"Sweet Sorrow, A Zombie Ballet" in 2019 / Photo by Jessica Peralta
Zombies, witches and werewolves glide back onto stage with the return of Leigh Purtill Ballet Company’s Sweet Sorrow, A Zombie Ballet to a live stage production.
This year, the company swaps out the entirely virtual format implemented for 2020 with a hybrid of physical and digital performances. Sweet Sorrow hits the stage at the Madrid Theatre in Canoga Park on Saturday, Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 17 at 4 p.m.
The company will also stream a special recording on Halloween weekend for those who can’t make it to the live performance. In a time of great uncertainty in the theater community, this small non-profit that has made it a mission to make ballet for everyone — including horror lovers — has persevered.
Artistic Director Leigh Purtill took some time off from her busy teaching schedule to answer our questions about how the company and Sweet Sorrow have survived to rise once again.
HalloweenEveryNight: When did you decide this year’s show would go on?
Leigh Purtill: For most of the spring, we were waiting for the theaters to make a decision of whether they would open or not – and if so, when. Last year, several closed and never reopened, which was really a loss for everyone. As the COVID numbers in Los Angeles began to drop and vaccinations looked like they would change the landscape, we started to make plans. Of course, because of the long rehearsal process, we had to cast the show in May, schedule rehearsals in June and begin rehearsing in early July, which meant we had to go on faith that there would be some theater open and available to us (and affordable!). Last year we did Sweet Sorrow as a short film, which we shot outdoors at Griffith Park and earlier this year, we did a June performance, which was shot outdoors and remotely and then streamed online. We knew we could do something like that if necessary but we really hoped we would be on a stage with an audience.
HEN: What was the process like of adapting this year’s performance to COVID safety protocols?
LP: Only half the zombies are shambling onstage! To keep distance between my dancers and maintain their safety, as well as their personal comfort level of being too close to each other, I first cut the number of dancers who would be on the stage at any one time in half. For instance, only three witches instead of five, 10 zombies instead of 16, etc. Also, I chose not to do a final battle scene which, in the past, had up to 18 dancers on the stage at once. This made a huge difference in terms of my storytelling. But it also allowed me to get more nuanced with the characters and bring more of their backstories to the stage.
HEN: How will this year’s performance work logistically?
LP: We have local dancers who will be performing onstage and we also have remote dancers who have recorded themselves performing in their home locations, which will be edited into two short films and shown at the theater as part of the show. Audiences can attend either of the shows on Oct. 16 and 17 if they are in the area and want to see it in person or they can see an edited version that will be streamed online on Halloween weekend.
HEN: You’ve expanded your reach because of the pandemic?
LP: Creating a remote arm of the company was definitely a silver lining of the pandemic. I had always wanted to expand the company beyond the immediate Los Angeles County area because we knew there were dancers in other areas of the country (and the world) who would be excited to perform – but I had no idea how to do that. Once I had the ability to connect to dancers online via Zoom and YouTube Live, the possibility of bringing dancers aboard who were thousands of miles away became tangible.
HEN: What challenges have you and the company faced in the past 1 1/2 years?
LP: There is a natural attrition from year to year, especially when you have members who are adults: They change jobs, marry, have families, move and so on. Although we expect a certain turnover, it was surprising how many dancers made major life changes – happily for the better for them (babies and new jobs are great life choices).
Perhaps the biggest challenge has been keeping the community going. Our dance community thrives on people coming together to exchange ideas, encourage and motivate each other, and of course, move together. The pandemic kept everyone apart, physically and psychologically. It takes a lot of effort to dance when you’re by yourself. It’s hard to instruct dancers in choreography when you’re looking at them in a small box in their kitchen. It gave me so many headaches!
I’m very proud of all the short films and Zoom rehearsals we did in the past 18 months. The dancers worked so hard and kept the community going online and when possible, in outdoor settings. We have been slowly getting back to our usual activities, but nothing is routine. Every rehearsal, class and meeting requires a lot of thought and planning.
HEN: What has been the most challenging part of running a nonprofit ballet company during COVID?
LP: A nonprofit like ours survives on donations and grants. During the pandemic, many arts grants were put on hold and donations, which are often made when individuals or organizations see us perform or when we do outreach, were minimal. Without those opportunities to get in front of the public – and this includes appearances at horror conventions, film festivals and schools – it was hard for us to show people what we can do and what their donations will support.
The online fundraisers were unique, I believe. We didn’t have the budget that large professional companies have so we had to be strategic in our approach. We shot in inexpensive yet impressive settings like Travel Town and the vintage carousel at Griffith Park. We used the online platform to our advantage and aimed our work at entertaining (and hopefully inspiring) our virtual audience. We were able to raise enough funds to rent a theatrical venue for Sweet Sorrow!
HEN: What made you want to bring back ballet to the public during this challenging time?
LP: The stories we tell are unusual for ballet. They are theatrical and dramatic, but they are also fun and engaging. They allow people to lose themselves in something different for a couple of hours. Our ballets don’t require people to know how to dance or the history of ballet; they don’t need to understand the historical context of La Bayadere or the impact the composer of Swan Lake made. We want to remind people that art is accessible to everyone and that it will go on in some form or another, no matter what is happening in the world. It truly connects us all.
HEN: How has this past 1 1/2 years impacted and changed how the company runs?
LP: The biggest change for me has been in terms of how I teach choreography. In the past, I could create on the bodies in the studio. I could come in and give them a movement phrase and say, “Show me what that looks like.” And then we would create together. But because everything was online, I had to choreograph the dances from week to week, record myself doing them and describing the movement, then post it to YouTube for the dancers to study before we would rehearse over Zoom on the weekends. So it made me become much more efficient in my work, more deliberate in my word choice.
Concurrently with that has been the ability to rehearse with dancers anywhere. Because we can be on Zoom, I can rehearse on a Friday night with dancers from the West Coast and East Coast. Zoom is a special gift to parents who don’t have child care, to Los Angelenos who can’t travel across the city in time for class or rehearsal, to someone who isn’t feeling well and doesn’t want to risk infecting their fellow company members. It’s opened up more ways to being a company member and keeping our group as inclusive as possible. It gives us new opportunities to make ballet for everyone.
We’ve also had to increase our online presence because that was all we had so we are much more social media savvy. This has emphasized the visual aspect of our work, which is great, and it’s also allowed us to connect with other dancers and groups all over the world. Last winter, I produced a mini-Nutcracker online with groups from Toronto and Peru and choreographed a pas de deux with two dancers in Tennessee! That would never have occurred prior to the pandemic.
HEN: What have you learned?
LP: Anything is possible. Also, prepare for the worst. Have plans A through Z, and understand that pivoting is the new reality.
HEN: Given the events of the past 1 1/2 years, has the meaning of Sweet Sorrow taken on new significance?
LP: In past seasons, the themes of the show have always been “love conquers death” (the Romeo and Juliet characters) and “choose life” (the Rosaline and Benvolio characters). But this year, as I mentioned, the show is far more nuanced. The Apothecary is not simply “evil” but instead tries to right a wrong she didn’t realize she made. Rosaline – chasing a potion – is tempted not just to find Romeo and Juliet in the afterlife but to claim the power to affect change. Characters who refuse to accept reality suffer the most. It’s not difficult to see how these emerging themes reflect our own current situation and that of what we have been through over the past 18 months. I’m seeing lots of elements in the storytelling that I hadn’t intended but most definitely echo the pandemic.