed by artistic director Hill, previously a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre, who faced the challenge of reimagining the beloved ballet with the new COVID-19 protocols.
The season will also include The Nutcracker; The Premiere Collection, a series of selections performed by the dancers, including The Calling, a world premiere of choreographer Jessica Lang’s solo performed by Hill; and Moulin Rouge The Ballet and Peter Pan, both choreographed by artist-in-residence Jorden Morris, a former principal dancer with Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet.
While the arts continue to adapt, Collins said, the Orlando Ballet exemplifies its advantage in times of challenge: “You have to get creative to survive this.”
As seen in October 2020 i4 Business Magazine