The Abu Dhabi Festival is ending the year on a graceful note with two shows by the American Ballet Theatre (ABT).
Streamed online on the festival website until Thursday, December 31, both events are co-productions with the venerable dance institution.
Not only do they act as a preview for the Abu Dhabi Festival 2021 major performance programme that will begin in February, but also as a potential way forward to an international ballet scene in flux.
The two shows, The Future Starts Now and The Nutcracker are created specifically for an online audience with dancers undergoing stringent safety measures to prepare for the performance.
Speaking to The National, executive director Kara Barnett says the company drew inspiration from an unlikely source.
"We really looked at what was happening in sports to provide cutting edge ideas and solutions," she says. "We are really interested in what the (US basketball league) the NBA was doing in creating that quarantine bubble in Orlando, so we decided to replicate that on a smaller scale.”
Both Abu Dhabi Festival shows were created in what Barnett describes as a “ballet bubble”. The company’s dancers, choreographers and backroom staff all decamped to the outskirts of New York where a studio was available with nearby accommodation.
After an initial battery of Covid-19 tests, followed by regular checks on site, the company were able to create and record both shows.
Barnett admits some of the dancers were weary of the new set up at the start.
"Perhaps there was some skittishness at the beginning. Being in this intensive residential environment is not the way we usual create work," she says.
"But most of the artists that came out of this experience commented on how unique and incredible it is. Ballet is a team sport so it can't be done in isolation, you draw energy from your peers and colleagues."
Keeping everyone engaged
And that collective strength and character has been tested this year.
Barnett clearly recalls the moment the company came face to face with severity of the pandemic. Landing back in New York after a sold out performance in California, they immediately realised the potentially devastating scale of what was happening.
Days later the company's offices and studios as well as Metropolitan Opera House, the American Ballet Theatre's performance home, had closed and are yet to reopen.
"I remember still hearing the sound of the standing ovations as we flew back," she recalls. "So for all of us, we went from this place of exhilaration to total confusion and then the fear and uncertainty the entire world was gripped with."
One of the company’s major concerns is managing the mental health of performances and staff.
Barnett says the psychological effect for having performance opportunities suddenly taken away can be harrowing.
"I compare it Olympic athletes who had been training for years for that moment and opportunity to reach for that medal, only for it all to be cancelled or postponed," she says. "It is the same thing with us. There have been a lot of dreams, debuts and major roles deferred. So what we tried to is provide opportunities for artists to learn and grow in different ways while keeping everyone connected.”
The digital pivot
In addition to online courses which saw a number of dancers qualify to become ABT certified ballet instructors, Barnett says the company underwent an extensive “digital pivot.”
This included ramping up its online activities with performances, classes and workshops streamed online and on social media channels.
While monetising effectively from these campaigns remains elusive, Barnett says the level of outreach and engagement caused by the digital drive should hold the company in good stead once things return to normal.
"Our traditional galas performances are held at the Metropolitan Opera House. If we sell out that house that would mean 3,800 audience members. When we did our gala online back in May we had over 75,000 people enjoy the programme within the first week of positing it,” she says.
“We are using that data to learn about what works and doesn't and what the audience want to embrace online.”
A new way of telling stories
While nothing can replicate the buzz of a live performance in a packed theatre, Barnett says the digital space offers creative rewards of its own.
Both The Future Starts Now and The Nutcracker are examples of the new terrain the company is presently exploring.
"It is a case of something is lost and something gained. What is lost in a digital performance is that sense of suspense and that magic of the ephemeral," she says.
"But what is gained is the ability to explore different modes of storytelling. What really works on screen is humanity, intimacy and a more personal narrative. The fans will get to know the artists, their stories and motivations."
With The American Ballet Theatre meant to perform as part of this year’s cancelled Abu Dhabi Festival, watching the shows online will be a bittersweet experience for some.
But with both organisations sharing a strong bond, Barnett promises a return to the capital once safe to do so.
"The UAE is doing a tremendous job of controlling the spread of Covid-19," she says.
"While we were planning to visit this past spring, we cherish our relationship with the Abu Dhabi Festival and we look forward to returning.”
The Future Starts Now and The Nutcracker are available to stream at The Abu Dhabi Festival website until Thursday, December 31. For details and the 2021 performance programme, visit abudhabifestival.ae