With concerts, ballets, shows and rehearsals canceled, and often in dire financial straits, Pittsburgh’s performing artists use the pandemic to explore new ways of reaching audiences, perfect their artistry and keep creating.
A hip-hop dancer found headspace to create new choreographies, a ballerina rediscovered her commitment to dance, a rock 'n' roll comedy duo for kids went all virtual, a diva returned to the stage in drag, and an expert tuba player refined his craft.
The lockdown in March came as a shock to Cameron Boyd. The hip-hop dancer, choreographer and instructor was at a loss when all his classes and performances were canceled and the hip-hop dance community evaporated around him.
“Our art is very community-based,” Boyd said. “It’s all about exchanging energy from person to person. So the shock was not only financial but even more emotional. A lot of us depend on the spaces that we share together to dance, to teach and to exchange energy.”
It took a while, but after a month or so, Boyd and his partner Natalie Naples began to virtually reconnect with their students via Instagram Live. Boyd had no income from those virtual classes, but as an independent contractor, he was eligible to receive pandemic unemployment compensation.
“Instagram Live was just testing the waters,” Boyd said. “By the time we moved to Zoom, we were able to charge the students for lessons, but obviously less than for real live classes in a studio.”
Even though he misses the face-to-face contact with students, during the ongoing pandemic, Boyd still prefers to teach online.
“There are people who are teaching in studios again, but I prefer not to. It’s hard to dance in a restricted space with a group of people and then maintain distance.”
He also found personal growth.
“The seclusion has been hard, but at the same time it has helped me focus on creating. It’s giving me the time and the head space that I need to be in my own realm of creativity and to be a better teacher and a better artist.”
Boyd sees the pandemic as a testament to the power of art. “I’m not talking from a business perspective — I’m talking about our strength in creation, our strength to adapt, or strength to grow and to learn whatever is happening around us. And the recipe for growth is hardship, and I would say in the end, we’re going to create.”
MARISA GRYWALSKI AND ALEJANDRO DIAZ
Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz, dancers with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre [PBT], used the pandemic as an opportunity to reflect on their lives and careers.
“Being away from my ballet community and the constant pressure of rehearsals, I experienced for a moment what it feels like not to be a dancer,” said Grywalski. “I very honestly asked myself: Do I really want to do this?”
After some intense soul searching, Grywalski concluded that yes, she really wants to be a ballerina.
Diaz found time to think about life after ballet.
“I’m 33,” said Diaz, “which is still young, but men have a shorter life span in the ballet world.” It made him more determined in his effort to become a Gyrotonic instructor, a conditioning method that promotes a healthy way of moving.
The cancellation of what was to be, in the words of Diaz, an “epic ballet season” for the PBT was disappointing. Grywalski had been rehearsing hard to dance in George Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante,” and Diaz had been excited about a role in “Diamonds” from the same choreographer.
Another event that was canceled: the Grywalski-Diaz wedding on May 9. “It was just not a good idea to go on with it since our families would have to travel from all over the country,” said Diaz.
Still, Diaz and Grywalski feel the pandemic has deepened their relationship.
“This time has allowed Marisa and me to really be together and not be called upon in so many different ways,” Diaz said. “So, it's been a positive in that it has actually strengthened our relationship.”
Being together also meant a lot of rehearsing on the 8-by-9-foot dance floor the ballet company installed in their apartment’s kitchen.
“Luckily, we have a big kitchen,” said Grywalski, “and we also had a sense of humor about it.”
In August, they performed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at a huge field at Hartwood Acres. . “Preparing for that on a tiny dance floor, we just had to imagine a space that wasn’t there,” Diaz said. “But with the imagination also came the creativity.”
At the beginning of August, PBT’s company dancers resumed rehearsals in the studios, all in accordance with strict health guidelines. PBT has also organized a number of ballets on a movable stage in its parking lot.
Grywalski believes the pandemic will be a stimulus for PBT to keep reaching out with virtual performances. “Trying to bring beauty to audiences in this particular time is important,” she said. “We all need it.”
Josh Verbanets, like so many performers, has a complicated life: fronting the band Meeting of Important People [MOIP], being half of the children’s rock 'n' roll/comedy duo Josh and Gab, playing at weddings and making a living in real estate.
All of that was affected by the lockdown.
“Josh and Gab is an act I’ve done for a few years now with stand-up comedian Gab Bonesso,” said Verbanets. “We present a rock 'n' roll comedy show with an anti-bullying theme at schools in the area.”
In March, four days after Verbanets and Bonesso had new photos taken to relaunch their show in the fall, the lockdown was implemented.
“We realized physically being in schools might not be possible for the next six months,” said Verbanets. “So, we immediately began to adapt and we’re doing virtual programs now for schools, camps and churches.”
They also gave their show a new twist. “We were able to adapt the show to the hardship of the current situation. We wanted to create a positive outlet for kids that haven’t seen their friends in months.”
Verbanets misses the face-to-face contact with the students. “It’s worse for Gab. She’s a stand-up comedian and in stand-up, all is based on that immediate feedback. There’s nothing that can replace that.”
MOIP also found a new way to reach an audience. On Sept. 24, the band did a drive-in show, organized by City Theatre, at Hazelwood Green parking lot for a crowd of 80 cars and passengers.
“I had no expectations,” said Verbanets, “but it was a wonderful experience. People reacted to our music by beeping their horns and flashing their lights.”
He’s not sure if and when things will return to normal. “The only thing we can do is adapt, think outside the box and go full force into new ideas.”
Verbanets noted with regret that Pittsburgh lost several small music venues amid the pandemic, including Brillobox, where MOIP got its start 12 years ago.
Another big disappointment was the cancellation of all outdoor summer concerts where MOIP was scheduled to play. “All band members have children now, and those outdoor festivals are an opportunity for our kids to have fun and see us play.”
Luna Skye is excited to perform again in drag.
“Drag brought me out of a very dark time a year and a half ago when I first began to perform,” she said on Oct. 10 during an intermission in the Goddess Drag Brunch on the rooftop bar of the TRYP hotel in Lawrenceville.
“I was having a depression, and performing brought me out of my box and gave structure to my life.”
Together with Indi Skies, her partner in life and in drag, Luna began to perform in the Brewer’s Bar on Liberty Avenue where the Strip District, Lower Lawrenceville and Polish Hill meet.
The lockdown derailed her life. “I took one hit from losing my daytime job in a hotel,” she said. “I was thinking of all the bills I still had to pay and that’s why I planned to do more drag shows, and then that got shut down, too.”
Luna did receive unemployment money, but that didn’t make up for the $300 to $500 per week she could earn by performing in drag shows.
When the lease for the apartment where she and Indi lived expired on May 1, they were forced to move out of town to a rental property owned by Luna’s parents.
Luna didn’t go virtual. “I saw people around me doing drag shows on Zoom and stuff like that, but I wasn’t feeling it. Honestly, I just couldn’t get off the couch for that.”
In September, Luna and Indi jumped on the opportunity to organize dinner-shows in the Brewer’s Bar. All shows are in compliance with CDC rules like social distancing, limited seating and the queens wearing transparent plastic face masks.
“So far, every weekend has been a huge hit; people are so ready to get back into it.”
Luna also had to get back in shape. “The first shows we did were tiring; I’ve been sitting on my butt for six months.”
According to Luna, the drag divas desperately need more shows. “A lot of my friends and sisters who are doing drag need money to survive, because they’re not finding jobs right now.”
Local bars need the drag queens, too. “Gay bars, and other bars, are closing left and right,” Luna said. “Drag shows can help them pull back after the pandemic. It’s the easiest way to get people in there.”
One of the biggest disappointments for Craig Knox, the principal tuba player of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra [PSO], was the cancellation of Mahler’s seldom-performed Eighth Symphony.
“Mahler used my instrument very much and in very creative ways,” Knox said, “and we all were very excited to play this piece for the 125th anniversary of the orchestra.”
Alas, performing in Heinz Hall with a huge orchestra and a huge chorus won’t fly amid the pandemic. The PSO canceled 115 concerts, including a European tour.
“The hardest thing is not being able to perform and experience the music together with an audience in the same place,” Knox said. “We’re used to having thousands of people listen to the orchestra. It’s very difficult to be torn away from that.
“As musicians we are used to spending lots of time in isolation, practicing the same music over and over again, trying to perfect it, trying to make it as beautiful as possible. But the whole purpose of that is to share it with the world.”
So it made perfect sense that from the very first week of the lockdown, many PSO musicians — Knox among them — explored ways to virtually share their music with audiences.
“Many of us started recording videos of our performances at home and posting them on social media for the public, for anybody,” he said.
To keep the orchestra afloat, the PSO musicians agreed to three consecutive pay cuts since the beginning of the pandemic.
“We understand that we have to work with the institution to find a way to stay alive,” Knox said, “and right now that means we have to make some financial sacrifices.”
Recently, musicians have returned to film the PSO's new digital series, though with restrictions in place, including masks and distancing. Needless to say, Knox cannot play his tuba while wearing a mask — brass and wind players sit farther apart and play almost exclusively outside.
On a positive note: With limited performances and rehearsals, Knox found the time to become an even better tuba player. “I had the time to address aspects of playing my instrument that have always frustrated me. So it was an opportunity to continue to develop.”
Update (Oct. 28, 2020): This story was updated to clarify the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's operations during the pandemic.
Teake Zuidema is a photographer and journalist living in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Emily Briselli.