How Charlotte Ballet dancers thrived during COVID lockdown

Charlotte Ballet dancers were gearing up for opening night of “Sleeping Beauty” in March 2020 when they got the news. Gov. Roy Cooper was putting the kibosh on big gatherings to slow the spread of COVID-19. The performance was canceled.

They didn’t realize that evening that the rest of the season would be, too.

They went home and signed up for Zoom. More than six months passed before dancers returned to in-person rehearsals, with precautions in place, and eventually to the stage. But they were masked during rehearsals and performances, performing only for smaller, socially distanced audiences.

This fall, they’ll return to the stage for a new season which they hope includes unmasked rehearsals and performances. The ballet also will be celebrating its 50th anniversary, which was postponed last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We asked three Charlotte Ballet dancers — Meredith Hwang, Rees Launer and Andrés Trezevant — how they coped during the pandemic (none tested positive for COVID-19), what coming back to the studio has meant to them and what they’re most looking forward to.

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Charlotte Ballet dancers performed in masks during this spring 2021 performance of “People of Tomorrow,” choreography by Nadine Barton. It was part of “Innovative: Direct from the LAB.” Pictured (left to right) are Sarah Lapointe, Ben Ingel, Andrés Trezevant, Colby Foss, Rees Launer (floor) and Meredith Hwang. Alan Huerta Courtesy of Charlotte Ballet

Meredith Hwang

It was a weird season for every Charlotte Ballet dancer, but it was especially strange for Meredith Hwang. It was her first with the ballet company.

“COVID hit in the middle of audition season,” Hwang said. “I auditioned for Charlotte Ballet in February. And then I heard in March that I was offered a place in the second company. Once COVID hit and lockdowns started, auditions were canceled. So, I was really lucky to audition when I did.”

The second company, Charlotte Ballet II, is a group of younger professionals who appear in performances with the main company.

At the height of the pandemic last summer she moved to Charlotte from Boston, where she’d spent three years at Boston Ballet School. She didn’t meet her Charlotte coworkers in person until October.

But Hwang wasn’t the only newbie. Nearly everyone in Charlotte Ballet II is new to the company. So although Hwang was home alone, she could Zoom with others going through the same transition.

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Charlotte Ballet II dancer Meredith Hwang performs on stage in a mask during a December 2020 performance of “A Fairy-Tailored Nutcracker.” Hwang auditioned for Charlotte Ballet II just as the pandemic began. She got the job and moved to Charlotte last summer, but did not meet her colleagues in person until October. Alan Huerta Courtesy of Charlotte Ballet

Part of being in Charlotte Ballet II is performing for and teaching schoolchildren about ballet.

Since the company couldn’t lead those sessions in person, they made use of Zoom. The demonstrations included a live Q&A, in which dancers fielded questions such as, “Is it too late for me to start ballet?” and “Do your feet hurt?”

Hwang took plenty of Zoom ballet classes during the pandemic to stay in shape. While living at home with her family in Maryland before moving to Charlotte, she created a makeshift ballet studio in the basement of her family’s home.

“I found a square Marley (the vinyl sheeting flooring ballet dancers use) online and set up a little ballet studio with chairs. We pulled in some floor-length mirrors. It was very DIY, but it worked.”

She’ll spend most of the summer in Charlotte, where she works as a barista at a bubble tea shop.

What’s she most looking forward to this fall? “A sense of normalcy,” Hwang said. “And performing in a full production of ‘The Nutcracker,” which I’ve done every year.

“It was nice getting to do a holiday show last December,” she said, of Charlotte Ballet’s abbreviated 2020 “Nutcracker.” “But I’m ready to be on a bigger stage than what we had in the studio theater. Performing for an audience is one of my favorite parts of this job.”

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Charlotte Ballet dancer Rees Launer performed in “Leonce & Lena” during the company’s 2019-2020 season opener. Pictured left to right are “Tavern Boys” Josh Hall, Launer, Humberto Ramazzina and Anson Zwingelberg. Taylor Jones Courtesy of Charlotte Ballet

Rees Launer

Boise, Idaho, native Rees Launer recently finished his second season with Charlotte Ballet’s main company, although he, like the rest of the company, spent much of it at home. He missed his colleagues more than anything.

“Dancing is like a team sport,” he said. “It’s a partnership. We’re a small company, and we’re all close friends, so I missed being around everybody.”

Gaining the “COVID-19” — extra pounds put on during the pandemic — wasn’t an option for dancers.

“I got a pull-up bar and resistance bands to do some strength training,” Launer said. “And my favorite way of staying in shape was taking improvisational dance classes, through Zoom, in a freeform style called Gaga. You never stop moving, so it ends up being quite a cardio workout.

“Doing a ballet barre or any classical type thing on Zoom doesn’t really work for me in a kitchen holding on to a countertop,” he added.

Launer also biked a lot and took up a new hobby — archery — which has some surprising parallels to ballet. The steadiness, your posture and the way you hold your upper body are important in both, he said.

When dancers returned last fall for rehearsal they had to wear masks eight hours a day.

“Dancing is super strenuous, and with a mask on, you start breathing hard and then wonder about your stamina,” Launer said. “Another thing is our facial expressions. Dancing is an art form. Since there’s no speaking in dance, a lot of what we convey is through our faces. With a mask on, you’re limited to just your eyes.”

Still, he felt a connection to the smaller-than-usual audience. “We feed off the energy from the audience,” he said. “And that was great to feel again.”

Launer didn’t have to find other employment during the pandemic. “We were very fortunate that Charlotte Ballet continued to pay out our contract,” Launer said.

After a summer break where he’ll see his family in Boise for the first time in more than a year, he’s ready to return to the stage — hopefully, without a mask.

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Dancers from Charlotte Ballet, including Andrès Trezevant (center), perform a piece called “Uptown Collective” on Tryon Street at the Black Live Matter mural. The piece was inspired by the mural and designed to draw attention to social justice issues in Charlotte. James Wiley

Andrés Trezevant

“The ballet definitely supported us… with optional classes we could take from our kitchens over Zoom,” said Andrés Trezevant, a Las Vegas native who recently wrapped his first season with Charlotte Ballet. (He was a member of Charlotte Ballet II before that.) “They took care of our COVID testing and were careful when they brought us back to the studio.”

Trezevant practiced with other dancers on Zoom, but it wasn’t the same.

“There is nothing quite like being in a studio six-plus hours every day, Monday through Friday and sometimes Saturday,” Trezevant said. “When we came back, our directors and teachers were very clear that they were going to start slow.”

Performing masked and seeing the audience masked was an odd sensation.

“During ‘The Nutcracker,’ I usually get so excited seeing the faces of the children, especially, who are really mystified in a sense,” he said. It’s harder to detect when they’re wearing masks, but “there was this moment where you could see the excitement in their eyes.”

Trezevant is traveling abroad for part of the summer, then he’s looking forward to performing his first “Rite of Spring,” which is part of Charlotte Ballet’s 50th anniversary production.

“There are amazing things coming next season,” he said. “ ‘Innovative 1970’ is going to have quite a collection of works.”

Trezevant said the pandemic taught him something. “I feel like I’ve learned a sense of patience,” he said. “With the quarantine, the biggest thing you had to maintain was patience. You had to know that, at some point, things would get better.”

And they have. Being reunited with his team felt good. “There’s been a big sense of camaraderie,” he said. “The work we did last fall — a lot of it — was created by us.”

“And, I’m hopeful,” he said, “that a silver lining in all this, is that people have come to really appreciate the performing arts.”

Back on stage

What: Charlotte Ballet returns to the stage with a special 50th Anniversary Celebration.

When: Oct. 7-9

Where: Belk Theater

Season details: The 2021-22 season also includes “The Nutcracker,” “Sleeping Beauty: A Fairy-Tailored Classic,” and more. Details/tickets at charlotteballet.org.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

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