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2020 COLLECTIVE | Our creative response to a canceled Spring Performance

Transforming a Driveway Into a Theater: Greenwich Dance Studio Adapts to the COVID-19 World


 

“Heartbroken,” is how Kate Truesdell felt in early March when she realized she had to tell her dancers their end-of-the-year performance was canceled due to COVID-19. The Greenwich Dance Studio owner and director especially felt for her 17 seniors, who had waited their whole dance careers to be honored during their final show. “Our show is a monumental milestone. When you look back on your year it’s such a measurement of collective achievement and fulfillment,” Truesdell said.

Truesdell plans throughout the year so her students can experience a show with a production quality equivalent to a professional dance performance. Both the matinee for the younger students and evening show featuring the older dancers are held inside the Concert Hall at SUNY Purchase College. Each show draws an audience of 1,200 every year. Truesdell employs a lighting team to customize the mood for each routine, hires a professional videographer to capture on-stage moments, and even outsources the creation of the show’s promotional poster to a local graphic designer. Last year’s show consisted of routines all inspired by famous movies. A crowd favorite involved lightsaber wielding ballerinas in Storm Trooper tutus.

The show is more than just a production, however. Truesdell explains “there’s nothing like the adrenaline, stress, and team-building that happens” during the week of rehearsals leading up to the show. The spring show is a final bonding experience for dancers before they take a month long break from classes, or in the seniors’ cases, before they depart from Greenwich Dance Studio.

Truesdell was saddened that the reason why the show was so special became the reason why it was too dangerous to be held during the COVID-19 crisis. “What made me the most sad was thinking that… coming together and this beautiful spirit of camaraderie was going to feel unsafe, [and] it would be dangerous to be near each other in such large numbers.” She was determined to find a way to celebrate the end of the year in a safe, socially distant manner. She also was faced with 1,200 mostly nonrefundable costumes that she ordered back in December and were piling up in the empty studio.

Truesdell brainstormed for weeks about how to culminate the end of the year. As the COVID-19 crisis intensified and restrictions tightened, she had to abandon her initial plan to dance in a smaller theater without a live audience. Instead, she said she embraced the idea of re-inventing the performance entirely, and planned a drive through costume pickup with the same theatrical spirit of the spring performance. Truesdell explained she wanted an event that was more than just “drive-by and get your costume.” The event took place last Saturday, where dancers drove through the studio parking lot and were met with large LED panels displaying footage from last year’s show. Music played while staff handed students their costumes. A small number of Greenwich Dance Studio Company members stood 6 feet apart in the parking lot and cheered on younger students while they retrieved their costumes.

At the end of the night, the 17 graduating seniors drove through one-by-one, watched a slideshow projected on the side of the studio, and listened to Truesdell make a speech.

“It’s exactly what every senior needed at this moment. It brought so much closure to the studio and it feels like we went out with a bang,” said Katie Kulesh, a senior and member of the Greenwich Dance Studio Company. Cole Mersereau, another senior company member, said she owes Truesdell “infinite thank yous” for putting together the event. “I know it hasn’t been easy for her at all…Being able to put all of that together and still be conscious of us seniors going away…I’m just so grateful for that.” Both seniors will continue to dance in college: Kulesh is headed to Bucknell on a partial dance scholarship, and Mersereau has her eyes on a dance ensemble at Yale.

Greenwich Dance Studio’s canceled spring show is just one of thousands of canceled performances this year, as the performing arts industry has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus.

“I rely on an enormous packed audience once a year, Broadway relies on it every single night,” said Truesdell. She acknowledged the trickle down effect of canceled shows-it’s not just dancers who are out of work, but also costume designers, stagehands, and camera technicians, just to name a few. With gatherings of more than just 5 people banned until June 20th, it will be a long time before theaters can open again.

In the meantime, Greenwich Dance Studio dancers have been taking dance classes online. This hasn’t been easy- Kulesh joked that she’s had to delay her family dinner so that she could use the kitchen to do ballet. Mersereau noted an upside of the online classes, which is that they provide the students access to teachers who would typically not have been able to travel to Greenwich to teach an in-person class. A month ago the students took a virtual class from a Radio City Rockette. I am a GDS alumna and now collegiate dancer, and taught a college dance team style class to the students while I was 600 miles away from the studio.

While it will take a long time for Truesdell to get over the loss of the show, she said she’s glad she was able to find a way to celebrate the end of the year under these circumstances. She summed up her efforts with this quote, from famous dancer Debbie Allen: “Out of limitations comes creativity.”