Virus Reality Check: From Record Ticket Sales to Curtain's Close

Peter Tonguette
Karen Wing in a rehearsal of "Carmen.maquia"

In the matter of several days, one of Central Ohio’s signature arts organizations went from having a banner year to an uncertain future.

BalletMet was preparing for its next performance, “Carmen.maquia,” when Gov. Mike DeWine on March 12 announced the prohibition of gatherings of 100 or more people in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. The show was scheduled to begin a two-weekend run April 3 at the Riffe Center’s Davidson Theatre, where it would have certainly drawn more than 100 patrons. Responding to the governor’s order, the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts suspended all events at its venues, including the Davidson Theatre.

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Instead of completing preparations for the performance, BalletMet leaders had to inform the organization’s 26 professional dancers that the show was off.

“We went to the studios, basically once we figured out that’s what had happened, stopped the rehearsal of ‘Carmen,’ sat the dancers down and said, ‘OK, this isn’t going to happen,’” says executive director Sue Porter, who sent the dancers home with the idea of reconvening in person the following Monday. “By Monday morning, then we decided that we couldn’t even have them come in and we had to set up a Zoom call. It moved that quickly.”

Dancer Karen Wing, who was cast in the title role in the ballet inspired by Georges Bizet’s opera, was working in the studio with Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano.

“We were closing our third week of working with him,” Wing says. “We would have finished setting the entire ballet that day, which was kind of the kicker. We were so close.”

In addition to canceling “Carmen.maquia,” BalletMet had to close its dance academy.

The company had been bracing for a limitation on gatherings prior to Gov. DeWine’s announcement, Wing says, but was not sure what to expect.

“We were playing that numbers game all week, but I don’t think anyone thought that the governor would come out with 100,” she said. “I think we’re all grateful for erring on the side of caution and trying to get ahead of this, but in that moment, that added to that shock.”

BalletMet had been having a banner year until the coronavirus pandemic, Porter says.

“We were having a great year—record ticket sales for things like ‘Alice,’ ” she says, referring to the company’s Feb. 14-16 performance of an “Alice in Wonderland” adaptation.

“My feeling is that if the situation doesn’t resolve quickly—and there’s no indication that it will—it’s going to have a devastating impact for us,” Porter says, noting BalletMet relies on earned revenue from ticket sales and academy tuition. “But now how do we earn it? Our academy is closed, our theaters are closed.”

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BalletMet is assessing next steps and is seeking financial support from longtime patrons and the broader Central Ohio community; donations are being solicited on its website:

“We are going to need the support of our community as never before to come back for next season,” Porter says. And what about next season? No decisions have been made—or programming announced—but, Porter says, “we know it will be different than we had planned.”

Dancers are trying to stay in performance shape while at home—a difficult task without the benefit of a studio class.

“There are some art forms where, in tough times, you can practice your art,” Porter says. “Pretty hard to do that in dance when ‘social distancing’ says you shouldn’t be close to the person that you might be dancing with.”

Peter Tonguette is a freelance writer.