Q+A: For Sierra Nevada Ballet’s Rosine Bena, 2020 means dancing to a new tune

This summer, SNB dancers have been rehearsing outside, complete with masks, and shooting on-location. Dances in settings like this one, outside the Pioneer Center, will be part of the Dancing By The River video - photo: courtesy of Rosine Bena.

Rosine Bena is the artistic director of Sierra Nevada Ballet, one of countless dance companies that’s canceled its live performances this year. To adapt, she’s climbed the Zoom learning curve, called in some volunteers, and produced a virtual version of the company’s annual Artown show, Dancing By The River. The show premieres July 14 and will be online through July 31. SNB also presents its 2012 performance of the ballet Giselle, online July 14-31, and classes in choreography, mime, and dance.

Rosine, would you paint a picture of what Dancing By The River is usually like, for people who haven’t seen it?

SNB is a professional company, in that we use dancers with experience, and we also pay everyone. … So, our Dancing By The River production is pretty intense. We usually have professional dancers from this area as well as from out of state. We usually have international tap star Sam Weber. For the past—I think it’s been five years—we’ve had [Reno signer] Cami Thompson and her trio. … We usually have a very mixed program. It’s usually ballet, contemporary dance, some jazz, tap, everything. It usually runs us between $15-25,000 to just do that one performance.

What will it be like this year?

I went and reached out to some of the people who have performed with us in the past and said, “We have no funding this year, but we’d like to do a virtual performance. Would you contribute?” And everybody is contributing. … It’s amazing. It’s an amazing program. It cuts from the hearts of everybody, and people are performing in their homes, then they’re sending me the video. It’s been a nightmare, I’ll tell you, but it’s turning out really, really beautifully. And I did my first piece of virtual choreography on Zoom, which is such an amazingly difficult experience. I’ve been choreographing for, like, oh my gosh, 45 years, but I’ve never had this kind of experience.

In non-pandemic years, SNB’s Dancing By The River takes place in Wingfield Park. This year’s version is virtual. This image is from 2014 – photo: courtesy of Rosine Bena.
So, how are you approaching this new job as a Zoom editor? Is there a lot of trial and error?

Everybody’s sending in their videos, and we’re putting that all on the same program. …  I am editing with Lyric Burt, who is just a fabulous guy to work with. He’s helping me so much, because I had this dream of doing this ballet with 14 dancers, and I wanted them to come in at certain times in the music. And then I wanted them to move all together. … It’s just been so difficult. And he is so nice to work with. He knows about computers. He knows about editing. He knows about sound. And so together we’ve been spending hours. One ballet alone has probably averaged about 20 hours of work, just in editing.

A Zoom screen shot of an SNB rehearsal – photo: courtesy of Rosine Bena.
Have you found any advantages to working within these strange new restrictions? Or are you just eager to get back to normal?

I’ve actually enjoyed it. It’s really a challenge, and I always love to learn new things. … Choreographing and rehearsing on Zoom, I’m finding that you see it in a different perspective. In other words, in a classroom situation, when you’re in the room with somebody, you’re very near them. But with the Zoom, you’re far away from them. And so it’s more like watching them on stage, and you get a whole different perspective of the dancer from a distance, which is what the audience sees anyway.

In addition to radically changing how you produce your shows, what other changes has 2020 brought for Sierra Nevada Ballet?

Usually, in summertime, we produce Dancing By The River at the same time as we do our large classical ballet. So … usually summer is extremely busy. We’re working all day long from morning till night. This summer, we’re not doing that because, first of all, nobody can travel. … And we can rehearse outside, but you can’t put pointe shoes on, and you can’t really do ballet outside. So, it’s just a very, very different job that I have this summer.

Have you been able to keep your dancers connected as a community during the pandemic?

Thank God they are really determined and dedicated. They’re very loyal to SNB. Even though we can’t pay them right now, we meet every week. … We usually meet three days a week, but we’re meeting two days a week now, and occasionally outside. And that is great for the dancers because they’re very depressed. … We’re trying to keep classes going also. I’m bringing in some guest teachers … from different places, friends of mine. They’re going to teach on Zoom. … It’s not one of the things that I would have chosen, but we’re keeping going, and that’s really important.

It sounds like you’ve been quite adaptable.

Because we’ve lost a lot of funding, because of the fact that nobody has any money, and also we’re not doing our live performances, [we’re not going to get] funding because there isn’t any. … We’re concerned about: When will we be able to open the building? And also, can we afford to keep it going? That’s also a challenge that all of us face, but I have faith that we will do it.

For details on upcoming performances and classes in choreography, mime, and dance, call SNB at (775) 360-8663 or email laurie@sierranevadaballet.org.


Kris Vagner is an arts and culture writer who’s earned awards for critical writing, entertainment writing, feature writing, and—somehow—sports writing. She’s also the editor of Double Scoop, Nevada’s visual arts news site. More at www.krisvagner.com. Support her work in The Ally.