In Granada, dancing carefully, respectfully and with an audience

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In Granada, dancing carefully, respectfully and with an audience
Attendees wait for the performance to begin at the Festival Internacional de Música y Danza de Granada at the Generalife Theater in Granada, Spain, July 22, 2020. Seating for the festival was capped at 50 percent of capacity. Laura Leon/The New York Times.

by Marina Harss

GRANADA (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- When the Compañía Nacional de Danza took the stage at the Festival Internacional de Música y Danza de Granada in southern Spain on Wednesday, it was in many ways like any other dance performance: A couple performed a touching Bournonville pas de deux; an ensemble of 21 dancers wearing loose, pale gray costumes premiered a new work, set to music by Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga, a 19th-century Spanish musical prodigy.

The dancers moved with silken ease. The audience applauded.

But the fact that the dancing occurred amid a pandemic, in a country that has suffered greatly — and continues to suffer — from the effects of COVID-19, made the situation extraordinary. It was the culmination of months of careful planning, involving the development of protocols, testing and a careful, minutely orchestrated return to the studio.

All performances at the festival, a yearly event, were held outdoors, including in a courtyard inside the complex of the Alhambra, with audiences required to wear masks, and seating capped at 50%.

Was it too soon, though? In the days leading up to the company’s performance, new outbreaks of the disease began to threaten the country’s reopening and the future of such events. “We haven’t had any problem here in Granada,” Antonio Moral, the director of the festival, which ended Sunday, said last week. “So far, the problems have been in Catalonia and Aragon” — regions in the north, hundreds of miles away.

Conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, who played an all-Beethoven concert, declared in the Spanish press that the festival, one of the first to take place this summer, had been “un milagro,” a miracle.

“I’m in a cloud of emotions,” Joaquin De Luz, who has been the director of the Compañía Nacional since September, said via WhatsApp the morning after the show. “We’re moving forward, carefully, respectfully and without fear.”

For the occasion, De Luz returned to the stage with Jerome Robbins’ meditative solo “A Suite of Dances.” In 2018, the piece had been on De Luz’s farewell program at New York City Ballet, where he danced for 15 years. After the long lockdown, he said, “I felt I wanted to be with my dancers.”

Still, it was strange performing after months of limited activity. “There were so many things to adjust to all at once,” Kayoko Everhart, a dancer with the company for 16 years, said after the show via WhatsApp. “The slightly raked stage, the stage lights, the varying tempos of the live music. It’s been a while.”

Just a few months ago, these performances were unthinkable. Spain, among the hardest hit countries in Europe, declared a state of emergency in mid-March. More than 250,000 people were infected and over 28,000 died before the state of emergency was lifted June 22.

During that time, the dancers received a square of vinyl flooring so they could safely rehearse at home, and the company provided daily classes on Zoom. The dancers also received full salary, thanks to state funding. Such stable backing contrasts with the United States, where dance companies, large and small, are struggling to stay solvent until they can return to the stage.

But like dancers everywhere, members of Compañía Nacional, which is based in Madrid, found that the novelty of dancing in their kitchens, surrounded by pets and children, wore off quickly. “As the days went on, it started to feel harder to find that motivation,” Everhart said. “I decided to focus on the things I really didn’t want to lose, like my abdominal strength and glutes and ankle strength.”

De Luz started dreaming up plans for a return to the studio in mid-April, when he began hearing reports that soccer teams might soon be allowed to start training: “In Spain, fútbol is always first in line,” he said. Lionel Messi and his teammates on Barcelona were back in practice by early May.

By the second week of May, De Luz and Marisol Pérez García, the Compañía Nacional’s executive director, had put together a detailed safety protocol for the company, taking into account the guidance of health authorities and addressing the specific needs of dancers: daily class, rehearsals, changing rooms, partnering and, eventually, performance.

On June 1, as the country observed a 10-day period of mourning for the victims of the coronavirus, the dancers returned to their studios near the Matadero, Madrid’s old slaughterhouse, now an arts center.

The safety measures were intense. Masks were worn in all areas except the dance studio — and even inside the studio, whenever rehearsals brought the dancers within 6 feet of each other. Ballet classes were divided into groups of 14, so dancers could stand well apart at the barre in the company’s two large, high-ceilinged, well-ventilated studios. All personal effects had to be kept in cloth bags, carried by the dancers.

“It was all a bit daunting,” Everhart said. “It seemed like there were 100 small rules, dos and don’ts.” But over time, it became routine: “You know, take off the mask. Clean your hands. Use tongs to pick up another mask.” The hardest thing, she said, was not being allowed to use the showers at the end of the work day.

For weeks, the dancers did not touch. They rehearsed everything except the partnering.

The turning point came in mid-July when all 52 company dancers were tested and received a clean bill of health. With that, they were given the go-ahead to touch unmasked, making partnering possible again. “It wasn’t until my first pas de deux rehearsal that I realized I had missed that aspect of my job so much,” Everhart said.

On July 20, even as cases of coronavirus were increasing, particularly in northern Spain, the dancers traveled by bus to Granada, in the southern region of Andalusia. Onboard, everyone wore a mask. It was a sweltering, 105-degree day, so hot that the bus overheated. They had to let it cool down before completing the trip.

At the performance, almost all of the 800 available seats at the theater in the Jardines del Generalife, a Moorish garden with expansive views over the Alhambra and the rest of the city, were occupied. During the day, it had been brutally hot, but by the time of the performance, the temperature had cooled, enough that the stage was a little slippery from condensation, De Luz said. (Nothing the dancers could not handle.)

The festival’s director, Moral, said that about 90% of the reduced seats had been sold during the festival, which he took as a vindication of his decision to go forward with the festival. De Luz agreed: “As far as we know, performances have not been a source of infections.”

And the Granada festival is not alone. Europe is cautiously reopening: Salzburg is holding a reduced festival, and the Arena di Verona will have a series of opera concerts.

De Luz said he has received numerous inquiries from American dancers, including his former City Ballet colleagues, desperately seeking performance opportunities. For them it has been a dispiriting summer, as one dance festival after another canceled live performances.

Compañía Nacional de Danza has plans to perform the same program again on Wednesday, as part of Veranos de la Villa, an outdoor festival in Madrid. De Luz has ambitious plans for the fall, too, including an indoor performance at the Teatro Real in Madrid in November, and a new version of “Giselle,” with the action moved to 19th-century Spain, for December.

Of course, uncertainty is built into any plans in the time of COVID-19. “Nobody knows what the situation might be in September,” De Luz said. “But I feel really privileged that we were able to be onstage, especially knowing what dancers elsewhere are going through.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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