PPE pirouette: Tampa City Ballet dances with COVID-safe precautions

Remember when you could easily spend a day wandering an art museum or an evening at a local theater -- a time when you were physically present with the art and the artists in your community?

A year after COVID interrupted our lives and made going out and about with friends and family anything but routine, Tampa Bay Area arts institutions persevere. As they always do. But when a deadly virus forces performance spaces and gallery doors to close altogether or limit attendance -- how do artists go on creating, performing, and reaching their communities? How do arts institutions survive? How has the interaction and relationship among art, artists, and appreciative audiences changed, in some cases forever?

83 Degrees reached out to the USF Contemporary Art Museum, the Tampa City Ballet, and the Florida Orchestra to learn how they are adapting, evolving, surviving, and, hopefully, thriving. Below is the second in a three-part series.
Dancing through a pandemic? You get used to it, says Tampa City Ballet Director Paula Nuñez.

"Dance is an intimate affair in so many ways because we collaborate in closed studios; there are shared dressing rooms, dancers are partnering, so they're touching each other constantly -- and there's the breathing during dance, which of course during COVID …" Nuñez trails off and allows her pre-pandemic reminiscence to hover before she touches down in the present.

"It was hard to adapt. But, like everything -- you get used to it."

Tampa City Ballet held its premiere season in 2018-2019. Of course, the emergent professional troupe could not predict its last dance inside a theater would occur shortly thereafter, in February 2020, when a foundational mission of the Tampa City Ballet -- to cultivate relationships with and educate audiences through the intimacy of in-studio performances -- suddenly felt beyond the dancers' reach.

"I believe it's important to bring audiences into our space to see how we create and rehearse; how the dancers sweat every day -- how we work eight hours a day. It's important for the community to understand so that when they go to the theater, they have an appreciation of that work -- so nearly everything we did before COVID was within the studio and theater walls," Nuñez says.

When the pandemic shuttered those walled-in spaces, Tampa City Ballet dancers adapted as they are trained: to land on their feet -- even if it means bumping into their living room couches during safer-at-home Zoom rehearsals. 

"We closed the ballet but had to come up with a new plan for the season, quickly, because we had funding from the state and county to consider. With those grants already in place, it became critical to renegotiate our delivery to keep going," Nuñez says.

Tampa City Ballet dancer Lital Gelman lives with her boyfriend. She recalls how their small apartment morphed into a chaotic live-work-dance space last spring when the couple transitioned to working from home.

"He's working from home and I'm trying to take [dance] class in the same room in our one-bedroom apartment -- and it's a struggle to keep motivated throughout," says Gelman.

"And that's the thing: You're constantly trying to find the motivation, and also not be too hard on yourself, because you know everyone's life was put on pause. But even one day of not being in ballet [classes] has an impact ... so when the pandemic hits and you go with no training for a month, but then you find yourself in your apartment without a sprung floor or space to really move -- your muscles just don't feel the same response to the environment. It took a while to adapt," Gelman says.

Pivoting from stage to film

Before the pandemic, Tampa City Ballet premiered the first installment of 7th Avenue & Ybor, a trilogy Nuñez envisioned to shine a light on Ybor City's rich immigrant history. When COVID hit, Nuñez adapted the storytelling for the present moment -- both in format and narrative arc -- by choreographing dance for a short film based on the pandemic that impacted the Tampa community 102 years ago.

Tampa City Ballet's first-ever film production, 102 Degrees, depicts the 1918 Spanish Flu as experienced by Ybor cigar factory workers. The narrative draws parallels to the experiences of essential workers in 2020 through the eyes of its protagonist, a modern-day healthcare worker who time-travels to 1918 Ybor in a coronavirus-induced fever dream.

Dancers prepared almost entirely for 102 Degrees while dancing solo in their homes. The troupe practiced together in person for the first time, in an open-air parking lot, just three days before filming. Tampa City Ballet released 102 Degrees for a private online viewing on February 20 but aims to hit the film festival circuit this year before otherwise releasing the film to the public. 

Nuñez hopes to eventually direct the final installment of the trilogy (as she intended before COVID threw its curveball) to a packed theater, complete with an ensemble cast, state-of-the-art stage lighting, the backstage camaraderie of frenzied dressing room costume changes; perhaps even a full orchestral score. 

For now, the company will focus on filmed productions or other socially distanced community engagements. Tampa City Ballet is in the process of developing the second full installment to the 7th Avenue & Ybor trilogy, which it will showcase in outdoor performances and community workshops scheduled for May 27-30, 2021.

Thinking outside the studio in 2021

Under Nuñez's cautious but optimistic direction, Tampa City Ballet continues to dance -- even if the company cannot yet welcome the community back into its space. Instead, the dancers find their way to us -- whether they're glimpsed dancing across our cityscapes, or streaming on screens into our living rooms.

"I try to always be very positive and to embrace, despite this tragedy, the options technology allows. Film lets us break out of the theatre world and place [dance] in our everyday life," says Nuñez. 

Following the success of Tampa City Ballet's modern version of Pulcinella, produced in collaboration with the Florida Orchestra in January 2020, Nuñez says TCB is currently preparing its first outreach program of the year: a modern Cinderella that "takes the traditional history and situations and twists them to create a multidisciplinary work that's full of surprises." 

Outdoor Cinderella performances will take place on March 26 and 27 at Ybor Square and at America's Ballet School at 15365 Amberly Drive in Tampa. 

In the "Dance for Camera" series, returning this April, Tampa City Ballet dancers perform against the backdrop of outdoor public spaces in St. Petersburg and Tampa. Watch the 2020 performance, Reflections on the Tampa City Ballet YouTube page. The "Dance for Camera" series will take place April 10-12, 2021 in locations to be announced on the Tampa City Ballet website.

Tampa City Ballet is also preparing a summer program to take place June 28 through July 26. The program will feature classes exploring ballet, modern, and improvisational dance techniques with instruction from Tampa City Ballet dancers, faculty, and guest artists. 

As for the dancers' day-to-day in 2021? Masks and gloves are "just part of the costuming, now," says Gelman. 

Tampa City Ballet has reopened its studio doors to its dancers, who follow rigorous safety standards that include masked practices, limited studio capacity, and extra time between sessions to clean the studio. 

"We've all adapted pretty easily to CDC guidelines -- that's not a problem, really. It's more about the struggle of keeping the motivation up while you're working through the hiccups and bumps that come with those guidelines. It was difficult in the beginning -- but I think now our lungs have been conditioned. It's hard to breathe through the mask when you're dancing, but," Gelman echoes a familiar sentiment: 

"I've gotten used to it." 

Nuñez, meanwhile, is determined to keep her community thriving -- an effort that one might frame as an ongoing, intimate partner dance between artist and audience:

"I feel that artists are bringing -- and will continue to bring -- hope and inspiration to the world because they keep moving and creating. We start from scratch and we work together to transform spaces and create support. That's how, post-COVID, I think we can really recuperate," Nuñez says.

For information about upcoming performances, visit the Tampa City Ballet website.

Part 1 of this series: Gallery experiences go virtual at the USF Contemporary Art Museum

Related story: Photo essay: Tampa Museum of Art

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Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

Jessi Smith (she/they) is a freelance writer who is passionate about sustainability, community building, and the power of the arts and transformative storytelling. A fourth-generation Floridian, Jessi received her B.A. in Art History and English from Florida International University and began reporting for 83 Degrees in 2009. When she isn't writing, Jessi enjoys taking her deaf rescue dog on outdoors adventures, unearthing treasures in backroads antiques and thrift shops, D.I.Y. upcycling projects, and Florida-friendly gardening.