Last Thursday, New York City Ballet joined a league of performance institutions forced to cancel their current and upcoming seasons amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among the pieces scheduled to appear in City Ballet’s spring season was Christopher Wheeldon’s “This Bitter Earth” — a poetic pas de deux choreographed to a collage of music that fuses Dinah Washington’s vocals and composer Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight.” While preparing for the season, principal dancers Sara Mearns and Adrian Danchig-Waring filmed the work three days before the shutdown to be used in a publicity video.
Now more love letter than promotional tool, City Ballet released the resulting film Thursday.
“As it became clear that we would not be able to open our season on April 21, the footage took on new resonance,” City Ballet said in a statement.
In the film (captured in one continuous take), Means and Danchig-Waring move in and out of shadows on an empty stage. While watching, it’s hard not to think of the stilled, darkened stages across the city.
“Words cannot fully capture the beauty or essence of this moving pas de deux, but for me it speaks to our times,” said Associate Artistic Director Wendy Whelan, who originated the role danced by Mearns in the 2012 premiere of the work. “It honors where we have come from and the challenges we face moving forward into the unknown. The choreography inspires reflection from both its performers and audience and I hope, for you, conveys a peaceful sense of hope for the future.”
On Instagram, Mearns shared that the film now represents “the unprecedented times we are living in.”
She continued: “This [Wheeldon] piece is so special, [not] only because it was made on my idol [Whelan], but because it is pure, it allows me to breathe, and feel whatever I need to in the moment. I hope by watching this, others can be able to feel whatever they need to or want to as well. That is what art is supposed to do, without judgment … and when all this is over, I hope we can all come together to heal by way of this beautiful art form.”
The company’s spring season was scheduled to run for six weeks (from April 21 to May 31) and was set to include world premieres Pam Tanowitz and Jamar Roberts, now both postponed. City Ballet stated it will continue to provide salaries and benefits until what would have been the end of the season, after which the dancers and musicians will face their annual summer layoff. Looking toward an uncertain future, the company launched a special relief fund for the staff.
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“The impact of this crisis on the wellbeing of the entire NYCB community of employees, which includes 100 dancers, 62 musicians, and more than 250 other administrative and theater staff members, will be significant,” Whelan said, continuing, “and we hope that our devoted patrons and audience members will support our relief efforts however they are able.”
As it stands, the company projects a loss of $8 million through the end of the fiscal year, closing June 30. The total includes revenue lost from the spring gala fundraiser.
“While we are devastated to have to cancel the upcoming spring season, the current pandemic has left us with no other choice,” Artistic Director Jonathan Stafford and executive director Katherine Brown said in a joint statement. “We look forward to the time when we can bring the beauty and joy of NYCB’s incredible artists and repertory back to our stages and welcome our wonderful audiences back to the theater.”
Top Image: Sara Mearns in "This Bitter Earth." Photo: Sam Wootton.