How The ‘Zombie’ Ballet Company Keeps Going

Writer/director/choreographer Leigh Purtill talks about the future of her famous zombie ballet (above) and this week's YouTube watch party. / Photo by Jessica Peralta

The Leigh Purtill Ballet Company has had to adapt their plans just like everyone else in 2020. 

First, the company had to postpone their popular fall zombie ballet Sweet Sorrow, but they’ve also had to figure out how to stay connected to fans without being able to perform live for audiences. 

LPBC keeps rolling on with a live watch party for their production Hotel at the End of the World via YouTube at 8 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time June 27.  Also, Purtill continues to lead her daily online classes that are free, but of course, donations are always welcomed. 

Halloween Every Night talked with Purtill about the YouTube broadcast and her plans for surviving.

Halloween Every Night: How did you decide on which play you would show for the watch party?

Leigh Purtill: Last year when Hotel at the End of the Universe debuted, we presented it as the first half of a gala evening which was a wonderful event but were only able to perform it once. With the cancellation of our live fundraiser earlier this May, we thought it might be a great opportunity to present the Hotel video online for everyone to see, both people who missed it and people new to our community. We have a terrific audience for our Sweet Sorrow performances and we hope we can introduce them to this ballet too.

HEN: Why did you make the decision to not hold a live zombie ballet performance this year?

LP: It was a difficult decision to make. We’ve performed this show every year since the company debuted and we intended to do two weekends in 2020, with two casts to accommodate the large company we have this season. However, there are far too many dangers with COVID-19 and we knew we didn’t want to jeopardize the health and safety of our company, our crew and our audience. It was a disappointment to cancel, but also a relief because it would have been heartbreaking if we had proceeded and someone had gotten sick.

HEN: So, Sweet Sorrow has been postponed until 2021, but has there been a decision on a date yet?

LP: We are looking at two weekends next year: October 10-11 and October 17-18. We have a hold on a theater for those weekends and will proceed cautiously – and hopefully.

HEN: How are you staying connected with your fans during this pandemic?

LP: Aside from our upcoming watch party, we are interacting through social media like Instagram and Twitter. Because we believe so strongly in the power of community and our mission of “ballet for everyone,” we have been featuring interviews with some of our company members so that fans, old and new, can get to know us better. We are lucky to have had some remarkable photographers cover us over the years: Raul Paredes (Rawl of the Dead) and Vic Mendoza, whom we met through the horror community, as well as Kathleen Lantos and Clarence Alford, who are talented portrait and action photographers. We love showing off their work too!

We have also been sharing bits of our new work, selections from rehearsals for a brand new steampunk ballet which probably won’t premiere until 2022. That’s been a lot of fun too. We are always building our repertory so even if we can’t perform it live, we can film it and show it online.

HEN: What do you anticipate for the changes in the upcoming years when you are able to perform live again?

LP: It’s probably cliché to say, ‘dancers are flexible’ but it’s true. We not only pivot on-stage but we do so in real life too. Any sort of performance company will need to adapt and be prepared to adjust quickly. 

Although it doesn’t seem like it right now, I do believe there are lots of opportunities to present dance in different ways. I think one of the things that makes our company a bit more flexible than most traditional ballet companies is that we have performed at horror conventions and film festivals, outdoors and indoors. We’ve done flash mobs on concrete floors and zombie-swayed in a lobby filled with journalists and movie patrons. I can’t tell you the number of times I have restaged our iconic Zombie Ballet for different locations, for a surprise floor, a dancer who couldn’t make it…even for a TV soundstage with judges, a band and a host when we did The Gong Show.

I would love to bring our ballet to the community in ways that make it accessible for even more people to see it, whether that means in venues that don’t usually have dance (like an outdoor space) or in smaller pieces to accommodate health and safety concerns. I can see the company performing hybrid productions, perhaps a portion filmed for an audience while another portion is performed outdoors. I know we will get back to traditional proscenium stages too but that will be dependent upon the path the virus takes and how theaters can adapt. 

HEN: Can you explain some of your plans for the upcoming year?

LP: We’re looking at an alternate way to present Sweet Sorrow this fall. We have so many fans who love the show and our dancers look forward to it from the day they attend our company intention — that’s our noncompetitive version of an audition. Ideally, L.A. County will open up enough for us to hold some limited rehearsals in July and August so we can film a condensed, socially-distanced version of the story in an outdoor setting in September which we can then put online in the form of a watch party, much like we are doing now with Hotel at the End of the Universe.

In 2021, if all goes smoothly and we are able to have gatherings of 50 or more in an indoor setting, we will hold a spring fundraiser similar to the one we had to cancel this year. That would include new work from the steampunk ballet, a piece from Hotel and one from Sweet Sorrow. If we can hold it outdoors, so much the better. 

Since all of our appearances were canceled this year, from Monsterpalooza to the L.A. County Fair, we will be looking for opportunities to connect with the horror community whenever possible. And of course, a live production of Sweet Sorrow in October, whether it’s in a traditional theater or an outdoor stage.

HEN: What do you think this Halloween season will be like?

LP: Assuming we are able to keep the virus at bay until the fall, I think we might see some live events that are limited in scope and don’t involve too much personal interaction. So much of what we love when we are at conventions is that up-close-in-your-face scares and startles. When my dancers are zombies, they love playing with people, walking up to them and leaning into them. That’s not possible right now, unfortunately, for my dancers or for any other performer that employs that type of scare tactic, like our favorite slider group, Decayed Brigade. Not only are their appearances startling and scary, their movements are so sudden and come at you out of nowhere, which is what we love about them. 

Hotel at the End of the World watch party, 8 p.m. PDT, Sat., June 27.