BalletMet Tiptoes Toward a Post-Pandemic Season

The Columbus dance company goes small as it returns to the stage.

Peter Tonguette
Grace-Anne and Austin Powers practicing in the performance space

BalletMet performances are nothing if not grand. Most of the company’s shows take place in the Ohio Theatre, the gilded, 2,791-seat Downtown venue where the troupe practically takes up residence each December for “The Nutcracker.” Now, for its coronavirus-era comeback, the company intends to start small. 

For its first performances of any kind since mid-February 2020, BalletMet plans to present “Unlocked,” a program of short works, starting in early May in its performance space, a black-box theater on its campus on Mount Vernon Avenue. In previous years, the theater has been used for occasional small-scale programs, but many seasons come and go without any company productions taking place there. 

Artistic director Edwaard Liang has always seen the space as a huge advantage, but now he fully understands how vital it can be. “We’re just lucky that we have this environment … to be able to transition,” he says. 

In compliance with state-mandated capacity restrictions, the theater, which can accommodate 225 attendees, will seat just 30 per performance. Available tickets will go to subscribers and donors first, and though BalletMet’s leadership hopes to do a virtual presentation of the show, it’s not yet a sure thing. 

“Unlocked” will feature choreography by Liang, as well as retired dancer Gabriel Gaffney Smith and current dancers Karen Wing and Leiland Charles. The program will open on May 7, with performances continuing through May 23 that will be available for donors only. Then, starting on May 28 and continuing through June 27, the same program will be open to the general public. Each program will last about an hour. Seats, which will be spaced at least 6 feet apart, must be reserved in pairs. 

Grace-Anne Powers practices in the performance space

Dance, so physical in nature, has been forced from stages by the pandemic, making the return a big deal. Columbus Dance Theatre hasn’t presented a live performance in a year, while smaller groups, like New Vision Dance Co. or Hixon Dance, have gotten by with the occasional outdoor offering. BalletMet leaders took a gradual approach to their return. At first, dancers could only take virtual classes. That was followed by virtual rehearsals. Then, in January, in-person rehearsals were reinstituted. 

“We’ve been very mindful on how to slowly and safely integrate all the dancers coming back into the studio,” Liang says. 

To mitigate the risk of dancers contracting the virus, the company has been divided into four “subpods,” three of which consist of seven dancers and the fourth of six dancers. Each performer dances only with their subpod colleagues, says Liang, adding that rehearsal times have been cut from six hours per day to no more than two and a half. Time spent in dressing rooms or warming up is carefully allocated. While still distancing from other performers, dancers can choose one partner for the season. 

For Charles, those limitations have been outweighed by the joy he feels in returning to the studio. “We all have this inspiration of feeling the bliss again of being around our friends and colleagues,” says Charles, who describes his choreographed work as a jubilant, up-tempo piece for six dancers set to a piano concerto by Haydn. 

Liang is just glad that BalletMet is again able to share its dancers with Central Ohio—even if it’s just 30 patrons at a time. “Not only will it be a gift for the community,” he says, “but it will be a gift to us.”