Miami City Ballet begins the run of its season opener on Friday, February 11, after pivoting during the pandemic and canceling one of its Nutcracker performances in December.
Swan Lake, composed by Tchaikovsky in 1875, will be the biggest production in Miami City Ballet's history and the North American premiere of Alexei Ratmansky's staging.
"It's going to be extremely rewarding for us," says Nathalia Arja, a principal dancer who plays Odette/Odile in the production. "It already is a victory that we're doing this highly special classical ballet during what feels like a war zone."
And a war zone it has been.
When the coronavirus spread worldwide in March 2020, the company sent its dancers home just as it was preparing to open the season's final program, Don Quixote. The following (2020-21) season was subsequently scrapped and reworked to be staged outdoor and online. Until last summer, most of the company's classes and rehearsals were held virtually.
"Dancing in between your kitchen and living room wasn't ideal," Arja says. "My wall-to-wall neighbor said she felt like she knew ballet because she could hear my classes every day."
The dancers weren't the only ones who were affected. At first, the costume department kept busy by making masks for dancers, donors, and community organizations like Nicklaus Children's Hospital.
"Looking back that time is a daze, but it made us really feel like we were doing something relevant and important," says the costume department's director, Eleanor Wolfe. "It kept us busy until we could get back to costumes."
Wolfe's staff — four seamstresses and a wardrobe master — were furloughed for about two months in the summer of 2020. But by the following September, they'd already begun working on Swan Lake costumes, which Jérôme Kaplan designed. There are over 200.
"This is by far the biggest production Miami City Ballet has ever done," Wolfe notes. The cast consists of more than 50 dancers, including company members, students, and extras. "It's honestly the biggest production we could do."
Wolfe says her favorite costumes are those worn by the white swans.
"There's a moment where they're all running in a circle as big as the stage. I call it the swan hurricane," she says. "It's just a gorgeous stage picture."
Along with the excitement of the start of an in-person season comes a level of uncertainty.
The company returned indoors and in-person to the Arsht Center with The Nutcracker in December but canceled its December 26 performance after someone tested positive. Some rehearsals for Swan Lake in early January were also canceled owing to cases among dancers.
"It's tough to navigate this," says Amber Dorsky, the company's director of public relations and communication. "Putting a performance on is already filled with stress and last-minute casting changes, injuries, or stage malfunctions. Add the worry of our dancers becoming ill, and it's extra challenging. What we want more than anything is to be able to perform safely."
Though the dancers are tested daily, vaccinated, and remain masked while rehearsing, Arja says the virus is always on their minds.
"Every time I go in after the weekend, I'm thinking, Am I going to be positive?" she says. "There's a whole layer that we're thinking about that maybe the audience isn't thinking about. It adds a layer of stress."
On top of all that, Arja says Swan Lake is the most demanding role she has ever played, technically and emotionally.
"Every step, you're showing an emotion. The dancing is part of the acting," she explains. "We hope the audience will feel the excitement and the joy of this hard ballet. We hope they will be just as moved as we are by dancing it."
Miami City Ballet's Swan Lake. 7:30 p.m. Friday, February 11, and Saturday, February 12, and 1:30 p.m. Saturday, February 12, and Sunday, February 13, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $37 to $120.