Spread Your Wings. (Foto: N.Jenkins/BPA)

Seeing the recording, I shocked myself… The final product was so beautiful.” Amarie, a senior at Esperanza Academy High School, reflected on her participation in Spread Your Wings, a Choreographic Mentorship program with the Philadelphia Ballet.  Five students – all dancers and aspiring choreographers – from three Philadelphia schools had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create their own artwork under the tutelage of one of the country’s elite dance institutions. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, arts and culture organizations were among the hardest-hit by the shutdowns. Not just professionals, but also aspiring artists, artists in training, and audiences all faced uncertainty about how artistic expression could continue. The Philadelphia Ballet and partnering schools pivoted quickly to give students a chance to spread their wings, and to make sure all of us understood the pandemic could not shut down our creativity and performance.

As the teacher who worked behind the scenes to plan and carry out these experiences for the students with our partner, there were days that I felt the “zoom” exhaustion. But once we logged on for these programs, I was able to get through the end of the day thanks to the energy of the kids and our wonderful partnerships.  Seeing their joy and enjoyment of the process sometimes made me forget we were even online. More importantly, it made it like an escape for the kids too.

Over the course of 6 weeks, Andrick, Amarie, and Justin from Esperanza Academy (EA), as well as two students from Franklin Learning Center and Hallahan Catholic Girl’s School, met with teachers and mentors from the PA Ballet twice per week. They put in another three hours each week with me, to work on their pieces.  In the first phase of the project, they each choreographed a dance solo, and the EA students were thrilled to film their pieces in their school auditorium.  It was the first time they had been onsite at the school since March 2020 when the pandemic began.  This first part of the program culminated in a virtual screening in December where all the students and families, along with all the project partners attended virtually to discuss and hear about the artist and student experience, see the student choreography created, and participate in a Q&A. In the second phase, students were taught about site-specific choreography, and EA students chose spots on campus for a second filming of their work; they were also interviewed about personal stories and aspirations. These professional recordings and interviews were exhibited as part of the Philadelphia Ballet art installation at the Cherry Street Pier in May 2021. 

Andrick said, “This program really helped me get through the pandemic. Near the beginning of the program, we heard there was a possibility that we would be able to enter the dance studio and auditorium. At the time it seemed impossible and a huge deal. The studio is our home, and with the thought that we might be able to go back, I was super excited for this program.”

Amarie’s testimonial continued, “The thing that was difficult for me was staying motivated and positive about my choreography. It was very challenging for me but I was able to overcome it all after working with Ms. Ramos, Sterling, Andrick and Justin. The thing that surprised me from this experience is seeing how my choreography came out to be. Throughout the workshops I always thought to myself that I could never choreograph my own solo. After the virtual showing we were given an amazing experience to be able to record our choreography by a professional team. We were able to pick a setting, and have it recorded from many different angles which was so special. This experience was one of a kind and I am so grateful for it. We were also interviewed after the recording and able to show who we are and who we want to become in the future. I am so grateful for this experience.”

Justin said, “One of my favorite moments was when we were then interviewed on our entire dance journey thus far. We had a chance to speak about our lives, the importance and impact of dance, and to have people want to listen to it meant a lot.  Overall, I learned that I love to play with improvisation and improve on those skills. In the workshop we mainly worked with movement invention which was really interesting and really stuck with me.”

Sterling Baca, Principal Dancer for the Philadelphia Ballet and teacher for Spread Your Wings, sums up the experience: “Philadelphia Ballet’s Choreographic Mentorship program allowed company dancers and students from the Philadelphia community to grow together virtually as artists when the Covid-19 pandemic isolated us all.  Art and community got us through this unprecedented time and will continue to support our future.  I can’t wait to see these programs expand impact even more lives in Philadelphia!”

Coreografía con vestuario. (Foto: N.Jenkins/BPA)

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