Grand Rapids Ballet continues our Behind the Curtain series, celebrating our dancers from within Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in recognition of AANHPI Heritage Month, which takes place annually throughout May.
Today, meet Company dancer, Isaac Aoki, who was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. Aoki joined Grand Rapids Ballet in 2013 after studying at prestigious ballet companies across the country including The School of American Ballet, Kaatsbaan Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Ellison Ballet, and Miami City Ballet School, to name a few.
Isaac with his older brother, Nicholas.
From an early age, Aoki was inspired to move after watching his older brother, Nicholas, during his Taekwondo classes. “I would run around kind of dancing in the mirrors,” he reflected. It was then, his mother decided to sign him up for dance classes at a neighborhood studio, and then later at Ballet West Academy. In his early years, Isaac studied all forms of movement, from jazz to tap, even exploring musical theater.
It wasn’t until he attended a performance of The Nutcracker at age 11 that Isaac started focusing on ballet. “I remember the first time seeing The Nutcracker and just really recognizing how beautiful it was and how interested I was in that,” he shared. He reflected on the experience, noting that his favorite character was the Sugar Plum Fairy. “It was one of the most beautiful things.”
Isaac’s great grandparents with their children on their farm in Utah.
From that point forward, Isaac began more intense training at Salt Lake Ballet Conservatory. As he progressed, he also moved to attend more advanced institutes such as studying at The University of Utah in its Ballet Department alongside Conrad Ludlow and Mikhail Tchoupakov, and at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington DC with Nikolai Kabaniaev.
He attributes his work ethic, especially as it relates to the physicality of ballet, to his family. “With something like ballet, you will never perfect it,” said Aoki. “You will always strive for more, and on my dad’s side, the Japanese-American side, they’re very athletic. I’m very inspired by them. Just the physical aspect to always just keep pushing, and then as a person as well.”
Aoki’s background, being from a multi-racial family, has impacted his life in countless ways. Though he said with a laugh, it’s all he’s ever known. “I’m from kind of a non-traditional family,” he said. “My brother is adopted, and my dad is sansei Japanese-American, which is the third generation. So, my dad’s grandparents came from Japan, and then my mom is white.”
Isaac Aoki and Madison Massara in Mozart Symphony, choreographed by James Sofranko, photo by Scott Rasmussen.
In addition to his talents on stage, Isaac also is a gifted photographer, which has provided another lens to celebrate his family’s culture. Growing up, Isaac looked up to his father, watching him grow his career as a professional cinematographer. Following in his father’s footsteps, at 15-years-old, Isaac was gifted his first digital camera by his father and it’s been a passion of his ever since.
In 2017, Isaac captured a moving photographic series, titled “Topaz,” featuring several family members who were born in the Japanese Internment camp Topaz during World War II. The photographs were taken in the desert mountains outside of Topaz. “I wanted to do a photo project that was in homage to those family members,” he shared.
His photographic talents were brought into focus at Grand Rapids Ballet during the 2020-21 Season program, Jumpstart: on Film where he choreographed a dance film titled, “at first sight.” A year in the making, his work turned also into a family project. “My dad drove from Salt Lake City to Michigan and we had a five-day camping trip where I invited dancers to come up to film the section that was on the sand dunes,” he reflected. “So that was a really special thing to work on with my dad through Covid.”
His work, “at first sight,” featured 13 dancers, including company members and apprentices and trainees, with music by Daniel Avery and Alessandro Cortini.
“I had heard about Isaac even before I came to Grand Rapids, said James Sofranko, artistic director at Grand Rapids Ballet. “Our Resident Choreographer Penny Saunders had tapped him to make a promotional video of one of her works, and I knew he had won a prize for his photography in Art Prize. I was excited to meet this multi-talented individual and am glad he has continued to grow in his artistry as a dancer, but also through his provocative and original choreography and filmmaking for our annual Jumpstart program.”
Aoki explained that he enjoys photographing dance as a professional ballet dancer because he understands the technicalities of ballet. “It’s very hard to capture a photo that is compelling to a normal person and a dancer,” he said. “Photography is a nice combination of dance, film, and how I see human bodies.”
Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month takes place every year in May to recognize the contributions and influence of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans to the history, culture, and achievements of the United States.
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May 26, 2021
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich., May 26, 2021 — Grand Rapids Ballet, Michigan’s only professional ballet company, today announces its 2021-22 Season, Moving Forward, featuring a return to live, in-person performances at DeVos Performance Hall and Peter Martin Wege Theater, among others.
The Moving Forward season offers something for everyone, featuring classical ballet favorites and contemporary creations. The complete season includes Grand Rapids Ballet’s outdoor “Summer Series,” “Off the Canvas,” “The Nutcracker,” “Cinderella,” “Jumpstart 2022,” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with “Serenade.”
“My vision for the 21-22 Season aims to showcase a wide variety of ballets that appeal to any number of people, even if you’ve never seen ballet before,” said James Sofranko, artistic director at Grand Rapids Ballet. “We have definitely missed the live connection with the audience and are looking forward to being back in a live performance space. It’s what we do best, and it’s what we’ve trained to do.”
Grand Rapids’ favorite holiday seasonal tradition, “The Nutcracker,” returns to DeVos Performance Hall with dancers performing before beautiful sets imagined by Chris Van Allsburg, designed by Eugene Lee. Dancers adorn the stage to Val Caniparoli’s choreography for the beloved annual tradition with live accompaniment from the Grand Rapids Symphony to Tchaikovsky’s magical score.
2022 also marks an important milestone as Grand Rapids Ballet celebrates 50 years of lifting the human spirit through the art of dance. Our 50th Anniversary spans two seasons, kicking off in February 2022 with family-favorite “Cinderella,” choreographed by Ben Stevensen, accompanied by the Grand Rapids Symphony. The classic fairytale journeys alongside Cinderella as her dreams are turned to reality by her Fairy Godmother before she dances the night away with her Prince at a dazzling ball.
Company dancers also are accompanied by Grand Rapids Ballet School’s students transforming into fairies, butterflies, and mystical characters in Shakespeare’s comedic tale, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” During this performance, Grand Rapids Ballet will pay homage to George Balanchine, performing the timeless, classical work, “Serenade,” with music by Tchaikovsky, known as his first ballet made in America.
Grand Rapids Ballet’s Junior Company, under the direction of Attila Mosolygo, will perform “Aladdin,” as our talented young dancers share the story of an impoverished boy, living in Agrabah, who falls in love with the beautiful Princess Jasmine.
Tickets and Season subscriptions will be available to the public later this summer. 2021-22 Season Subscription renewals will open to current subscribers on June 7. Additional program details and performance dates and times can be found at grballet.com/2122season.
About Grand Rapids Ballet:
Grand Rapids Ballet, Michigan’s only professional ballet company, celebrating its 50th Anniversary in 2022, is committed to lifting the human spirit through the art of dance under the leadership of James Sofranko as artistic director, Glenn Del Vecchio as executive director, and Attila Mosolygo as director of Grand Rapids Ballet School and its Junior Company. Grand Rapids Ballet continues a rich history marked by steady growth, a commitment to excellence, and strong community support.
In recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AANHPI), Grand Rapids Ballet continues to celebrate our dancers from within AANHPI communities.
Company dancer Yuka Oba-Muschiana, who has been with Grand Rapids Ballet for 10 seasons, shared a glimpse into her background growing up and what moved her to begin a professional career in ballet. She comes from a hard-working family, her father worked in the construction industry building homes in her hometown of Fukushima, Japan while her mother also stayed on her toes, raising two daughters, both with big ambitions. Yuka, spent many hours of her young life honing her skills on-stage, and her sister, Marina, aspired to become a Geisha; both sisters accomplishing their hefty goals.
Oba-Muschiana shared that from an early age, her parents instilled a strong work ethic within her. She did not originally set out to become a professional ballerina but was always drawn to becoming an artist of some kind. “I always saw that as so cool,” she shared. “I wanted to spend my life doing something I love.” Her mother signed her up for her first-ever ballet lesson at age six so she could begin exercising and learning how to care for her body. She transitioned to more advanced training a few years later, around age 10. “I started a little later in life than other dancers,” she laughed.
Furthering her training, Yuka began participating in competitions across Japan, knowing that ultimately, she would have to leave her country to secure a job in the future. In 2006, she began that transition, moving to the United Kingdom to study at the English National Ballet School. Reflecting on this time, she recalls traveling to the UK for the audition and being awed by the city’s beauty. “It was like everything came out of a movie,” she said.
The scenery wasn’t the only thing that she recalls vividly, there also was a culture shock that she had to adjust to in moving to another country and being exposed to a new language. She studied English in high school but experiencing it in person was a different experience. Communication aside, another jarring experience was adjusting to the food. “One of the hardest things I had to get used to was the food,” she said. “I never cooked for myself in Japan, so that was all new.”
Upon graduating from the English National Ballet School, Yuka was invited to join the Slovak National Ballet in Bratislava, Slovakia. During that time, Oba-Muschiana performed a variety of classical and contemporary ballets, ultimately leading her to receive an offer from Patricia Barker, former Grand Rapids Ballet artistic director, to move to the United States to join the company. Due to unforeseen circumstances obtaining employment authorization, she had to wait one year before moving to the US.
During that time, she moved back home to Japan where she trained intensely and prepared for another international move. Oba-Muschiana shared that she was more prepared to move this time around with years of travel under her belt and having already lived in other countries. What she was not prepared for upon her arrival in the states was readjusting to an American accent versus the British accent she grew accustomed to while living in the UK. “I practiced my accent at home with my roommates,” she laughed.
That type of support, in addition to the support of other company dancers, helped ease the transition further. “I immediately felt like the company was my second home because I saw everyone at the company almost daily, and we worked really closely and we support each other so much,” she shared.
During her 10 seasons with Grand Rapids Ballet, Yuka has performed a variety of principal roles and has graced the stage as a soloist and within the corps de ballet. Among her favorite roles, she enjoyed dancing Aurora from “Sleeping Beauty.” “That was my dream, so it was a big moment for me,” she said. She also has stretched her creative muscles further, choreographing ballets for Jumpstart. One of her favorite choreographic works, “Eriha,” was inspired by her sister’s story of becoming a Geisha.
Drawing further from her family’s work ethic, she shared that her attention to detail and ability to work hard has always helped her onstage. “We are here to make a magical moment on the stage,” she explained. “We are here for you to escape and we work very hard to the moment.”
And her hard work and dedication are apparent. “Yuka is one of those dancers who can really do it all,” said James Sofranko, artistic director at Grand Rapids Ballet. “For instance, she can easily shift between the Sugar Plum Fairy in ‘The Nutcracker,’ the lead role in Alejandro Cerrudo’s contemporary ‘Extremely Close,’ and Danielle Rowe’s emotional duet ‘For Pixie.’”
Adding to her ability to transition between roles, Yuka shared that she loves dancing any Balanchine works, portraying classical ballets, while also extending into contemporary works like “Extremely Close.” Whichever ballet she is working on, Yuka shared that her ultimate goal is to give everything to that moment, and doing so makes her feel alive.
“I know that Yuka will give each role 100% effort, putting attention into every detail, character, phrasing, and expression,” said Sofranko. “When we found ourselves down a dancer for the filming of our ‘Nutcracker Experience,’ Yuka jumped into the corps de ballet role in Waltz of the Flowers without hesitation and saved the day with a smile on her face.”
Looking ahead to the upcoming season, Oba-Muschiana shared her excitement to return to performing for a live audience. “We train our whole lives for so many hours and we only show the audience a few minutes,” she explained. “We bloom on stage for such a short time, and I focus on how I can make them smile. It’s always about the audience, so please come see us,” she exclaimed.
Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month takes place annually throughout May and aims to recognize the contributions and influence of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans to the history, culture, and achievements of the United States.
In recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AANHPI), Grand Rapids Ballet celebrates our dancers from within AANHPI communities.
Born and raised in Gunma, Japan, Yuko Horisawa joined Grand Rapids Ballet as a company dancer in September 2019. As she prepares for her third season, she looks back at her journey adjusting to life in the United States, reflecting on her experience moving away from Japan at an early age, taking a brief hiatus from ballet, and ultimately following her passion for performing, leading her back to ballet where she graces our stages here in West Michigan.
Horisawa began her training at age three with the Reiko Yamamoto Ballet School in Japan. Her early training built on musicality and ballet fundamentals until she transitioned to more serious training when she was 10 years old. She later left her home country at age 17 when she moved to Germany to study at the John Cranko School in Stuttgart. While there, she studied ballet while also completing her academic studies. It was a stark contrast to the training she was used to receiving back home. “In Japan, I was more expressive on the stage and really danced,” she shared. The transition was difficult for Horisawa as she balanced her passion for classical ballet and completing her academic pursuits.
After completing her education at the John Cranko School, she moved back to Japan where she decided to put a pause on her dance career. “Ballet life was really strict, and I was working hard,” she explained. After rigorous training, both with ballet and academics, Horisawa was looking for more opportunities to spend time with family and friends. “I wanted to be an ordinary girl and do normal things,” she said with a laugh.
During those two years away from ballet, she was invited to attend performances, and over time she started to dance again, little by little, and by age 24, she was ready for a full return. She began auditioning at companies across the globe, understanding that, for her, the most likely path was accepting a job outside of her country.
“It’s difficult to get a job on the other side of the world, in a different country,” she said. “Many people cannot get in a job in another country, especially in the US, it’s difficult to do.” She was elated to receive a text from James Sofranko, artistic director at Grand Rapids Ballet, offering her a position at the company. “Thank you, James!” she exclaimed.
Adjusting to life in the United States presented a new round of challenges as she became attuned to life in Michigan. “I was used to taking trains everywhere, and there are no trains here,” she said. “I didn’t even have a car!” In addition to the logistic issues she was working through, she shared that it was intimidating adapting to the language. While she studied English in school and spoke it while living in Germany, it was a very different experience acclimating to the nuances of language here.
“When Yuko first came to Michigan from Japan, she did not speak a lot of English, so we had to communicate mainly through dance,” said Artistic Director James Sofranko. “Dance is our common language and it’s amazing how you can actually get to know someone through dance, almost better than by conversing.”
Communicating through movement is key for Horisawa as she takes on roles and personas in various works at the ballet. “I wish people knew that I am a very sensitive person through my dance, more than appearances make you believe,” she shared. “I express myself more naturally in front of an audience and wish they could see my personality.”
During her past two seasons with Grand Rapids Ballet, she has performed in a variety of works, including Romeo and Juliet Pas de Deux, A Dreamer, and The Nutcracker, among others. Reflecting on her time here, she said that joining Nutcracker in 2019 was the most difficult. “I had little experience dancing in a company,” she said. With more time under her belt now, and many after dancing many roles, Horisawa shared her favorite role so far was dancing “dream” Clara in the Nutcracker, journeying through the Land of the Sweets.
“Yuko has a small frame, but a large presence and she may surprise you with the pyrotechnics that can come out of her on stage,” said Sofranko. “I’m glad that she has chosen to make Grand Rapids Ballet her home.”
In preparation for the 2021-22 season in August, she is taking well-deserved time off, traveling back to Japan for the summer where she looks forward to spending time with friends and family, playing with her cats, Eren and Mina, and eating plenty of Japanese food.
Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month takes place annually throughout May and aims to recognize the contributions and influence of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans to the history, culture, and achievements of the United States.
I first met cellist Jordan Hamilton at an ArtPrize event in 2019, where he was playing on a rooftop, of all places! I could tell he was a classically trained musician, but he was also using a loop pedal and other electronic sound enhancements. It reminded me of an idea I had years ago, about looping dancers’ movements, and this year our all virtual season seemed like the right opportunity to explore this concept. Jordan was quickly on board, and I spoke to Sloan Inns of SALT Creative Studios, our video partner for the season, and he started investigating ways to design the video setup.
I decided to project an image onto a screen located on the stage, so that the dancers could interact with the images, whether they be live or looped. Jordan would set up downstage left. It took some experimentation, and before I started making up any steps, Sloan, John Ferraro (company and facilities manager), and Mellissa Slack (production stage manager) tried an initial setup in the theater so I could wrap my head around what I would have to work with. The image projected to the screen on stage left could either be from a live feed from a camera focused on stage right, a looped recording, or another live feed from a second camera, located offstage right in the wing. My biggest concern with the looped feed was that it could remain musical, a delay of a second or two after pressing the button would cause the musicality to be off. I ended up using the help of another dancer not cast in the piece, Steven Houser, who ran the buttons and the loops. It really helped that he was able to learn the choreography and press the buttons at exactly the right moments. So after some trial and error, we figured out that what I was hoping for was indeed possible, and I set to work making the choreography.
Jordan’s first song, called “Circuits,” is actually in a time signature of 7, so I made up numerous phrases in 7. Because I knew some of these phrases would be “looped” I told Julia and Yuko to enter the frame of the camera after 1, and they had to leave before 7. That way when the video looped, you wouldn’t see the dancers ‘jump’, it would just appear as if they ran off camera and immediately back on again. Or alternatively, I made sure the dancers started and began the phrase of 7 (or a multiple of 7) in exactly the same position, so the loop looked as seamless as possible. It was a task, but sometimes restrictions like that actually make creating steps easier. Much like this season, with limitations come creativity.
The looping was one challenge, but my other camera idea also proved to be another hurdle. We decided to use a GoPro camera, you may know them as the cameras used by skateboarders and mountain bikers, because it is small, durable, and has a good lens range and focus. I wanted the dancers to be able to grab the GoPro and move in and around each other so we could get an “inside” view of the choreography. The result is that you can choose to watch the choreography “live” on the stage, or you can watch the live feed from the GoPro on the projection screen. The dancers had to take care to not jerk the camera, and we also had to “choreograph” the angles and the cord coming from the camera so they wouldn’t get tangled or trip on it; my first time having to choreograph a cord. There were many things to navigate, but again, the challenge is what made it fun and exciting.
In this new world where we are experiencing so much on screens, and at times obsessed with our own images, “Point of You” examines this phenomenon and hopefully offers some new possibilities about what is possible when dance and technology collide.
I hope that you enjoy “Point of You,” it was a lot of fun to create, and I’d like to thank all of the collaborators who helped bring my crazy idea to life. Jordan Hamilton, Sloan Inns, John Ferraro, Mellissa Slack, Steven Houser, and the three dancers: Yuko Horisawa, Julia Turner, and Isaac Aoki.
I am so proud of this organization for pulling together quite a feat in “Collective Force”, nine works new to Grand Rapids Ballet, four of them world premieres, all rehearsed and created with the choreographers via zoom. (Except for “Point of You,” although there was one day when I did rehearse them via zoom too!) The variety of choreographic styles and voices is a testament to the talents of the dancers of Grand Rapids Ballet, and I hope that these works showcase our ballet company as something truly remarkable.
When our Nutcracker performances got canceled at Los Angeles Ballet, I, of course, had to deal with the emotional reaction. But I also had to worry: How was I going to pay my rent?
The pandemichas opened my eyes to financial wellness—it took a crisis for me to understand that I wasn’t prepared for one. With the pandemic, I realized that I had not been saving and spending in a way that was thoughtful. I was paying bills and whatever else came up in the moment, but I had no eye on saving for the future or in case of emergency.
Knowing that many dancers live paycheck to paycheck, I wondered how artists I know have sustained long-term careers, or how they’ve made big financial moves, like buying a house. It seemed impossible to me! Considering everyone, especially now, has different situations with expenses and income, I wanted to find out how some dancers have made their budgets work for them in order to save, even amid long layoffs or while working gig to gig.
Many dancers start working at a young age, and often haven’t lived on their own before or accounted for their own expenses. Chelsea Paige Johnston, a freelance dancer in Los Angeles and a former soloist at Los Angeles Ballet, began learning how to budget when she became a trainee at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. “I was paid only in pointe shoes and performance stipends,” Johnston says. Her parents, who had to help her cover living expenses at the time, taught her how to organize her finances into categories, including rent, utilities, health care, gas, groceries and savings. She’s maintained this practice throughout her career, even as her income and expenses have fluctuated.
Rebecca Eve Selkowe, financial wellness counselor at The Actors Fund and author of Dominate Your Debt: A Work & Play Book, recommends starting as Johnston did to collect as much information as possible about your income and spending habits—while staying judgment-free and patient with yourself. “I keep artists who work with me in the gathering-information phase for as long as possible,” she says. “We create a profit-and-loss sheet by looking at our spending history for the last six months, assigning a category for every transaction, and then finding the average for every category. Then you would do the same for your income sources.”
Grand Rapids Ballet dancer Alexandra Meister-Upleger uses an Excel spreadsheet to create an expected budget and to log her expenses each month. This allows her and her husband (also a dancer) to seeexactly how much money they’re spending and where it’s going. They sought additional budget guidance from money-management expert Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University course. “It takes a lot of time to get good at creating an accurate budget,” says Meister-Upleger. “At first, we were often underestimating how much everything costs. Now I have a much better idea.”
After tallying your expenses and income comes the harder work of balancing the two: Do you have enough money to cover your expenses and meet a personal-savings goal? Balancing your profit and loss can help you prevent missing bill payments and accumulating debt. Of course, the pandemic makes doing so more challenging, with many dancers facing furloughs and pay cuts.
Some have addressed this is by cutting costs, such as moving in with roommates or their parents. Meister-Upleger says that while she was collecting unemployment over a stretch of the pandemic, “we made a very conscious effort to save anything we didn’t use on expenses. We tightened the budget up and weren’t buying anything we didn’t need.”
Others have pivoted to find other sources of income while keeping expenses low—for example, I started freelance writing and performing in virtual gigs. Johnston has booked online performances while also working as a demonstrator for virtual classes. This is where Selkowe’s advice about being patient with yourself becomes key, since we all know it is frustrating to work hard and still struggle to close the gap.
The Actors Fund’s Financial Wellness programs incorporate education on budgeting, investing basics and taxes, as well as exploring the mental side of financial security. “The ‘wellness’ piece has to do with your relationship with money,” Selkowe says. “Are you engaging with your money? When it comes to your finances, are you practicing all the things it takes to be in a good relationship, like kindness, patience and honesty with yourself?”Because of the pandemic, all The Actors Fund’s programming, which is specifically tailored to artists, is now offered online and is free for performing arts professionals. Dancers nationwide can sign up for single-session workshops and six-week programs, including the Psychology of Money and Managing Cash Flow.
Having a realistic gauge of your finances can help lower anxiety related to it. “I can’t express how much less stressed I am from keeping our budget,” says Meister-Upleger. After a serious concussion, she was able to stay afloat and pay medical bills thanks to an emergency fund she had built up. “It was very sad to see the savings account emptied, but it was such a relief we didn’t have to worry about how to pay the bills. I was able to focus on getting better.”
Johnston reevaluated her budget after leaving company life to become a freelance dancer. “Before, I used to add up and portion out by month my total anticipated earnings for each season to set up my budget for the year,” she says. “Now, I have to plan ahead more and be open to a cycle of saving and seeking financial support.” She uses a mobile app provided by her bank to stay in touch with her spending—most major banks allow you to view your monthly statements and set budget alerts.
Other Resources and Savings
The pandemic has made a lot of dancers think about other financial resources. “[As a freelancer,] I’m paid inconsistently and unpredictably,” Johnston says. “Now, with jobs canceled or indefinitely postponed and the changing availability of government assistance, I’ve had to take things week by week instead of planning further out into the future.”
As a dancer, your budget most likely will be cyclical, but in the thick times, make sure to put some money in savings. Even putting aside $5 a week is a step in the right direction—it sets the intention of saving, and you can adjust the amount as you get used to the practice. A well-maintained savings account could work in tandem with aforementioned assistance during a crisis, and hopefully lead to stability in the future. “You can take hold of your own financial destiny,” says Meister-Upleger, “if you start to save what you can and try to keep your expenses low.”
While a global pandemic may have changed the way we celebrate the holidays this year, some traditions remain sacrosanct, even essential, to the Christmas season.
So when the Grand Rapids Ballet was determined to produce a virtual staging of The Nutcracker, they turned to local creative production studio, SALT, to help them create a uniquely intimate experience that would delight viewers from ballet aficionados to newcomers.
In this special installment of Made in Frame, we’ll peek behind the curtain to see how SALT used Blackmagic cameras, the beta version of Resolve 17, Adobe Premiere Pro, and Frame.io to deliver some much-needed holiday magic to the ballet company—and to a community challenged by the events of 2020.
A shared creative vision
SALT, the production company founded by director Sloan Inns and his wife, producer Jenna Inns, are neither strangers to dance films nor to rallying around their community.
In 2017, they created a new style of dance movie with Dust. Their lead dancer performed tirelessly throughout the 18-hour shoot, and in the following year of post-production, Sloan carefully retimed the performance to a new musical score. The result? A mind-bending viewing experience as the dancer appears to dance in both real time and slow-motion while staying on beat.
The artistic vision for the film was intended to inspire those struggling through life. That’s why it’s no surprise that when the pandemic hit Grand Rapids hard, SALT, along with Cre8gency, jumped in to document the community’s heroic response in a film they called GR Strong. Brewers went from making beer to hand sanitizer. West Michigan companies like Whirlpool manufactured ventilators instead of kitchen appliances. Restaurant owners fed the many people who were out of work while church volunteers delivered food to the elderly. And Sloan and Jenna armed themselves with masks and hand sanitizer to capture the historic effort.
The Grand Rapids Ballet website succinctly states a similar mission: Michigan’s only professional ballet company is committed to lifting the human spirit through the art of dance. That’s why it’s also no surprise that GR Strong contains clips of the dancers demonstrating their appreciation for the many frontline workers by creating uplifting performances delivered via Zoom.
The Ballet had already committed to keeping the season going in some form, and Jenna and Sloan had previously worked with them on one performance. “Then, in May or June, they contacted us to discuss how we could do The Nutcracker,” Sloan says. “We had to figure out not just how to create a show that would be fresh and new for at-home viewers, but also how to stay true to the essence of the ballet without being able to have all the dancers together on stage.”
Sloan and Jenna, both dance lovers, were familiar with the way shows like So You Think You Can Dance and The World of Dance take the approach of showing not just the performances but also going behind the scenes to document the dancers’ lives, their practices, their challenges. “You get to know the dancers as people,” Jenna says, “and you form a connection with them that goes beyond dance.” “It makes you feel like you’re rooting for them,” Sloan adds.
Partnering with Artistic Director James Sofranko, the like-minded creatives settled on a similar performance/documentary approach for this production, going backstage with everyone from the dancers to the choreographers and stagehands and wardrobe people. But the biggest challenge was creating the illusion that all the dancers were on stage together, performing a large-scale ballet while remaining safely distanced.
As a director-editor who actively seeks out new creative challenges, Sloan worked with Sofranko to devise an ingenious approach. There was no real way to prepare for this extraordinary production, but the Ballet had a recording of a 2019 rehearsal that they shared with SALT to help them work through the methodology.
The stage was divided into distinct zones, and the dancers were grouped into “pods” of four or five dancers each, with each pod bubbled separately throughout the rehearsal period and the shoot. Each pod performed their portion of the dance in their delineated zone, never interacting with others. After all the pods performed their parts, they would be composited together to create the illusion that they were all dancing together on stage.
Using Blackmagic Design 4K cameras, Sloan and Jenna captured five different views and angles. One camera was mounted directly over the stage to capture the bird’s eye view; one was locked down in the auditorium to capture the wide master shot; one captured a medium shot; one was attached to a slider; and one was set up for the close angles.
“We had five cameras rolling over the course of seven days,” Sloan says. “It took a long time, because when each pod was done we had to take a 15-minute break to ventilate the air before the next pod could come in. The Nutcracker is all about having a lot of people on stage for the big numbers, and we were only able to do small groups at a time.”
Because of the need to keep the pods separate, there are whole dance numbers that had to be broken up across several days of shooting, meaning that post-production would require meticulous choreography, as well. And then there was the behind-the-scenes component, directed by Jenna, which they shot with a Blackmagic Pocket 4K and a GoPro 7. “There are moments when the dancers are coming off the stage, breathing heavily, and we wanted to be able to capture that immediacy and get a snippet of how they’re feeling,” Sloan says. Jenna also felt it was important to capture the love and respect the dancers share with one another, and how it imbues their artistry with magic. “Those bits really added some gold in the edit,” Sloan says.
You can’t have a ballet without music, so the team also needed to film the Grand Rapids Symphony. “The only way we could do it safely was without the dancers so that the orchestra could spread out onto the stage [rather than in the close quarters of the pit] and we filmed them for two days and captured two takes of the entire score. In the final program, we cut back and forth between the dancers and the orchestra, so that they’re a part of the performance, as well.”
An athletic process
The first challenge was to organize the nearly 9 TB of footage. Sloan had editor Chad Kramer working remotely on Adobe Premiere Pro to focus on the BTS footage, while he concentrated on building the performance. Because they’d shot in 4K RAW 5:1 (to give themselves the ability to reframe or zoom in) and the files were so massive, Sloan decided to work with the beta version of Resolve 17 for its new support of proxy workflows during the offline, and then graded and mastered HD deliverables for the 60-minute show.
As Sloan assembled the performance segments, he’d upload them to Frame.io for Chad so that he could then build the narrative around the performance. “It’s not just a continuous block of dancing. For example, we have one section where the men are warming up for the Russian dance,” Sloan says. “They’re pushing their bodies and jumping and lying on the floor and we really get a sense of the amount of effort and training it takes—because when you just see them performing it, you can’t fully appreciate how incredibly athletic it is.”
“Essentially, we built the whole show in Frame.io”
Which, in a way, describes the painstaking process of editing this program. Sloan shared all the performance footage with Sofranko and the Ballet through Frame.io so they could pick the best bits. “Frame.io has been incredibly helpful with this,” he says. “I’m not able to be there with the Ballet, but I can share every single take with them. They’re able to leave very specific comments on the actual performance. Things like, ‘This doesn’t quite work because her arm isn’t in the proper position.’ Working on the snowflake dance, for example, we had 110 notes on just that sequence. They’re very particular about the way the dancers are edited, so it’s been a really good system for us.”
That sequence also required a lot of compositing, which Sloan was able to easily achieve in Resolve without having to do any frame-by-frame rotoscoping. “We used Power Windows and feathering to isolate and track, say, a foot that may have crossed over into another pod’s, and just by moving the window around it worked out really well.”
Sloan never actually sat in the room with Chad, and only had one in-person edit with Sofranko during the post-production process, so they relied heavily on the Resolve and Premiere integrations in Frame.io to exchange everything from assets to cuts. “Essentially, we built the whole show in Frame.io,” he says.
A storybook ending
It almost, but not quite, goes without saying that staging one of the most elaborate ballets in a company’s repertoire during COVID is a monumental undertaking. But what Sloan and Jenna also wanted to convey was just how high the stakes were for the Ballet as a company and for the dancers as individuals.
“There are bigger companies than the Grand Rapids Ballet who shut down the whole season,” he says. “A lot of people don’t know this, but The Nutcracker is the biggest single source of ticket sales for most ballet companies, so it’s essential to funding the rest of the season.”
Another reason why the Grand Rapids ballet wanted to be able to keep their dancers fit and working is that the career of a dancer is short, and losing out on a full season (or potentially more) could be devastating to them professionally. “These are elite athletes who had to find ways to stay in peak form during quarantine,” Sloan explains. “Without having the ability to go to the studio for classes or to gyms they had to stay in shape by having classes over Zoom, basically, in their living rooms.”
On a personal level, the lives of dancers can be somewhat isolating to begin with—the long hours of classes, rehearsals, and performances are far from the standard 9-5 job—so the company often functions as a kind of family or community, especially for dancers who come from other countries. “These dancers aren’t from Michigan,” Sloan says. “They’re from Cuba and Japan and the Dominican Republic and San Francisco. To be further isolated by being quarantined or bubbled makes it even harder for them.” And yet, the joy they experienced by being able to participate in this production came through in this piece. “There was one dancer who didn’t know if this would be her final season as a result of COVID, so she was so happy to have this opportunity to perform again,” Sloan says.
In the end, The Nutcracker video production serves as a metaphor for what every ballet company experiences on a daily basis. The dancers look so perfect, the productions so lush. Non-dancers who attend ballets have little idea of how hard the dancers train, the discipline and focus the profession demands, the sacrifices they make for their art.
Watching this Nutcracker, you would have no idea how carefully this was planned, how challenging the performance was to execute, how much material Sloan and the team had to cull down, how he was only once in the same room with his client after shooting concluded, and how seamlessly it all came together.
If there’s anything that 2020 has demonstrated, it’s that creatives will find ways to create—and that innovators will find ways to use technology to create new experiences and establish new traditions.
Grand Rapids Ballet School Director Attila Mosolygo and student Maya Olthouse; photo by Scott Rasmussen
By John Ferraro, Company & Facilities Manager
With our theaters dark this year, we needed to find another way to bring the holiday magic of The Nutcracker to the families of West Michigan. To paraphrase Nelson Mandela: “We never fail; we either succeed or we learn.”
This year we did both.
First, we established protocols for safety and we instituted cleaning and sanitizing regimens for our facilities at Peter Martin Wege Theatre and Meijer-Royce Center for Dance.
We divided the dancers into small, exclusive groups of two to five people and we began to rehearse, in separate studios, via Zoom throughout the day. It was beginning to come together. The dancers learned to perform the beloved choreography of Val Caniparoli wearing masks and everyone was admirably diligent maintaining safety and sanitization protocols.
When it finally came the time to film this unique production with our amazingly talented video partners at SALT Creative Production Studio, it may not have been the same energy that normally accompanies the opening of The Nutcracker, but it was most certainly exciting.
We laid out nearly 1,000 feet of cable connecting computers, four cameras, switchers, and audio. We designed lighting specifically for filming which is very different than lighting for a live performance.
Company dancer Sarah Marley; photo by Scott Rasmussen
The dancers learned how to put themselves in the story and stay in the moment even though the choreography may have been out of order and broken into short little sections they did over and over. As I sat behind a camera for a week of filming, I watched the dancers adapt, adjust, and rise to the challenge—as dancers do—to make the best production possible. Their commitment and determination was inspiring.
With a skeleton film crew, masked and distanced from the dancers, they were able to perform on stage with their pod mates without masks so we could capture all the emotion in their faces. Movie magic brings the scale and splendor of The Nutcracker Experience to life on our small stage.
Through all the trials and challenges, we learned new ways to do things, new techniques, and technologies that will undoubtedly serve us well in the future even when things are ‘”back to normal.” That is the gift of The Nutcracker Experience this year. The things we are learning and the skills we are developing as a company and individually so we can continue to bring ballet, our passion and our mission, to the people who support Grand Rapids Ballet. Enjoy and happy holidays!
“Tickets” are only $15 and you can watch the performance online as many times as you like December 18-27. Purchase access today here.
Presented by Meijer | Hosted by WOOD-TV eightWest’s Rachael Ruiz & Jordan Carson | Choreography by Val Caniparoli | Set and production design by Chris Van Allsburg & Eugene Lee | Music composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky | Music performed by Grand Rapids Symphony
As citizens in a non-profit organization serving West Michigan, we believe justice means accountability for our actions from our community, our leaders, and ourselves. The death of Breonna Taylor—a Grand Rapids native—demonstrates the need for this accountability. We stand with her family in their quest for justice and with the countless others who have been the targets of systemic racism and police brutality.
Grand Rapids Ballet denounces white supremacy in all its forms and pledges to do our part to end systemic racism in our community. Our Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee is comprised of board members, staff, and dancers, and is committed to examining our efforts, seeking out all voices in our community, and creating actions to be a more inclusive, diverse, equitable, and accessible cultural organization.
If you’d like to join us in voicing this strongly held belief — that Black lives matter — here are some excellent resources to help you engage. Thank you.
• Donate to the official GoFundMe for Breonna Taylor, set up by her family. Though they’ve already far exceeded their goal of $500,000 (they’ve fundraised more than $6.7 million to date), every dollar raised in her honor counts.
• Donate to the Louisville Community Bail Fund to help provide bail assistance for those who are unjustly arrested as they take to the streets to protest her death.
• Donate to the Loveland Foundation, an organization that aims to prioritize access, opportunity, and validation for young Black women and girls across the country.
• Visit JusticeForBreonna.org to see a list of more actions you can take. The website also lists demands for the city of Louisville, from dropping charges against Taylor’s boyfriend to eliminating no-knock warrants.