At the beginning of 2020, life was carrying on as usual at the ballet and the rest of society. Carmen, which premiered in February, was performed to full houses. At the same time, the news told of a new coronavirus that had originated in Wuhan in China, with fears of it spreading around the world. It wasn’t long until the first cases were found in Europe.
The pandemic stops performances – dancers work from home
In March the situation escalated fast in Finland, too. To prevent healthcare being overwhelmed and excessive deaths, widespread restrictions were adopted quickly. Public gatherings and events, including cultural performances, were completely banned. Working from home was recommended for all industries where physical attendance wasn’t absolutely necessary.
The changes to stop the rapid spread of the pandemic happened suddenly at the Opera House, too. Carmen was scheduled for Thursday 12 March, but a quick decision to cancel the performance and temporarily close down the Opera House was made at only two hours’ notice. It was initially thought that the lockdown would be over within a few weeks, but in the end there were no more performances all spring. That also meant postponing the premiere of Alexander Ekman’s choreography COW.
The staff of the Finnish National Opera and Ballet started to work remotely, and even the dancers continued to rehearse at home. Maintaining fitness levels for dancing was important despite the break in performances. For safety reasons, ballet classes at the Opera House were limited to 10 attendees and live streamed so that dancers could also train at home on their own practice mats supplied by the Opera House. Though the audience couldn’t be invited to the Opera House, recordings of past performances published online at the Stage24 virtual stage became immensely popular.
Face coverings worn at the auditorium and rehearsal rooms
As the pandemic temporarily slowed down in summer 2020, restrictions were eased and performances were resumed in the autumn with careful safety measures in place. Only every other seat of the auditorium was sold to ensure safe distancing, and the audience had to wear face masks. Rehearsals also continued in the exceptional circumstances. The dancers wore face masks, which meant they could only practice for short spells at a time.
Choreographers, instructors and other team members who lived abroad made the situation extra challenging, as international travel was restricted, flights were few and far between, and the constantly changing quarantine requirements made it difficult to come to Finland. Rehearsals were also conducted online despite huge time differences. At one stage, the dancers of the ballet world premiere Jekyll & Hyde were in Helsinki, while the choreographer was in San Francisco and the instructor in Philadelphia.
The premiere of COW, cancelled due to the pandemic in spring, opened the autumn 2020 season of the ballet, followed by the The Pirate – Le Corsaire and Jekyll & Hyde, which was one of the few world premieres during the pandemic and was subsequently picked up by the international media. Case numbers soon started to rise again, however, and the auditorium had to be closed for a second time running.
Performances are postponed but rehearsals continue
Once performances had been stopped in November 2020, ballet rehearsals for the upcoming productions The Nutcracker and the Mouse King and Swan Lake continued. The break in performances went on week after week, however, and the finished works had to wait for the situation to improve. The two contemporary dance choreographies of the Next Steps evening were showcased in a unique way: they both premiered online at Stage24.
Performances eventually started again in August 2021, thanks to reduced infections and improved vaccination coverage. The Sleeping Beauty, which was scheduled first, was performed to only a quarter of the usual audience due to strict safe distancing guidelines. When Spartacus premiered on 1 October, the auditorium could finally be filled to capacity for the first time in approximately 1.5 years. The Nutcracker and the Mouse King returned to the stage after a long absence in November, and the premiere of Swan Lake is planned for January 2022. The pandemic wasn’t over yet, though, and the audience had to show their COVID passports, and a new wave postponed the premiere of the Swan Lake. Potential new waves and variants may still affect future performances for many years.
Text JUSSI ILTANEN
Photos THE ARCHIVES OF THE FINNISH NATIONAL OPERA AND BALLET (Heikki Tuuli, Roosa Oksaharju)
The archives and press releases of the Finnish National Opera and Ballet