Alessandro Riga © CND

Dancing, hopes and the pandemic

Four dancers open up about their struggles and challenges in this time of difficulty and uncertainty. Fear, diets, optimism, trainings, nostalgia and the desire to jump on a plane and travel: Tokyo Ballet’s Akira Akiyama, Paris Opera Ballet’s Marc Moreau, Korean National Ballet’s Seul-Ki Park and Spanish National Dance Company’s Alessandro Riga (listed strictly in alphabetical order) speak about the way they are dealing with this new phase of the health emergency and reveal their wishes for the future.

by Alessandro Bizzotto

Photo: From left, Akira Akiyama, Marc Moreau, Seul-Ki Park and Alessandro Riga

Due to government restrictions, some productions were cancelled, while on the occasion of other ones the theatre was open to an audience of 50% its capacity” First soloist of the Tokyo Ballet Akira Akiyama explains me, “but, like many others, I have also been missing meeting friends and some of my family members such as my grandparents”.

I have been spending less time performing on stage compared to how much I practice” Principal of the Korean National Ballet Seul-Ki Park reveals, “because much fewer shows are now being staged, which has also taken a toll on my income”.

Getting stopped all of a sudden, last year, was frustrating” First soloist of the Paris Opera Ballet Marc Moreau says. “We did not know how long it would take to get back, nor how long we would be forced to wait, being unable to fully live our passion. It made me anxious at some point, as our careers are not that long – we cannot afford the luxury of losing time”.

Principal of the Spanish National Dance Company Alessandro Riga’s experience has been somehow different. “I have been on the good side of it, in a way: I happen to be one of the lucky ones who stopped only during the first three-month lockdown, last year. And we always collected our pays, as my company is under the Ministry of Culture. Then, in June 2020 we got back to normal… more or less. Our tours abroad were cancelled, of course, yet we kept performing in Spain”.

Alessandro Riga © CND

More than one year after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are still learning about its effects on our lives – the new virus has had an impact on ballet companies across the world, and on their dancers’ lives.

Every country has been dealing with different situations and today, when the future is still uncertain and progress against COVID threatened by new variants, theatres keep hoping for the best after a difficult winter.

While talking about such issues with four dancers of famous ballet companies I can clearly understand that, if they struggled in trying to remain both fit and mentally focused, now they are all looking forward to a better tomorrow – as everyone – and above all they badly need to be optimistic.

It is sad that we cannot freely meet in person whomever we want, whenever we wantAkira Akiyama adds. “Meeting online is not enough”.

I missed going on stage very muchMarc Moreau points out, “and I missed the connection with our audience and the emotions it can bring too. We spent weeks being all by ourselves, with no real interactions. Being alone was tough, in this respect. But the situation was the same for everyone – we couldn’t do anything. We had to be patient”.

Seul-Ki Park © Korean National Ballet

Seul-Ki Park focuses mostly on the lack of interactions. On a personal level, I have been spending more time at home and less time meeting up with and hanging out with friends. On a professional level… it has become more challenging to discern my partner’s emotions while wearing a face mask during practice, too!”.

Alessandro Riga experienced something different. The Spanish National Dance Company has been performing almost regularly since September 2020. “We never stopped going on stage, even during the toughest weeks of the second wave” Riga reveals. “We had our opening night of ‘Giselle’ in December 2020, as an example. Of course, theatres have never been 100% full, and we had to wear masks every day during rehearsal and to be tested every week”.

According to Seul-Ki Park, “ballerinas require an expansive space for proper physical training, so it was hard to maintain and improve my craft while working from home due to the pandemic, even with at-home training. The repeatedly imposed WFH policy made it all the more challenging for me to perform on stage. But since I had to be prepared to go on stage at any given time, I trained hard to work all my muscles from head to toe and often hiked a mountain nearby”. Seul-Ki never gave up. “At the end of the day, I believe the best way to keep in shape is to train tenaciously!”.

During the first phase of emergency, last year, I really feared not to be able to stay in shape because it was the first time in my life, since I started dancing, I had to stay away from a studio – I had never been unable to perform on stage for such a long time Akira Akiyama tells me. “I had only my small room at home to dance. For me, and for any dancers, performing on stage means fully appreciating the joy of dancing. So, it was really mentally tough for me: I felt cut off from what I have always wanted to do and from what I need to do in my life. But it is no one’s fault…”.

As far as staying fit is concerned, I was able to work and train at home too, when going to the theatre was not allowedMarc Moreau affirms. “I kept training every day, running and doing some cardio too. What I really missed was that particular feeling… being nervous before a performance, that kind of adrenaline. That’s why, in a way, it was hard getting used to those feelings again, after so many months spent without performing for a real audience – being back performing was challenging for that reason, as we had somehow lost the habit of dancing in front of a public”.

The problem, in Alessandro Riga’s eyes, was the first lockdown in 2020. “I have the feeling I lost those three months, from March to May 2020” he tells me. “I tried my best to stay in shape – taking class every morning, training… and so on. Then, in mid-May a moment came when there was so much going on and no-one understood anything: we had no idea if and when we would start rehearsing and performing again. It was mentally tough, and I gave up. I’ll be honest with you: my brain stopped helping me. I had never experienced such a long period without dancing and rehearsing. The first month was more or less like a summer holiday physique-wise… but without having the chance to swim and to walk. Then, it became harder and harder”.

Marc Moreau © Y. Kellerman

Marc Moreau didn’t want to jump to pessimism. “The first lockdown was also an opportunity to think about many things besides my career and my job… more on a personal level. It even gave me the chance to realize how lucky I am as I live a passion that is also my job, but also how hard being a professional dancer is, and how tough being unable to share my art with an audience can be. I admit I felt a little confused, but I decided to live it day by day”.

At home, I joined many of the online classes offered not only by the Japanese teachers but also by teachers abroad, as an example by Vladimir Malakhov. I also liked the HET’s bar classesAkira Akiyama adds.

There was a time when the COVID-19 outbreak was at its worst and I couldn’t dance for a while. During that time, I felt like I had lost myself Seul-Ki Park recalls, “and that felt as fearful as the possibility of contagion”.

I think it is essential to live as safely as possibleAkira Akiyama says as far as the fear of contagion is concerned. “There are people who recover quickly, but COVID-19 can also cause severe pneumonia, which could seriously affect a dancer’s career. I do want to dance, but at the same time I don’t want to lose my job: I want to protect my profession, as it is also my childhood dream”.

I am a very optimistic guy who thinks it is essential to get focused on hopeMarc Moreau confesses. “In addition, I always felt safe, when we had the opportunity to get back to our theatre to take class and rehearse. We were surrounded by doctors and everything was organized to provide us with the safest possible space to work in – we are tested every week, we are split into different groups working in different studios, they keep sanitizing every surface… I would be lying if I told you that it is easy, but it is fine so far and it still helps me feeling I am working in a protected environment”.

Threat of contagion does not frighten Alessandro Riga. “If I had been scared to get COVID, I wouldn’t have been able to enter a studio again. In a ballet studio abiding by the rules is extremely difficult, nearly impossible. You sweat, your mask falls down as it is soaked through with your own sweat, you touch your partner… and it doesn’t matter how much hand sanitizer you use! I cannot rehearse the role of Albrecht and stay distant from my Giselle, without touching her, without sweating with her”. Yet he feels more isolated today as “distance between people is increasing… just think about those who walk around the long way in order not to approach someone else. I try not to walk around the long way, honestly… I always wear a mask when I am outside and I don’t change direction going out of my way so not to run into somebody”.

Akira Akiyama © Shoko Matsuhashi

On the other hand, Akira Akiyama admits, “I do not go out with friends and I don’t go to crowded places, even if it is not forbidden”. But she found many new ways to reinvent her routine and to adjust to the remote life. “I started practicing yoga and Pilates, because I had so much time for myself while the studios were closed. I did not try any new diets as mine was already a relatively healthy one. I try to keep my diet as healthy as possible, because I believe it is necessary to maintain a healthy immune system in this situation”.

No new diet for Alessandro Riga as well. “I didn’t need to change my eating habits due to the pandemic” he reveals. “Yes, I probably ate more chocolate to help the mood! In any case, entering a studio after the lockdown last year was not easy. It takes two weeks to get back in shape after summer holidays… after the lockdown it took three weeks at least. I had a very strange feelings as if my muscles were empty”.

Prudence and caution are still needed, not only because of the new variants. Many of us still remember what happened after summer 2020. So, what’s next? What are our hopes and fears?

Seul-Ki Park has no doubt. “My hope is for vaccines and treatments to be developed and widely distributed soon” she declares, “so that COVID becomes just another common cold. I hope for a day when everyone can freely travel across the world as they used to”.

Even last December, at the beginning of the second wave, I kept telling myself vaccines were on their wayMarc Moreau admits. “It was a bit scary, but I tried to stay positive telling myself the whole world was looking for a solution to this gigantic problem”.

I do hope to be able and come back to Italy, my home country, next August – fingers crossed!Alessandro Riga tells me. “In my family everyone will be vaccinated by that time, and I hope I will have received my first dose of the vaccine as well. It will make things less stressful! I’ll feel more comfortable and I’ll breathe easier”.

I hope the situation gets better globally as soon as possible Akira Akiyama states, “so that both audience members and dancers can come to theatres and enjoy performances without fears, in a normal way. Currently in Japan, we can give performances, but many people may give up attending because they fear the risks of contagion. I also look forward to the overseas dancers and companies to come back to Japan as I have always enjoyed seeing their performances”.

During the last fifteen months we all have found ourselves having more time to work on our projects as well, reinventing our routineMarc Moreau discloses. “I started planning new stuff and learning Italian, as an example”.

What’s the first thing they will do when the pandemic ends, or when things start getting really better?

Alessandro Riga will plan a long holiday far and away. “I have a sense of responsibility now: I don’t fly abroad if I have four days off, as I don’t want to risk to get back and infect half of my company. We just need to do our part, this pandemic is not over. But I’ll jump on a plane for sure, when we all will be told we can do it, as the pandemic will definitely be receding”.

Seul-Ki Park wishes to taste some normality again. “I want to first take my mask off, meet up with friends I haven’t been able to see in a while”. But she wants to make up for lost time too. “I’ll get on a plane to fly somewhere!” she exclaims.

Akira Akiyama misses travelling too. “I want to travel, definitely!” she points out. “I would like to go to Italy”. In addition, she wants to enjoy the freedom. “I also want to see my friends and eat out”.

I’ll organize a big party as soon as it will be completely safe to do soMarc Moreau concludes. “I’ll invite friends and family, people I love, in order to be able to hug everyone and spend time with them”.