Dance

Miami City Ballet to premiere ‘A Dance for Heroes’ virtually

Posted By Sean Erwin
May 5, 2020 at 5:28 PM

Miami City Ballet principal Renan Cerdeiro performs in “A Dance for Heroes,” set for May 8. (Photo courtesy of Alexander Iziliaev)

After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez asked herself: “What can we do to use this crisis, as artists, to help us all stay connected?”

The answer: “A Dance for Heroes,” a technological production that aims to honor the people whose work makes it possible for everyone else to quarantine.

The new ballet – set to premiere at 8 p.m. May 8 on the company’s Facebook page – is “a way to say thank you to the pandemic’s first-responders and essential workers, and to give our young artists some hope.”

It merges the steps of four dancers, moving separately, into one performance. Each dancer was filmed doing his or her part at Miami City Ballet’s studio, then the segments were edited to bring them all together.

For Lopez, who commissioned the ballet herself, it was critical the technology not overwhelm the dance.

“Whatever post-production was done had to be part of the dance,” Lopez says. “This was not meant to be a gimmick, and so the film had to be part of the choreography.”

She originally approached choreographer Durante Verzola and photographer/videographer Alexander Iziliaev and asked them to create work that could be presented online.

The quarantine presented formidable obstacles for all involved.

For Verzola, sheltering at his parents’ Kansas City home with five younger siblings and a gaggle of pets made his first problem just finding a quiet space to work.

“My parents have a pretty spacious bathroom. I could use the bathroom mirrors to get a sense for the movements on my own body,” Verzola says. “That was the biggest challenge – not being physically present with the dancers for any of it.”

Iziliaev, the company’s house photographer and video artist, had some ideas on how to make it all work, but his first hurdle was communicating software-heavy, film-editing processes to non-techies, Lopez and Verzola.

“When Lourdes approached me to dedicate this to the front-line heroes, I immediately began thinking, how can we do this when we can only take one dancer at a time?”

Iziliaev, once a dancer, created short videos of himself presenting the editing techniques he thought Verzola could use.

“[Iziliaev] presented me with different options,” Verzola says. “Since I knew the techniques he would use in the editing room, I planned the choreography knowing those options were there.”

“A Dance for Heroes” features Miami City Ballet principal dancers Jennifer Lauren and Renan Cerdeiro along with two of the school’s pre-professional students, Taylor Naturkas and Erick Rojas.

Learning and performing the choreography posed both technical and practical challenges.

“Usually we learn a choreography facing the choreographer’s back and we follow their movements,” Lauren says. “But when you work with a screen, it’s all in reverse since the screen shows you the opposite of everything.”

“Dance for Heroes” involved much online work by (clockwise, from left) Miami City Ballet principal Jennifer Lauren, videographer Alexander Iziliaev, principal Renan Cerdeiro, pre-professional dancers Erick Rojas and Taylor Naturkas, and choreographer Durante Verzola. (Photo courtesy of Alexander Iziliaev)

Says Cerdeiro: “When we were shooting, there were times when [Iziliaev] would stop me and say, ‘That was a great take, but you crossed the center mark a little.’ So even in the filming, there were things you weren’t free to do.”

And then there was the problem of dancers working out choreographies in apartments with wooden floors and neighbors quarantined underneath.

“I had a couple of jumps. I just couldn’t do them here in my apartment,” Cerdeiro says. “I did some of those steps for the first time the day we went in for the shooting.”

For Rojas, the biggest issue was working out couple sequences with Naturkas.

“We had to imagine we were dancing together even though we weren’t,” he says.

He and Naturkas resorted to text messages to communicate precise body positions, so they would appear to dance together in the digital space.

Even hearing the same piece of music was problematic. Durante organized the choreography around Wim Mertens’ “Often a Bird” (1996), chosen for its minimalistic string- and percussion-driven pulse. But music does not sound the same on either end of a Zoom videoconferencing session.

“We had to mute ourselves and play the music on our own phones because otherwise there would be a lag if we listened to the music through Zoom,” Naturkas says.

The final 4-minute product, Iziliaev says, is not strictly dance but it isn’t film either – it’s a new, third entity.

“This will never be done in live theater like it will be shown [in video],” Iziliaev says. “You can’t dance it like you will see it on the video.”

Despite dancing without an audience, Cerdeiro says he “felt emotionally connected just knowing that it was specifically dedicated to a certain group of people. Even in the studio, when there is no audience, you feel an emotional connection with a choreography – and we knew the intention of this choreography was deeper.”

The point of this particular ballet for him is the healing message that art communicates during a time of illness.

“For everyone who gets to watch this video, it’s a hope of better days to come and an injection of normality,” he says.

Iziliaev hopes essential workers will be able to see it, that they “will have a little bit of time to spare.”

“[Knowing] that other people support you in what you do is a huge help in confidence,” he adds. “That’s the support we wanted to give to them and to say, ‘We’re here with you,’ and to show that with what we do best.”

“I’m not a nurse and can’t do what they do,” says Lauren. “What we do is dance, and hopefully that will bring a moment of peace in their day.”

Miami City Ballet will present the world premiere of “A Dance for Heroes” at 8 p.m. May 8 on the company’s Facebook page: Facebook.com/miamicityballet. For more information on the performance, visit the company’s website at Miamicityballet.org/home/a-dance-for-heroes

Subscription renewals for the 2020-21 season, which marks the company’s 35th anniversary, are on sale now at Miamicityballet.org.

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