How the Fort Wayne Ballet is keeping the city’s creative spirit alive during COVID-19

Fort Wayne may seem like a small town compared to New York or San Francisco; if you’re not a ballet aficionado, you might not realize the caliber of dance talent in this city. Many former members of the Fort Wayne Ballet go on to dance with the American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, the Royal Ballet in England, and many other prominent companies around the world.

While the Fort Wayne Ballet has existed as an organization for about 64 years, it became a professional dance company with full-time, contracted dancers in 2010-2011 under the tenure of its current Artistic Director, Karen Gibbons-Brown. Gibbons-Brown

As a transplant to Northeast Indiana, Gibbons-Brown had formerly danced with the South Carolina Chamber Dance Ensemble, the Bristol Ballet, and the Theatre Ballet of San Francisco. By 2018, she had helped the Fort Wayne Ballet dig out of its debt and set the stage for its rise to its current status as a competitive dance company in the Midwest, as recognized in 2018 by Pointe Magazine.

When Gibbons-Brown was interviewed by Pointe, she said the reason she chose to invest her talents in Fort Wayne was that "it is a community rich in the arts and there was a lot of opportunity."

“You don’t just have to be in a big city to enjoy strong and quality arts,” Gibbons-Brown says. “There are an awful lot of really amazing, new ideas that come out of smaller communities.”

Over the years, Gibbons-Brown has felt that being a ballet company in a smaller city has even worked to her dancers’ advantage, giving them the freedom to grow at their own pace and facilitate authentic creative development, which might not be possible in larger companies.

“We flew in under the radar,” she says. “That allowed us, as an organization, the luxury of creating in a different way, so we could experiment and find new and different ways of doing things.”

The first virtual performance of The Nutcracker by the Fort Wayne Ballet.

It’s this nimbleness, flexibility, and carefully nurtured creative spirit that has helped the ballet be successful on and off the stage in 2020, despite a global pandemic that has wreaked havoc on artists and arts organizations of all kinds.

When the COVID-19 pandemic made its way to the U.S. in March, the Fort Wayne Ballet was no longer able to meet in-person. However, this didn’t stop them from finding ways to keep dancing and engaging the local community in their work.

“We couldn’t meet together live, but we could create virtually,” Gibbons-Brown says.

The first virtual performance of The Nutcracker by the Fort Wayne Ballet.

As a result, in lieu of live performances, the company began releasing short videos created by its dancers at home on their social media platforms during the national shutdown. Videos showed dancers performing original choreography in alternative spaces, showcasing their technique and creative prowess. There were also some fun, quirky videos of bringing dance into everyday life, such as the dancers washing their cars in tutus and cooking ballet shoe soup (yum!).

“It was so wonderful to see how creative the dancers really could be when they had to take a little more self-responsibility for the creation in an alternative space,” Gibbons-Brown says. “It was really wonderful to see what they could come up with.”

Dancers made videos from home during the shutdown in 2020.

Despite giving dancers a new way to create, the pandemic did significantly disrupt the ballet’s traditional season. Throughout 2020, the ballet missed more than 25 live performances to protect the health and safety of its dancers and audience. This caused the ballet company to lose approximately $230,000 in ticket sales, which accounts for 18 percent of their annual revenue.

To bridge this gap in finances, the Fort Wayne Ballet relied on the support of the community, which includes many generous donors, and the PPP loan disbursed by the federal government. They also have a boutique store where they sell merchandise, which benefits the company with its proceeds.

It may surprise some to discover that, in addition to encouraging creativity, art organizations like Fort Wayne Ballet are important economic drivers for the community. These companies employ a broad range of talent from performers and directors to executive staff and stage managers, which gives artists an opportunity to make a living while exploring, creating their art, and positively impacting the community.

Dancers with the Fort Wayne engage with the Fort Wayne community in pre-COVID times.

Gibbons-Brown feels the ballet can help communities and ballerinas alike through challenging times.

“You can totally envelope yourself in the moment in dance, and for a brief period of time, it gives your mind and body a different kind of rest that you need, and it allows you to cope differently,” she says. “When you can’t do that, I think it’s very difficult for people to manage.”

The first virtual performance of The Nutcracker by the Fort Wayne Ballet.

While Fort Wayne Ballet made the difficult decision to cancel its live performances of its holiday classic, The Nutcracker, in 2020, it chose to offer performances virtually for the first time instead.

For Gibbons-Brown, delivering this ballet, in some capacity, was of utmost importance to continue the longstanding tradition in the holiday season. Fort Wayne Ballet has brought this holiday classic to the community for more than 60 years and wouldn’t allow the challenges of this year to change that.

“We want to make a positive difference, and the arts allow us to do that, so we can’t give up,” she says. 

Claypoole

Filming The Nutcracker instead of performing it live was a very different experience for everyone, including the dancers, says David Claypoole, who has danced with the Fort Wayne Ballet for five years. Rather than performing the ballet live for an auditorium filled with an eager audience, the full-length ballet was recorded with just the videographer, directors, and dancers present. The show was also broken into scenes and filmed in a nonlinear format.

“I miss an audience,” Claypoole says. “The energy that you receive from an audience really helps you as the artist.”

Fellow dancer Lindsay Navarre, who has been with the company for three years, says performing for a virtual audience brought a new mood to the show.

“I definitely had different feelings and different types of nerves than when I usually perform,” she says. “It made me kind of sad to know there wouldn’t be a live audience, but being able to share my art regardless of how it is being shared right now is something I’m really grateful for.” Navarre

The Ballet found success in the online run of its Nutcracker performance, and Gibbons-Brown says one of the greatest parts was that it allowed them to reach communities outside of Fort Wayne. 

Another benefit was families that would not traditionally have had access to see the show live were able to see it this year. Due to the generosity of an underwriter, the ballet was able to present “Nutcracker Sweets” on WPTA-ABC21, which broadcast an abbreviated version of the show accessible to all members of the community. This was very gratifying for the company because it allowed them to give back to the community that has sustained them through this difficult year.

The first virtual performance of The Nutcracker by the Fort Wayne Ballet.

Due to their strong desire to keep providing the Northeast Indiana community with art, the Fort Wayne Ballet will be offering performances in some capacity throughout the rest of their 2020-2021 season, regardless of what they have to do to make it possible. Anticipating restrictions on large group gatherings will still be in place, they plan to adapt their shows to best accommodate their audience, including potential outdoor performances.

“It just requires us to be a little more fluid,” Gibbons-Brown says. “We have to be like water; we have to figure it out. We can’t give up. I think if you give up, it crushes your spirit, and we can’t give up in this time. You can’t give up and decide it’s not worth the fight, because it is. One thing I’ve learned having a career in this field is you never know whose life you’ve touched.”

Learn more

There are many opportunities to engage with Fort Wayne Ballet in 2021. The company is continuing to find new ways to deliver performances, as well as continuing to educate the next generation of ballet dancers through the Auer Academy.

Whether you’re looking to enroll a child in their first ballet class or a way to feed your spirit with art, visit www.fortwayneballet.org.
Signup for Email Alerts