Instructor Jenna McEwen leads a class of 8-to-10-year-old dancers. (Photo by Lili Adkins)
August 1, 2021
Upbeat instrumental music echoes over the Mendocino Ballet dance floor as a group of young girls runs, leaps, and twirls to the beat with faces adorned with brightly colored masks and feet clad in slippers. They are clearly thrilled to be back in the studio and enjoying the company of their peers. Instructor Jenna McEwen voices encouragement over the music and demonstrates the choreography.
The class, Contemporary Dance for ages eight to ten, is one of the first to be held in person since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. In March of 2020, in the midst of the initial lockdown, Mendocino Ballet was forced to close its doors to all students.
Trudy McCreanor, Artistic Director, was disheartened at the unfortunate news. “My initial reaction was a little bit of shock and realization that everybody was immediately laid off except for me,” she remembers. “We obviously couldn’t teach anymore.”
To add to the sadness of cutting classes short, a long-awaited performance had to be cancelled, a harrowing blow to the morale of the students and the finances of the business. “All those hours that the kids put in, that we put in, were lost.”
Live shows provide an important source of income for the studio, and the inability to perform in front of an audience was a major detriment to its operation.
“It just took us a little bit of time to get our bearings straight about what we would be able to do,” McCreanor says.
Contemporary dancers strike a pose while rehearsing. Photos by Lily Adkins
Online classes via Zoom were eventually decided to be the best option, and they began in July of 2020. Of course, many challenges accompanied this intense transition. First and foremost, enrollment slumped. McCreanor found that children under 12 had little to no interest in dancing in front of a computer screen each week. With that being said, experienced dancers tended to persevere through the struggles of distance education.
“My upper level dancers, I’d say 85%, stayed doing classes on Zoom,” she explains. “That program stayed because those kids had been (dancing) before (the lockdown) and were more dedicated.”
Even the most dedicated of dancers still faced obstacles, chiefly including accessibility to sufficient room for practicing.
“Teaching dance online is really, really difficult, because a lot of the spaces that kids are dancing on can be very small,” McCreanor notes.
Despite these setbacks, however, the studio has had many successes in the last year. Due to the nature of virutal classes, Sacramento-based dancer Sandi Lang was able to join the Mendocino Ballet family as a teacher. McCreanor was grateful and elated to have her on board, even if the classes were far from typical.
Additionally, the studio has been able to host two performances since the lockdown. The first was a combination of two ballets: Paquita and The Nutcracker. McCreanor specifically chose scenes in which few dancers perform simultaneously in order to promote safety while onstage. She took individual videos of each scene, then edited them together into one cohesive movie. The result was uploaded to YouTube, where a virtual audience could watch it.
In the spring of this year, the studio put on another production, Alice in Wonderland. McCreanor worked closely with Kerry Randall from the Ukiah Parks and Recreation Department to find a suitable place for the show. The Alex Thomas Plaza hosted the performance, and an audience gathered to watch in a safely distanced setting. The ballet was very well-received from the attendees, all of whom were happy to enjoy live dance again.
“The comment I heard most often was, ‘Are you going to do this every year?’” McCreanor laughs, but does not dismiss the possibility.
In June and July, Mendocino Ballet offered several two week workshops in an attempt to test the waters of returning to in-person lessons, including the aforementioned Contemporary Dance course. Extensive cleaning regiments and masking regulations insured a safe, smooth, and successful transition. As the fall approaches, McCreanor is excited to welcome back her students for even more live opportunities.
“It feels wonderful,” she says in regards to reopening the studio. “You never know how much you miss being in person with your dancers until you’re not in person with them anymore.”
With a committed team of staff, parents, and dancers, Mendocino Ballet is certainly embarking on a vibrant upcoming season.