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As Dancers Return To Stage, Some Chart New Path Due To Pandemic

Northeast Ohio dance companies like Inlet Dance Theatre are preparing for a summer of outdoor performances. [Ideastream Public Media]
Northeast Ohio dance companies like Inlet Dance Theatre are preparing for a summer of outdoor performances.

The art of dance is one of the most intimate of art forms as dancers touch, lift and hold each other on stage.

So when the pandemic struck last year, companies like Mary Verdi-Fletcher's Dancing Wheels were shut out.

Mary Verdi-Fletcher (center) with Dancing Wheels Company. [Dancing Wheels]

"All of the venues that had booked us had to cancel, so our earned income went down to nothing," Verdi-Fletcher said.

Verdi-Fletcher was determined to survive the pandemic and with funding from the Ohio Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, along with virtual performances, Dancing Wheels did.

"We have 10 dancers and four part-time staff and we were able to keep all of them," she said.

This summer Northeast Ohio companies like Dancing Wheels, Verb Ballets, Inlet Dance Theatre and Groundworks Dance Theater are getting back in step with outdoor performances.

That's because places like Cain Park in Cleveland Heights, Lincoln Park in Tremont and the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival in Akron are back to spotlighting dance outside. Cain Park's dance season begins in Cleveland Heights this weekend and the Heinz Poll Dance Festival kicks off next weekend in Akron.

Groundworks Dance Theater founder David Shimotakahara says the warm summer months are a "window of opportunity."

David Shimotakahara [Connor Hochbein]

"It's been such a long time since people have actually performed on stage. And so we're going to take it for all it's worth this summer. In the fall, they're still restricted," Shimotakahara said.  "Some venues are only partially opening, some aren't booking, some aren't just you know, it's just very, very uneven still."

For Mason Alexander, a dance apprentice with Inlet Dance Theatre, it's been more than a year and a half since he performed for in-person audiences.

"The last time I was on stage was the beginning of December in 2019," Alexander said.

Inlet Dance Theatre's Bill Wade (seated) speaks with dance apprentice Mason Alexander. [Ideastream Public Media]

The long hiatus gave dancers and company leaders a lot of time to think.

Alexander, 21, was just beginning his dance career as an apprentice when the pandemic hit.

Mason Alexander [Ideastream Public Media]

"I thought I had something to look towards, and all of a sudden I had to come to the realization that I need to reevaluate. 'Are we ever going to come back?' Like, 'What does this look like for me?'" Alexander said.

During the isolation period, veteran dancer Alexis Britford enjoyed her solitude. She recorded personal dance journals, soloing in different rooms of her home.

But once the rest of the season for Groundworks Dance Theatre canceled, she became introspective.

"I went through a bit of questioning and doubting of, 'Is my career over? Is this my retirement? Is this a forced retirement because of Covid?'" Britford said. "I was questioning and thinking about that. And then was like, 'If I'm retiring from performing, what is my next step? What are some things I enjoy doing? Where do I go from here?'"

Britford said the time off from the pandemic was definitely a catalyst.

Alexis Britford [Kevin Inthavong]

"I probably would not have thought about it. I've always thought about getting my master's the past couple of years and as a dancer, it's usually assumed that I would get my MFA and work in the collegiate world," Britford said. "I enjoy teaching at universities, but it doesn't give me the same excitement and passion that I've discovered when it comes to mental and emotional health and movement."

Britford ended up retiring from Groundworks and in the fall begins a master's program in dance therapy.

Lynn Deering has been director of the Cleveland State University dance program since 1992, and she had to close down CSU's rehearsal space and moving the school's dance classes online became an administrative nightmare.

And on top of that, she grew lonely.

"That is probably the biggest void,” Deering said. “So that was very, very difficult for me.”

Bill Wade [Ideastream Public Media]

Bill Wade is the founding artistic director of Inlet Dance Theatre, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this season.

The pandemic forced him to completely reimagine how his troupe was put together.

He compared his company to a three-dimensional model made of Legos.

Inlet Dance Theatre dancers in rehearsal. [Ideastream Public Media]

"In order to get through to the other side of the pandemic, we're going to have to rethink the model and pull the Legos apart and rebuild the stuff that we know works and come up with a smaller, more concise, maybe perhaps a distilled version of what Inlet is and always has been that we know will make it through to the other side," Wade said.

To do that, Inlet had to eliminate a number of positions, such as its rehearsal and education coordinators.

"All of these roles were some of the Legos that we left on the table behind us as we're moving forward," Wade said.

Mason Alexander with Inlet dancers in rehearsal. [Ideastream Public Media]

Wade sees a lot of rearranging going on in the dance world since the pandemic. He said the age of the dancer has a lot to do with it.

"When you're in your 30s and you're a dancer and all of this happened, and, you know, there's like a good two years of no performing, that'll make you really stop and think like, "Gosh, man, this is really, really hard. This just became impossible. And I don't know how old I'm going to be and where my body is going to be by the end of this. I need to start thinking about something else,'" Wade said.

Lynn Deering at CSU for instance, has decided to move on, after 29 years of leading the dance program.

Lynn Deering [Cleveland State University]

"I made the decision that I was going to retire and look for ways where I can sort of use my energy to focus on specific things. I'm interested in dance and also that I think it's really time for new ideas and new directions and a new focus. So who knows what direction it's going to be. But I think there's lots of ideas out there and lots of opportunities," Deering said.

In contrast, the pandemic inspired Mason Alexander to keep dancing with Inlet.

"I think a lot of people can say the pandemic pressed pause for them. So allowed them to take a step back and reevaluate where they're going, who they are, what they want, what they want to do, who they want to be. And for me, that reevaluation was a reaffirmation of the fact that I'm on the right track," Alexander said.

Groundworks Dance Theatre performs open-air concert at Bay Arts gallery. [Ideastream Public Media]

Earlier this month, Groundworks performed at Bay Arts, its first time in front of an audience in almost a year. The outdoor performance was rained out so the company improvised with an open-air gallery performance.

Groundworks' David Shimotakahatra said it's going to take some time for him and Groundworks to get back in the swing of things.

David Shimotakahara watches Groundworks Dance Theatre perform at Bay Arts. [Ideastream Public Media]

"I feel a little bit rusty in terms of marshaling all the logistics together that go with every live performance. It's crew, it's equipment... and making sure everything is coordinated. It all has to come together sort of at the same time," Shimotakahara said.

Annie Morgan [Connor Hochbein]

After the Bay Arts performance, Groundworks dancer Annie Morgan was glad to be rid of the butterflies.

"I was really kind of nervous about this moment. It's been a year for me since I've been in front of an audience. So I've been nervous about this feeling for a long time through the pandemic," Morgan said.  "But it truly feels like I haven't skipped a beat. It feels like I'm right back home, honestly."

Annie Morgan performs at Bay Arts. [Ideastream Public Media]

With the fall still uncertain for indoor dance concerts, Bill Wade wonders what's next.

"It might be a little bit too soon to know big picture how all of this has affected the dance community. I think the dance community is beginning to realize, 'Hey, this has affected us,' and trying to quantify that. And everybody's comparing notes right now, right in this moment," Wade said. "I think it's because all of a sudden all the venues are starting to open back up and the casting looks different. So I think it's going to be interesting in the next six months, what we're going to hear about the dance world and how all of this has affected the dance world."

Until then, Northeast Ohio can enjoy its dance companies back this summer through many outdoor performances.

Dave DeOreo is coordinating producer for Ideastream Public Media’s arts and culture team.