They never imagined they’d be away from the stage for so long. At best, they thought the hiatus would last a couple of weeks. At worst, a couple of months.
So at the start of the pandemic, Beckanne Sisk and Chase O’Connell, longtime dancers with Ballet West, capitalized on their rare downtime. They relaxed and watched ballets online. They talked more with their families. And eventually, when it became clear the situation wasn’t going to improve anytime soon, they postponed their June 12 wedding.
When summertime arrived, they got creative. They taught virtual dance lessons from their home in Salt Lake City and learned the struggle of keeping kids entertained through a computer screen. In August, they danced in an outdoor gala at Yellowstone National Park.
As time dragged on, each day was a grave reminder of how fleeting a career in the arts can be — regardless of the many years of practice and sacrifice that have gone into it.
“We learned that we weren’t that essential throughout this whole process,” O’Connell recently told the Deseret News. “That this career could be over by your choice or not your choice any second. We learned to value this everyday. It’s been an eye-opener in that way.”
In the fall, when other major ballet companies in the country were still shut down, Ballet West staged a plan to return in November 2020. Sisk and O’Connell were on board. But for all of their yearning to perform once again and bring art to life, their response wasn’t 100% sheer joy.
“It was just very up and down with how I felt about it. Every day I was like, ‘Should we be doing this?’ Like, if I was an audience member, would I even come?” Sisk said. “We were torn, because we were getting to do what we love and we were so happy to be in the studio and dancing and possibly be getting back on the stage. But then there were always those moments of like, ‘Is this the right thing?’
“There were so many questions.”
That emotional roller coaster is intimately chronicled in the docuseries “In the Balance: Ballet For A Lost Year,” which premiered on May 7. For a month, directors Tyler Measom and Diana Whitten did their best to blend into the background as they roamed the halls and studios, capturing the day-to-day emotions and struggles of the Ballet West company members as they prepared a major comeback after a seven-month hiatus — a return everyone knew was never a guarantee.
‘We’re going to create a show’
There’s a suspenseful feel to the start of the docuseries. The dancers wait in the dark, backstage, as their long-anticipated moment to perform for others arrives.
As the dancers step onto the Capitol Theatre stage, the series cuts to a decidedly less grand scene four weeks earlier, when Ballet West company members were deliberating over Zoom about the logistics of performing during a pandemic.
The rules would be stringent: Dancers would have to rehearse and perform with masks. Choreographers would be severely limited in their creations — with the exception of dancers who were couples/cohabitating, all of the performers had to be 6 feet apart at all times. That limited the number of dancers who could be on a stage at once. The in-person audience would also be limited.
“We’re going to create a show,” Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute says in the the first episode of the docuseries. “Whatever that show is, it’s going to be an interesting and unusual show for 2020.”
A quick look at Ballet West’s social media pages will tell you that the company pulled it off. The docuseries isn’t a mystery in that sense, but it still manages to build suspense as it observes the uncertainty of the time — emotions were especially high as COVID-19 cases were rising in Salt Lake County and a divisive election cycle was in full swing.
No performance was a sure thing.
“Our film could’ve been very, very, very different had it not occurred,” Measom, co-director of the Netflix hit “Murder Among the Mormons,” told the Deseret News. “It was a conflict for these individuals — be they the crew, the ticket takers, the dancers and choreographers. Should we be working during this period? Is art essential and is it necessary, and should we be running around with a bunch of ballet dancers in a building in the middle of a pandemic?”
“At the same time, everyone needs to work to survive, so there’s a lot of conflict there,” Whitten added. “It was fascinating to watch a company roll with this and navigate a totally new way of working under very emotionally-charged circumstances.”
Measom was in the post-production phase of “Murder Among the Mormons” when the Ballet West docuseries fell into his lap. He and his partner, Whitten, are Ballet West fans who leaped at the opportunity to chronicle this historic moment for the company.
“I think anytime you have individuals that have a passion for what they do and are determined to complete a task … you have a compelling story,” Measom said, adding that it was a bonus to watch the dances come to life each day in the studio. “They’re not compensated for the energy, passion and dedication that they give, frankly. ... But they do it because they love it and the world needs it.”
Over nine episodes — Ballet West is releasing one episode on social media every Friday during the spring and summer — “In the Balance” chronicles the dance of an entire organization as it tries to spring back to life. Measom and Whitten specifically follow four Ballet West dancers, the choreographers, the crew, costume designers and more.
All of it leads to opening night.
Sisk isn’t typically one to get nervous on stage.
But after being off the stage for several months — the longest she’s ever gone without performing — the nerves hit. Not to mention there was the added pressure of her performances being filmed for the docuseries.
“The scariest thing was going back on stage,” Sisk said. “And then knowing that they were filming it and that people would see it. I didn’t feel quite as comfortable as I normally do.”
Much of the docuseries’ final episode is spent showing the performances from opening night. Although all of the artists are wearing masks, it’s easy to tell they’re smiling as they face their limited audience and take a bow. For Sisk, hearing that applause was the standout moment of the night, a much-needed reminder that there was still an appreciation for the arts.
Ballet West successfully put on nine live shows in early November. A week after the final performance, Salt Lake County would once again close its performing arts venues — a shutdown that only recently lifted in late March 2021.
That one hit even harder than the first.
But this time, as they sat in their home, spending their days much like they did at the start of the pandemic, Sisk and O’Connell could at least cling to the memory of those recent performances and the affirmative cheers of a live, albeit limited, audience.
”It’s remarkable to see how hard they worked so that so few people could enjoy it because of the circumstances,” Measom said.
“And why they still considered that to be extremely important, for themselves and for the world,” Whitten added. “We spent so much of the past year concerned with what we need physically in order to be safe and to survive, and I think that often was to the detriment of what our soul needs to survive.”