More than one year ago, as stages across the world went dark due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Vassar Dance Repertory Theatre (VRDT) was one of the many dance companies across the world that had to cancel operations. This year, the company sprung back to life when Vassar returned in person last fall.
Director of VRDT John Meehan and Visiting Instructor in Dance and Drama Leslie Partridge Sachs convened with the rest of the dance faculty over the summer to plan for the new year and figure out how to adjust to COVID guidelines. In a Zoom interview along with Meehan, Sachs, who also serves as the Assistant Director of VRDT, detailed all of the procedures and rules that the Department implemented. From washing down every surface of the studios (from the floors to the bars) to marking the floors with social distancing guidelines while the students were in the studio, the professors of the Dance Department adopted lots of rules to ensure a safe yet productive year for student dancers.
Despite all of these new rules and regulations, dancer Jalene Medina ʼ23 was happy to return in person with VRDT this year. When I sat down to talk with her in person, her enthusiasm and passion for the company shone through, even when reflecting on the new COVID regulations: “I was relieved that we were even going to get to dance, because I know a lot of the other physical activities on campus had to completely shut down or have been looking super different than they were pre-COVID.” She continued, “We were lucky enough that we got to be in the studio and got to see each other, even though it was masked, social distanced and with limited capacities,” she described.
Medina and all of the other dancers had to wear masks while they were dancing, but as Medina summed up nicely: “It was better to be dancing with a mask than not dancing at all.”
The new guidelines did not come without challenges. Bonding between the dancers in VRDT was difficult due to social-distancing guidelines and the limited capacities of the studios. Although the Dance Department could have 20 people in the studios at a given time, the professors still limited class sizes to 14 students. They also utilized Zoom in order to accommodate more students: “We had to keep capacity numbers at bay in our studios, but we didn’t want to reduce the number of students who were enrolled or wanted to take class,” Sachs explained. “Teachers had to learn how to use new equipment with cameras in order to use two studios at once, or three.”
Limitations for studio capacity turned out to be particularly challenging for VRDT. With study abroad cancelled, VRDT consisted of 38 dancers, the largest company to date. Even splitting the company in half was not enough to meet safety requirements, so the professors had to divide the company up even further for rehearsals and classes.
“It’s a very close company, and just the distancing and the inability to be together in the way that we’re typically together, sort of reduced some of the intimacy, which is inevitable when you can’t come together so closely,” Sachs expressed. “We found a way to get there, but it was definitely challenging.”
All of the hard work and commitment of the company culminated in a virtual performance near the end of the spring semester, which was streamed from April 31 to May 2. The professors recorded the repertory ahead of time, and then compiled and edited the footage to be broadcasted.
“It was beautiful, and it gave the students documentation of what they did. Maybe no audience, but they performed beautifully, and they have documentation of it,” Sachs said.
“And people Zoomed in and watched it,” Meehan added, “and people loved what they saw, especially alums. We got quite a few messages from VRDT alums saying how great it looked.”
However, the virtual broadcast of the dances reflected another challenge: the inability to host live performances.
“I think one of the things that was kind of disappointing was not being able to perform in front of an audience,” Medina commented. When describing the difference between performing live and recording the repertory, she explained, “[T]here’s not the same excitement as the pre-show jitters, or knowing that once you go on stage and do it once, that’s the only time the audience will see it, and that’s all you leave them with. Now, people can rewatch them, and the videos can be edited, and you do multiple takes so you can find the best one.”
Despite these challenges, the year was overall a success for the company. “I think the thing that we’re proudest of is that we actually did make it through two semesters with every single class in person,” Meehan commented.
With the promise of a completely in-person, somewhat-normal fall semester, the future of VRDT looks hopeful and much closer to how the company operated prior to the pandemic.
“We are following [President Bradley’s] lead in saying that we are anticipating going back to, if not normal, very close to normal behavior,” Meehan stated. “The goal is to just get it back to running smoothly.”
Medina shared in this optimism for the upcoming year. “I just hope that next year, if things are back to normal, which hopefully they will be, we’ll just appreciate the time that we have together that much more, knowing that we didn’t have that this year, and we’ll be closer as a company, hopefully,” she said.
As for the senior dancers, this year only cemented their positive impact on VRDT and the other student dancers. “They really had such an amazing energy that kept us motivated to keep dancing and keep working hard in the studio, even on days where it was kind of tough or people weren’t as motivated, but they’ve been so dedicated and so amazing and so supportive, and I’m really going to miss them next year,” Medina said.
Both Meehan and Sachs expressed their pride for all of their students this year: “They’ve never complained about mask wearing, and I don’t know how. And they complied with everything we did, and they performed beautifully, and they choreographed really well,” Meehan said. “So, in the face of adversity, I think we definitely prevailed.”