UMD’s Ballet Company M finds its footing with virtual practices

The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. (Evan Kramer/The Diamondback)

Some girls wore leotards and tights, ballet buns tight on their heads. Others, oversized shirts and sweats, all of them holding onto something that wasn’t a ballet barre but still got the job done. Three times a week they do this, en pointe. The University of Maryland’s Ballet Company M has moved to Zoom like many other on-campus activities and is adjusting to the new environment.

“Ballet Company M is a completely student-run ballet group for people who have been dancing pretty much their entire lives who wanted to continue in college, but not necessarily major in dance,” said Abi Eberman, the company’s executive director.

The organization has auditions at the beginning of every semester, usually in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. But this year, auditions were held virtually through Zoom.

“Zoom can be kind of tricky to watch for dancing, because there are so many people on the screen that it can be kind of hard to focus on specific people,” said Eberman, a senior psychology major. 

Anyone can drop in and take classes with the company, but to be a member and be able to perform, you have to dance en pointe, incoming president Maddy Chen said.

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This year, the vice president and artistic director Emily Leo led the auditions while Eberman watched and took notes. Auditions were held like a typical ballet class, starting at the barre, then short combinations in the center of the room, followed by contemporary to see how the dancers performed rather than seeing just their technique.

Chen said it was nice to have a close-up view of each dancer during auditions, although you can’t see people jump on Zoom because of the dangers of doing pointe in non-traditional locations. 

Five dancers auditioned this semester, and all of them got in. Freshman neuroscience major Natalie Winik was nervous about the process. 

“I was like, ‘Oh God, what if my computer’s not charged enough? What if my foot smacks my desk, or I don’t have enough space or the lighting is weird or the connection issues?’” Winik said.

She’s done ballet her whole life and said not doing anything ballet-related would be too overwhelming for her. 

“I noticed even when I take class in my basement here on the gross carpet, I’m not thinking about my chemistry homework that I have five problems left and it’s due in an hour,” Winik said. “My mind is not on the seemingly uncontrollable stresses of school or my home situation.”

However, connections are harder to make in a virtual setting. The company currently uses a GroupMe chat, and Chen said they’re in the process of planning a game night.

One way Eberman helps mitigate this is by starting out every rehearsal asking members about something good that’s happened to them. 

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For a typical night of class, dancers have a regular ballet class from 9 to 10 p.m., similar to how auditions were run. Every dancer has access to a different space. Some dancers put down yoga mats so it’s safe for them to do pointe. No one’s barre looks the same, and they all have to get through technical difficulties and the learning curve of Zoom.

Two members live together on the campus and attend class together as well.

“It’s actually really nice to watch them because it feels almost like normal times to see two dancers next to each other dancing,” Eberman said.

Teachers for the classes rotate, and anyone can teach as long as they let Eberman know. She said teaching is encouraged to give people experience and to change things up. For October, the company is having a masterclass series where guest teachers come in. Next week, Eberman’s friend, whom she met at a summer intensive years ago, will teach.

For the final hour, 10 to 11 p.m., dancers rehearse. This semester, that involves watching previous performances of The Nutcracker. They are broken up into groups, and each dancer is assigned one from the video to follow.

It’s been a bit of a challenge for Winik to adjust to the online space. When watching previous performances of The Nutcracker, which the company performs every fall, she said she had to flip the movements in her mind and visualize people next to her.

But it’s not all bad. The dancers communicate with giving thumbs up or down, and everyone’s flexible. If it’s nearing 11 p.m. and the dancers don’t think they need to run through choreography again, rehearsal will end a little early. 

As for performing, that’s still on the horizon for the company. They tentatively hope to livestream The Nutcracker from the Clarice’s Kay Theatre. Eberman’s hoping for at least one day of in-person practice— with appropriate safety measures. The company’s spring semester plans remain uncertain because they don’t know how available the Clarice will be to them. 

Eberman said this new experience will make the group stronger dancers because of the bodily awareness that comes with not having normal ballet barres. She hopes underclassmen will look back on this fondly.

Eberman also said she’s noticed that Zoom had made dancers more “expressive.” Usually, they’re all in front of mirrors and comparing themselves to their peers, she said. But that self-comparison is gone with tiny Zoom windows. Now, the dancers focus more on themselves.

Winik said she learned she has to make opportunities for herself to be completely present in rehearsal and “reap the same satisfaction” from online class that she’s gotten from in-person ballet classes. “The clap emoji on Zoom, that brings a lot of encouragement.”

This semester has shown how “willing and flexible” their dancers are, Chen said. She also noted that while it’s not the “full ballet experience … it’s better than nothing.”

As Winik puts it: “I can still get joy out of doing the things I love, despite them being not how I want them to be.” 

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