Homemade Studios and Zoom Choreography: How Miami City Ballet Dancers Are Staying in Motion

Renan Cerdeiro in A Dance for Heroes
Renan Cerdeiro in A Dance for Heroes Photo by Alexander Iziliaev
In mid-March, when Miami City Ballet (MCB) principal dancer Jennifer Lauren learned that the company would be closing the studios because of coronavirus, she knew she needed to find a way to keep dancing. The floors of her apartment are slippery concrete — not the safest to dance on — but she remembered that MCB had replaced its studios' Marley vinyl floors last summer.

"There was all this leftover Marley, so I asked, and the stage manager said, 'Of course, have a little tiny piece,'" Lauren says. "It's like three feet by five feet. That was saving me because I can actually dance on pointe a little bit."

She ordered a ballet barre from Amazon and created a makeshift mini studio for herself.

When your job revolves around being physical and dancing in the studio every day, transitioning to staying at home is a big adjustment. Artists like those at MCB have had to get creative in order to stay in shape and feed their appetite for movement.

"It's a little challenging to motivate yourself to get up and do something. I decided to take my time because, especially in the beginning, we didn't know how long this was going to take," says Renan Cerdeiro, another MCB principal. "I'm not putting so much pressure on myself on dancing every day or trying to stay in this perfect shape. There are days that I don't do ballet, I just do a workout or some yoga, or even just long walks along the beach to take my mind off of all the craziness."

Cerdeiro, who shares an apartment with his cat, has found that the wood floors and long hallway give him enough space to do some dancing, though practicing jumps is difficult.

Lauren says once she was home, she began getting teaching requests.

"I'm from Alabama, so I have a lot of people in Alabama that have reached out to me for private lessons and masterclasses on Zoom," she says.

Between that and leading MCB's Instagram Live "Ballet 101" class for four weeks, she found herself teaching nearly every day. MCB also offers a private ballet class to its dancers via Zoom, and the company's physical therapist shares cardio circuit and strength-and-conditioning classes.

"I've been busy in a different way," she says. "It's kept my brain fresh and going, and teaching the Instagram Live really got me out of my comfort zone."

With dancers unable to gather in the studio, rehearsing big pieces together isn't an option. The company's performances of Don Quixote, initially scheduled for April, have been postponed until October. That hasn't stopped them from creating, though.

After the shutdown, artistic director Lourdes Lopez approached choreographer Durante Verzola, a 24-year-old graduate of MCB's school, about creating a work to honor the medical professionals and essential workers on the frontlines of the pandemic. Verzola knew it would be a challenge — the ballet would have to be created and put together via Zoom — but he leapt at the chance.
Verzola created the piece, called A Dance for Heroes, from his home outside Kansas City, where he's quarantining with his parents and five younger siblings.

"I had to actually choreograph the ballet in my parents' bathroom because that's the quietest place in our house," he says. "I had to find creative ways to be able to focus in and work because it was such a different environment than I'm used to."

His process began with choosing a piece of music to set the right mood for the work, settling on "Often a Bird" by the Flemish Belgian composer Wim Mertens.

"I wanted to create something that was a message of hope, that was going to uplift people," Verzola says.

He chose four dancers: Lauren, Cerdeiro, and two pre-professional students, Taylor Naturkas and Erick Rojas, and began setting up individual Zoom calls to teach them the new work one-on-one. Having to communicate through the computer instead of face-to-face presented its own set of challenges. It was trickier to make adjustments or corrections, and they had to work around the constraints of the dancers' homes, including slippery floors and limited space to move.

"I like to really feed off their energy when I'm with them in the studio. You hear their breathing and you see the way that they extend an arm or use their face or their eyes. I like to be inspired by those things and then create the movement that flows out of my body," Verzola says of his typical process. "Having the computer screen, you just can't feel those things as much. But it was kind of amazing to see how much of that can be transmitted across the screen whenever you have such emotive and expressive dancers."

"I had to actually choreograph the ballet in my parents' bathroom because that is the quietest place in our house."

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Lauren, who set up her iPad on a tripod for her Zoom rehearsals with Verzola, adds that it could be tricky to make sure she was using the right leg or arm, because the screen reverses the image of the person you're chatting with.

Alexander Iziliaev, MCB's staff photographer and videographer, attended every rehearsal to record the dancers. After a final Zoom session with everyone to clarify any questions about the steps or musicality, each dancer set up a separate time to go to the studio with Iziliaev and film their parts of the dance. Each piece was later edited together to create the unified work.

Though there's no strong narrative to the piece, Verzola tried to capture some of the experiences of these strange times abstractly, and to show gratitude for the first responders.

"I tried to have the dancers move with a lot of generosity, to represent the sacrifice and generosity of our essential workers," he explains. "I tried to have them move with tons of energy and almost holding nothing back, just as these workers are risking so much to continue working every single day on the front lines."

He also worked with Iziliaev on incorporating the technology to create effects not possible onstage. For instance, Cerdeiro learned two separate solos, and after filming, one could be overlaid on top of the other to make it look as though he's dancing with himself.

"When Renan and his duplicate are dancing, I think that that kind of represents all of us that are experiencing isolation right now: We have these little conversations with ourselves in our head, we're able to reflect," Verzola says.

In another section, Cerdeiro and Lauren appear to be dancing together, though they filmed their parts of the duet separately.

"That's kind of that longing for human connection that we're not able to experience right now," Verzola says.

The piece premieres on MCB's Facebook page tonight, May 8, at 8 p.m.

Both Lauren and Cerdeiro say that quarantine has pushed them to try classes and experiences they might not have otherwise.

"In the daily routine, we don't have time to try different things. You're always preparing for a certain piece, rehearsing for a certain program," Cerdeiro says. "I think it's a good time now to take some time and see what you like, try different things." Online, he has explored the Gaga technique, a movement language founded in Israel.

When MCB dancers can return to the studio full-time, Lauren says she'll see it with fresh gratitude.

"I think it will make all of us appreciate that space a lot more," she says, "and the next time we actually get to perform onstage, I don't even know if I can describe what it'll feel like. I might feel so excited that I fall down — who knows?"

A Dance for Heroes. Premieres Friday, May 8, at 8 p.m. via
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Suzannah Friscia is a freelance arts and culture journalist based in Miami. She has contributed to the Wall Street Journal, Dance Magazine, Pointe, and other publications and earned a master's degree from the Columbia School of Journalism.
Contact: Suzannah Friscia