WESTBROOK, Maine — The last time the Portland Ballet performed in front of a live audience, the dancers were outdoors, on Thompson’s Point in Portland in September. It was breezy and the dancers were freezing. Most were wrapped in blankets, clutching hand warmers.
Then, a rumbling plane landed at the Portland International Jetport, just across the Fore River in South Portland, totally obliterating the baroque music they were dancing to.
This time, they won’t have any of those problems.
With Gov. Janet Mills’ recent easing of pandemic group gathering restrictions, the Portland Ballet is staging its first inside, in-person performance in over a year on Saturday at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center.
The ballet’s artistic director, Nell Shipman, said she and her company take the pandemic seriously but feel it’s time they got back on stage in front of a live audience.
Taped performances just aren’t the same.
“Performing arts are supposed to be performed live. Otherwise, you miss so much,” Shipman said. “The energy exchanged between an audience and an artist — it’s why we do this. It’s experiencing something in the moment.”
Saturday’s performance is likely the first indoor, in-person theater or dance show in the state.
The ballet company is performing a piece by Shipman inspired by Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”
“It’s loosely based on what we’ve all just gone through,” Shipman said.
From left (clockwise): Dancers with the Portland Ballet rehearse at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center on Wednesday in preparation for their first in-person, live performance since an outdoor show last fall; Grace Koury of the Portland Ballet waits for her cue at a rehearsal; Portland Ballet Artistic Director Nell Shipman talks to her dancers after a rehearsal at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN
In addition to danced references to natures’ seasonal changes, Shipman has added nods to the past year’s pandemic realities. Within the dance are homages to things like panic buying and homeschooling.
“But it’s not a silly piece,” Shipman said. “It’s about human emotions.”
On March 5, Mills announced indoor venues would be able to operate at 50 percent starting March 26. At that time, Portland Ballet was already rehearsing their “Four Seasons” dance, planning to tape it in Westbrook, then broadcast the piece over the internet. They’d done the same for “The Nutcracker” at Christmas. The surprise news felt like an opportunity to Shipman.
“We were already working on it,” she said, “so why not mask up and let people in. We’re ready.”
In complying with the state guidelines, 380 tickets will be available for the 1,000-seat performing arts center. The audience will be spread throughout the house. Both the cast of nine dancers and the audience will keep their masks on throughout.
“We’re trying hard to comply with all the guidelines,” Shipman said. “This is to give people hope, not stress them out.”
Erica Diesl is in her ninth season with the Portland Ballet and can’t wait to get back on stage, in front of an audience, even if that means performing in a mask.
“Basically, that’s life,” Diesl said. “It’s a small sacrifice, if you can even call it that, to do this live.”
The Portland Ballet was formed in 1980. In addition to its company of professional dancers, its affiliated school teaches up to 150 students a year.
Shipman said it’s financially important for the company to start performing live again but it’s not the only reason they’ve chosen to get back to it now.
“This is also a thank you to the community that has supported us and kept us alive through the pandemic,” she said.
If all goes well, Shipman said the company will most likely perform live again in the near future.
Eliana Trenam has been with the company since 2013 and hopes the show will bring audience members some much-needed pandemic stress relief.
“I think we could all use some art and beauty at this time,” Trenam said.
The Portland Ballet performs Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” at 2 p.m. on Saturday at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center. Tickets are available online.
Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated when the Portland Ballet is staging its first inside, in-person performance since the pandemic began.