Above, one of the many new online collaborations between New York City Ballet dancers and musicians. For more, see the orchestra’s YouTube channel. More links at the end of this article.
I started to realize around the third month of quarantine that it was hard to practice. Every time I sat down to play, a flood of nostalgia would overtake me, and the months of uncertainty ahead would weigh on me. I had no repertoire to work on, no performances on the horizon to look forward to, and no one asking me — let alone paying me — to play. I had never learned how to just practice without having an immediate and tangible goal. That skill takes a kind of inner serenity that was hard for my hyperactive mind to grasp. Besides, the oboe has never been a good instrument for solitary confinement. There is no other voice playing along; no left hand, no double stops, no harmony. My oboe and I thrive in an orchestral setting.
It took me until February 2020 to achieve what I had always wanted: job security in the principal oboe chair at New York City Ballet. I knew even pre-pandemic that I would have to recalibrate my practice for the marathon that is a career, because my goal had changed. Instead of focusing on getting the job, I would now focus on doing the job, night after night, to the best of my ability, making sure never to lose sight of what a privilege it is to be an artist at Lincoln Center.
Then Covid hit. The pandemic has ravaged New York City, my city, our beautiful city. Those hallowed halls of Lincoln Center have not changed on the outside, yet they are empty shells. Remembering what I once had is a gargantuan psychological burden — it would be easier to just not think about it.
The arts make our city a better place, and are crucial economically — but, the hurdles we now face in creating real performance opportunities are significant. In search of these opportunities, I have encountered miles of red tape. We are told that musicians may not play to an audience without permits of all shapes and sizes; we cannot raise funds for reasons too many to count; we certainly can’t dream of playing a coordinated note within the vicinity of Lincoln Center plaza; entering a hall is out of the question.
But the disconnect between 65th Street and 66th Street is hard to fathom. What do I mean by this? Students at Juilliard are the only ones at Lincoln Center making any kind of live music at all (even though it is not for a live audience). They are taught that the show must go on. Perhaps they’re right about that. But the fact remains that even before the pandemic, orchestral jobs were already few and far between. Now they are nowhere to be seen, in a kind of endless hibernation from which we can only hope to escape unscathed.
So when it is left to us players to make our own opportunities, we are faced anew with the nagging question of purpose. Are we trying to perform because we have to? Because our audience needs us to? Wants us to? Are we just reminding NYC’s passersby that we still exist? We are not essential workers and we never will be, but that does not render us useless, nor does it make our work any less important than it used to be. Shouldn’t we do exactly what we always did — “make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before,” as Leonard Bernstein said.
My thoughts on these questions are not different from what they were before the pandemic struck. They have led me to concentrate on two general goals that transcend the current public health emergency: increasing the orchestra’s presence on social media by developing content and branding strategies, and fostering a sense of community with our dancers.
It is easy to be overwhelmed by social media with its admittedly self-serving agenda. Maybe it’s possible to ignore it. However, the internet is a tremendous resource that should not be squandered. Classical music was guilty of ignoring technology before the pandemic hit. Our “product” has not changed, but the ways in which we can deliver it to our audiences has broadened significantly. It should not have taken a pandemic for us to realize the potential of live streaming. It does not take an expert to create a YouTube channel, or to think of a hashtag that could stick. The larger thought here is to develop a “following” — in other words, a loyal audience that “likes” us, and wants to pay money to buy a ticket to see us perform. The accessibility of social media means that we have no excuse not to reach out. At the same time, we should not rely on archival content. Past performances that have been recorded or videotaped are one of our only remaining currencies. That resource should be tapped into thoughtfully. There is immense danger in convincing our audiences that they can consume the arts from home in a way that is sustainably meaningful. Convincing the general public that live performances matter, particularly the younger generation, should be a guiding principle of our social media strategy. To clarify, I believe that both avenues should be embraced. We should have the ability to deliver content to our audience via technology, while at the same time maintaining the exclusive draw of the live performance.
At the New York City Ballet, the orchestra itself is only one part of a much larger artistic product. The company, like the other constituents of Lincoln Center, is vast and complex. Ballet is an art form that is bigger than music or dance alone; it requires a synthesis of the two. But the relationship between the ballet orchestra and the ballet dancers has a lengthy history of distance – and this was before social distancing! This has always struck me as profoundly sad, and there is no time like the present to change it. Knowing and admiring each other is vital to our sense of community and purpose.
This got me thinking about ways to accomplish both of my goals. The hurdles already mentioned made any overly ambitious project unlikely to succeed. I have instead chosen to focus on achievable “bite-sized” projects — glimpses into our lives played out in manageable miniature. Building content piece by piece gives us a portfolio of work that we can all reliably share.
My first step was to talk to my colleagues, both in the orchestra and the dancers. I am honored to serve on the new NYCB Orchestra’s Event Subcommittee with Dan Peck, Helen Strilec, Hannah Holman, Derek Ratzenboeck and Danny Mui. We are all passionate about our return to the stage.
Writing to the dancers felt a little bit strange at first because I knew very few of them personally. I wrote to many of them expressing my admiration for what they do, and speaking of my wish to connect personally, laying the groundwork for collaborations to come. I outlined two scenarios in which we might work towards these goals:
- Short “getting to know you” interviews between orchestra members and dancers (here’s one with me and Principal Dancer Tess Reichlen).
- Collaborating remotely — a musician records some music to which a dancer then choreographs (here’s one with dancer Sara Adams and percussionist Ian Sullivan)
I am not the first or the only one to have either of these ideas; but I felt ready to take on the challenge of making them happen.
The response from the dancers was heartening. What was originally intended to be a Zoom meeting with two interested members of the corps de ballet became a gathering of 12 dancers, all of whom eagerly expressed interest. These were corps members, soloists, and principals. Their support of my ventures into unknown territory only made me more passionate. We need each other, and we are stronger together.
We now have six simultaneous projects ongoing: two interviews of musician/dancer combinations; three collaborative short, split-screen videos; and a Nutcracker-themed “holiday treat.” My hope is that we will be able to pair up more musicians with dancers after the holidays. Check out our YouTube channel for some of these projects, and see additional links below.
Never has it been more clear that the greatest threat to the survival of classical music in New York City is our own inaction. We cannot let our city become hollow. We must fill our hibernating theatres with life again, and we must fight for our own existence. We must embrace the state of the world we live in today, not the one of decades past. This time should be seen as a period of rethinking and reshaping who we are, so that we may emerge from it making music and art that is more meaningful than ever before.
Julia DeRosa, a member of Local 802 since 2010, is the principal oboist at the New York City Ballet Orchestra.