Arts & Culture

Modern Ballet Pivots to Virtual

A Q & A With John Welker, Managing & Artistic Director of Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre

One silver lining to all of the drastic changes over the past year is the ability to still create and share art with the world around us, even if it’s not live in person. Whether you’re a creator selling handmade treasures on  Etsy or a member of a theatre or dance company performing online, your work has brought joy to so many.

Although nothing beats watching live performances, it is nice we have the ability to shift to a virtual experience, especially if it means keeping each other safe. But, what goes into creating virtual performances? It’s not as easy as you’d think. We spoke with John Welker, Managing & Artistic Director of Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre, to get an insider’s perspective on what it was like creating in the midst of an almost completely virtual year.

How has the pandemic affected programming and how have you shifted to continue moving forward?

The pandemic has affected all facets of our programming. To sum it up, it’s given us a chance to recenter the focus to the possibilities of what we can do in this new, virtual environment. It’s a process that we all find so fascinating. It’s a completely new approach, and it’s been invigorating to find new ways to tell our stories and to get a sense of the limitless possibilities.

Filming and producing will be with our dance company as a permanent fixture moving forward. In all honesty, with live performances, there’s the moment at the end of the production when the audience is gone that leaves us feeling somewhat lost. All of the countless hours of rehearsals leads up to this one performance and when that’s over, it’s done. However, when filming a performance, we are given the chance to reach more people with our art, which includes audiences outside of our typical supporters. It’s both exciting and daunting to think about the amount of people that we could get our art to. Since the production is easily shared, there’s not this one moment where it cuts off. Our art is given a chance for eternality.

What have rehearsals been like during COVID?

Overall, our rehearsals have been good, but it can definitely depend on the day. The physical aspect of wearing the mask is vital to the safety of our dancers. But it can also be an annoyance, especially when you have rehearsals that last all-day. The masks can create a barrier for facial expressions, so it can be challenging when you are playing a character to really bring that person to life behind the mask. Even though they might present new challenges, masks have also helped our dancers in unexpected ways as there’s a physical benefit of increasing stamina and forcing some breath control.

At the end of the day, we as a team, are extremely grateful that we can still come together in a shared environment to lift each other up.

What was it like recording a performance to present virtually? Does it change the energy not having an audience in front of you?

It ABSOLUTELY changes the energy, which is a perfect word for what you feel during a live performance. As dancers, we have spent our entire careers learning how to feed off that living energy from the audience. Now, that has been removed and we are having to get innovative on how to create our own energy while filming the performances. Not only does recording change the energy, it changes how you approach the entire performance. There’s definitely benefits of filming, like more flexibility for reshooting a scene to get it just right. Overall, filming a production is very methodical, which can be good and bad.

Physically, filming can be challenging for the dancers because of the repetition. When you have to shoot the same section six or seven times from different angles, it’s exhausting. Depending on the character you are bringing to life, it can also be emotionally draining. Filming has been a compelling challenge for us.

What do you miss most about live performances?

Definitely the energy of the audience. A live performance provides us as artists, a cumulative moment ]to share our hard work and talent live, with the people who helped us get there. We thrive on the atmosphere and energy that is sparked by the audience.

As I mentioned before, it’s shocking to perform live your whole career and then to have that removed so abruptly. Live audiences provide feedback and they help you feel a sense of accomplishment, so not having that can be hard for me and the other artists. It’s challenging to be motivated without that live give-and-take.  

Tell us about any new successes from this past year.

I often pinch myself because I’m still here, doing what I love. As a company, we survived. My family and I are alive. The world is still turning. That in and of itself is a huge success.

As for professional success, we were able to create a new strategic plan for Terminus. This plan has given us a concrete sense of where to go and how to get there. A top priority within our plan is to increase the diversity throughout the company and school. I'm excited about this because it opens up new opportunities for partnerships and programs. Our most recent announced program CATALYST is educationally focused in partnership with Dance Canvas. Through our partnership, we will be able to provide merit based full scholarships and training to talented and motivated young Black dancers who wish to become professional dancers, and give them an opportunity to succeed and thrive onstage. This is just one of the goals we’ve laid out in becoming a stronger organization moving forward.  Overall, being able to not just have that plan, but to continue on with this strategy is a success.

And of course, we have Marley, our Holiday film. I’d consider it to be our biggest success. We were able to collaborate with so many artists and organizations. It really opened up a new artistic terrain that will lead to open doors and possible future productions and partnerships. Also, just the fact that we were able to provide something to our supporters that allowed them to have some joy in their life as we closed out a pretty hectic year. Being able to give back to those that have helped us get to where we are is something that we as a dance company and organization value.

Anything else you would like to share?

As a Division of the Serenbe Institute for Art, Culture & the Environment, we are extremely grateful to the role that they played in getting us through a global pandemic. We relied and leaned heavily on their leadership as we brainstormed ways to continue providing services with no live productions. Being a part of the Institute was critical in seeing us through the shutdown.

Last year also stressed the importance of relationships. We have relationships with partners that helped us broaden our reach, like Kennesaw State University and Georgia Tech. We have relationships with the artists that we work with. We have relationships with our audiences and the people we serve. 2020 made us extremely grateful for these relationships, not just for how they impacted our organization, but how they impacted our health as individuals and as artists.

Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre is a Division of the Serenbe Institute for Art, Culture, & the Environment.

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