San Francisco Ballet executive director discusses future of dance amid COVID-19

San Francisco Ballet
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Kelly Tweeddale began her career with an immeasurable love for dance. Since taking on leadership roles in arts organizations around the world such as the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and the Seattle Opera, Tweeddale has taken her love for the arts to the Bay Area, becoming the executive director of San Francisco Ballet in September 2019. 

The company hit major milestones last year as it celebrated the 75th anniversary of “The Nutcracker.” As the first dance organization in the United States to put on the acclaimed show, SF Ballet has upheld the tradition of the piece, showcasing its significance to dance organizations everywhere. 

In an interview with The Daily Californian, Tweeddale explained that the show “made me connect to the history of the company in a way that I’m not sure I would have if it hadn’t been the 75th anniversary.” 

Only three months after the success of this production, SF Ballet was ready to debut its newest show, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” for the first time in more than 30 years. But on opening night, Tweeddale got the call that the city would have to shut down the War Memorial Opera House due to increasing concerns about COVID-19. 

“We were able to finish the performance and then Helgi and I had to tell the dancers what was happening,” Tweeddale said. “It was just … it was heart-wrenching and (there were) tears and … it didn’t quite sink in at that moment what that really meant.”

After only six months on the job, Tweeddale had to make major adjustments to SF Ballet’s operations due to the stay-at-home orders in the Bay Area. Still, she rose to the challenge. “It’s so easy to just want to hibernate and just say wake me up when it’s over,” Tweeddale said. “But we refuse to do that. We will not do that.” 

With a diverse company from all over the world, Tweeddale and the staff at SF Ballet were tasked with keeping their dancers safe while simultaneously trying to get them back to homes abroad. 

After guaranteeing the safety of its dancers as they traveled to their respective homes, SF Ballet was forced to evaluate how it would continue to train its dancers. With small living spaces limiting the full ability of dancers to work on technique, the company faced challenges when moving its classes to an online format. 

“Class really had to be contained into what you could do in your kitchen or your living room,” Tweeddale said. “We made sure that every dancer that needed it (or) wanted it had a hardwood floor … we ordered floors and had them shipped to where they were so that they could dance and take class on a safe surface.” 

On top of changing the dynamic of technical class for its dancers, SF Ballet has kept audiences engaged with a strong social media presence, streaming some of its signature work for free online. Most notably, Tweeddale highlighted the company’s #FlashbackFriday posts in which archived videos from SF Ballet’s shows are brought back and celebrated online. 

In some ways, the lack of live theater and dance has made audiences recognize their appreciation for live performance. Though social media temporarily quells the imminent desire for live art, it does not possess the same satisfaction as witnessing a full length ballet in person. Despite the convenience of watching dance online, not being able to see live performances has left advocates for the organization desperate to come back to the War Memorial Opera House.  

With the nature of the current pandemic, however, organizations such as SF Ballet are having to make major adjustments before reopening live shows for the public. Tweeddale and the rest of SF Ballet’s staff are looking at alternative models, paying attention to the city’s public health orders and the overall safety of their company. 

Currently, Tweeddale notes that SF Ballet is looking at all possible scenarios when it comes to future performances in 2021. Whether the season continues virtually, in person with distanced seating or even with a mixture of virtual and in-person models, Tweeddale assures, “I told our team here we have to be prepared for everything and also be prepared to do nothing. And if we are prepared for both … we’ll find a path.”

Though the pandemic has put a halt to live performance, it has not put a halt to creativity. Tweeddale brought a sense of hope as she mentioned the renaissance of art following the Spanish flu pandemic, bringing communities back together after long periods of anxiety and grief. The lack of dance during our current pandemic has made many people realize that the world needs the beauty of the art form in order to survive. 

“I think that when the time is right,” Tweeddale said, “it may be a time where we’ll be able to not only celebrate back in the theaters and reconnect, but we’ll have all these new digital skills and that will be equally valuable.” 

Contact Sarah Runyan at [email protected].