In March 2020 the stage lights went down at performance venues across the country, including at the Joffrey Ballet. Although the Joffrey, like other theaters, adpated to serve a virtual audience, it lost substantial revenue and furloughed dancers. In its 2019-2020 Impact Report, published Jan. 28, 2021, the company reported a loss of more than $12 million in revenue.
For the past year, the Joffrey has been developing new ways of engaging with a now distanced audience. Adapting to the digital space, it has offered rehearsal sneak peeks online to keep the interest of audiences that are used to watching their favorite artists live and in person. But virtual performances have been the mainstay for ballet companies that are determined to keep their audience engaged and interested, and for the Joffrey, that has been working, bringing both challenges and positive opportunities to the dancers. More than one year in, they’ve found things they miss and things they’ve discovered.
For company member Amanda Assucena, 26, of Lakeview East, the loss of the stage itself is irreplaceable. “I definitely miss the feeling of being on stage, just completely forgetting who I am…literally leaving it all on stage, leaving my emotions,” she said. “If I’m having a hard time, there’s no hard time on stage, it’s just you and the steps. That feeling that’s almost inexplicable.”
Jeraldine Mendoza, 29, of Wrigleyville, who has danced with the Joffrey for 10 years, agrees. “I missed the theater, a live audience, the orchestra…backstage life with our colleagues and friends,” she said. Mendoza has not, however, missed the pre-stage nerves she got during live performance. “I haven’t had to experience that in over a year.”
Company artist Lucia Connolly, 23, of Logan Square, misses performing. “I just I feel I really have lost the way that I express myself, in a very specific way that’s very different from verbal communication or just communication that you have with people on a daily basis, even if it’s nonverbal,” she said.
Still, dancers have found silver linings in the time away from the theater. “I have a lot more time for my personal life now, and I realized that I’m much happier, so I want to try to continue that balance, if it’s possible, once we’re performing again,” Connolly said. And dancer Dylan Gutierrez, 31, who is engaged to Mendoza, has discovered that even though the two are serious about ballet, “It’s not our entire identity… we still can exist and function, and have purpose and do other things.”
Other Chicago dance venues including the Auditorium Theatre and the Harris Theatre for Music and Dance also went dark during the pandemic, but are looking forward to coming back to life.
While virtual performances have expanded audiences and brought these realizations, they haven’t diminished dancers’ desire to return to the theaters. “It just made me realize that I’m meant to be on stage, you know, this is what I was born to do,” Assucena said. “I’m ready to get back.”