Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Show Goes On

Even a plague can't stop this cadre of artists from performing in San Jose
DANCING WITH MYSELF: Kathleen Gao, a dancer for San Jose's New Ballet, masks up for her performances these days. Photo courtesy of The New Ballet

History is filled with plagues affecting the arts, but no one predicted this one.

On Saturday, San Jose's New Ballet will present a live-streamed production at the Hammer Theatre, a choreographed ballet with dancers wearing Covid-era masks. Human patrons will not attend, but the dance and the musical accompaniment will take full advantage of the Hammer's recent renovations to accommodate high definition, live-streamed events.

The technical production, however, was only part of the struggle. Choreographer Dalia Rawson surmounted all sorts of creative challenges in trying to figure out how to stage a ballet, knowing that her dancers would be required to wear masks. She had to re-imagine what dance would look like.

"I was initially really put off by the idea of creating a ballet where you didn't see people's faces because to me, the face is a really important part of expression," Rawson said. "Obviously, that is a big part of a dancer's instrument, and to take that away, I felt like why would anyone even want to watch it? What does a dancer without a face, or with a mask on their face, mean?"

But as soon as Rawson saw her dancers rehearsing in the studio with masks on, she began to conjure up other components that could work in tandem with the masks. She was reminded of the legendary Kingdom of the Shades scene from Marius Petipa's La Bayadère, set in 19th century India.

In Kingdom of the Shades, the hero smokes opium to ease the heartbreak after his beloved is murdered. In the scene, 32 shades of his beloved slowly descend onto the stage, allowing him to reunite with her in paradise. The "shades"— meaning ghosts or spirits—all wear veiled, drape-like sleeves as they enter the scene. Often performed by itself as a stand-alone work, Kingdom of the Shades is one of the most iconic scenes in the entire repertoire of western ballet.

Without smoking opium, Rawson vamped on that vision, conjuring up red sleeve-like material for her dancers to wear—sleeves that would complement black Covid masks. During a day camp last summer with some young dancers, she workshopped the movements with the masks and red sleeves. The result was enchanting.

"They work together in a way where the mask isn't so jarring, it looks like part of the whole," Rawson said. "When we started working with the movement, I felt like, well, I don't want exactly the Bayadère sleeves. Let's make them longer so they have that scarf effect."

The visuals are somewhat like Chinese silk dancing, but more subtle.

"I like how it complements the mask and I like how it amplifies the dancers' movement," Rawson said. "Anything they do is exaggerated because there's this flail of fabric, that's a few feet longer than their arms. The masks ended up being a jumping off point for that portion of the ballet."

For the music, local composer Peter Colclasure supplied four pieces for string quartet and piano.

One of the pieces was extracted from a larger work about the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam. The other three are separate works. Colclasure played piano in rock bands for years, and now writes chamber music while moonlighting as the accompanist for Mighty Mike McGee's Go Go Gone Show.

The string quartet features San Jose musician Freya Seeburger on cello. Seeburger can be understood as the Charlotte Moorman of San Jose. She's a living local equivalent to the notorious avant-garde cellist and performance artist who attacked all forms of patriarchy, often collaborating with video art pioneer Nam June Paik.

All in all, since the dancers have been rehearsing to horrendous MIDI tracks of Colclasure's music, everyone involved is jonesing to finally be on stage in a real theater with real people again.

Rawson can't wait to get everyone in the same place at the same time.

"Live performed art is such a risk, so many things might go wrong, so many things are unexpected," she said. "But it's the choices the artists make in the moment, the way some things go marvelously right, or some risks pay off, or solutions to unexpected problems are found, in the moment."