For Mick Gunter, pushing to reopen classes and experiences at Centralia Ballet Academy is not so much about profit but about people.
Gunter, who owns the dance studio with his wife, Nancy, said he feels like kids have given up too much because of COVID-19 already. As the pandemic canceled performances and activities last spring, he said he became determined to give students back their dance classes in the fall, if possible.
“They’ve had the character-building experience of sacrificing. They’ve done that one a lot,” he said. “Let’s use this as another character-building opportunity of how we can work within adversity and still make some good things happen.”
But for the Gunters, it’s not just about surviving. It’s about thriving. While navigating a new normal brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, Centralia Ballet is also working to expand its offerings this year. Centralia Ballet is moving its main location to the former location of Curves in the Fairway Center in Centralia. Construction is still underway but the plan is to have the new location open Sept. 14.
The ballet school had been located at the downtown Centralia Bethel Church’s School of the Arts since 2015. Gunter said Bethel is expanding and needs more room, so in January the ballet academy was asked to find a new location by the end of the summer. For the remainder of that time, the church promised the ballet studio it could stay rent free.
“Then COVID hit and I guess we were kind of lucky,” Gunter said. “We shut down all of our classes and went virtual and we would have been really struggling without that.”
The COVID pandemic has made many changes to the way Centralia Ballet is offering dance classes this year. The Gunters asked several medical professionals for advice on the safest way to reopen and took cues from other successful local activities such as the TOAD musical theater camp at the Evergreen Playhouse. Some of the changes to dance classes this year include: students wearing masks during classes; students dancing inside squares on the floor to adhere to social distancing; temperature checks; deep disinfecting on high touch points like bars; and air purifiers added to all studios.
Nancy Gunter said social distancing has been one of the hardest changes for her, because as a teacher, she has to rely on hands-on correcting now only when there is danger of an injury. Overall, she said, students have taken the changes in stride.
“Some of the protocols are different but once you get it going, you just get used to it,” she said. “(The dancers) adapt really well.”
The necessary changes to meet social distancing standards have actually provided some new opportunities for the ballet school, Gunter noted. Previously, parents were able to sit in a waiting room during their child’s class and watch the class on a television screen there. Mick Gunter explained that classes will now each have private Facebook groups, where classes will be live streamed so parents can watch from their cars.
“Also, if someone can make it, because if you’re sick you should stay home, they can still watch the class,” Mick Gunter said of the new offering. “This whole situation has caused us to be a little more resourceful with technology.”
Centralia Ballet will also be offering Zoom options for classes this year. The opportunity will be good for students and teachers who do not feel comfortable being part of in-person classes, Mick Gunter noted, but will also give the dance studio the ability to bring in teachers they may not have been able to access in the past. For instance, one of their teachers this year will be Lisa Sundstrom, who also teaches ballet at the Oregon Ballet Theatre School. Gunter said he has spent the last few summers teaching in New York, where he has met some amazing dancers who have offered to teach classes at Centralia Ballet, but the cost of flying them in would have been prohibitive for the school. But bringing them in via Zoom makes the endeavor much more cost effective.
“So, I think there’s going to be some opportunities for some Masterclass type experiences this year,” Gunter said. “We’re doing as much as we can with the technology to make it accessible.”
Gunter said offering a ballet class via Zoom is planned to be a much more immersive experience than simply watching a teacher on a screen. They plan to have someone live in the classroom with the students with a handheld camera, allowing the teacher to see students’ technique up close if needed. A dance teacher will also be present during Zoom classes to offer in-person correction at the direction of the remote teacher.
In addition to the new Centralia location, earlier this year Centralia Ballet began renting the former Allen Creek dance studio off Rush Road in Napavine to offer classes for students there. That studio has been the main hub for classes during the renovation of the new studio and offered them the opportunity to do outdoor classes this summer. The ballet school will also be offering classes once a week at the Tiller Arts Center in Morton this year.
The Centralia Ballet version of “Nutcracker” will also be offered this year, though in a slightly different format. Mick Gunter said because other performance opportunities have had to be canceled this year, auditions for Centralia Ballet’s “Nutcracker” will be open to any dancer in the community, regardless of which dance school they attend. The performance will be filmed it by scene, with social distancing and disinfecting happening between scenes. The pieces will then be spliced together for a full-length feature that will be available for purchase or rent on Amazon Prime.
On Dec. 20, they plan to offer a special “Nutcracker Night” where the production will be free to view. They are already working on a “Nutcracker Night” website where they plan to offer special activities and items to purchase. Gunter said they will be appealing to anyone who takes advantage of the free entertainment to order dinner from a local restaurant and consider donating the money they might normally have spent on “Nutcracker” tickets to a local ballet school or arts organization, all of which have had to cancel events this year because of COVID-19.
“We want to make it a celebration of ‘yeah, this year has sucked but let’s do something that we can enjoy together,’” Mick Gunter said. “I think we’ll be able to pull off something interesting and fun.”
Centralia Ballet is currently fund-raising via GoFundMe, as well as selling T-shirts and face masks from its website, to help with costs of renovating the Fairway Center space and also to meet their goal to provide tuition-free classes to all students for the first two months of classes. Mick Gunter said he and Nancy have pledged to forgo their paychecks for the first two months of classes, so they need only to raise the money for rent and salaries for their other employees to be able to meet this goal. An anonymous donor has offered to match the first $5,000 and Mick Gunter has also pledged proceeds from the sale of his book “Fritz and the Rat King” as well as his consulting work for other ballet studios, on building programs for male dancers, to the cause.
“I know a lot of people are stressed, so we want to make sure the kids can come back and dance,” Mick Gunter said.