It’s not in a dancer’s nature to sit still. So it makes sense that even though Ballet Quad Cities (BQC) had to cancel the rest of its season because of the Covid-19 crisis, the professional company keeps moving forward.

Students in the BQC School of Dance are continuing their lessons online, through Zoom, and students have submitted their own videos for a new collage. Artistic director Courtney Lyon (who recently received an Iowa Arts Council emergency relief grant) has choreographed, taught, and edited a new piece with three dancers on Zoom.

Emily Kate Long

And executive director Joedy Cook and artistic associate Emily Kate Long are continuing BQC’s year-long commitment to promoting the 2020 Census with a new video based on the company’s “Dance Me A Story: Exploring Literature through Ballet” programs. They connect ballet and literature to provide a new, creative understanding of beloved stories and characters to individual of all ages and abilities.

“You just have to go with it,” Lyon said Monday of creating with new media. “That’s why Ballet Quad Cities keeps truckin’ along. We like to say, we have grit. We’re just gonna keep going. You give us a challenge, some limitation, we’ll find a way to build a ladder to get over the wall.”

“Dance Me a Story” began as an interactive, in-person experience of using movement and music to create danced versions of familiar tales and has grown to reach over 15,000 in the last three years. Now, BQC is expanding it into a virtual format, with five new videos to come this month.

In each 10- to 15-minute video, participants see and hear the story read aloud. They then get to dance along, learning and creating their own choreography to music that captures the characters, action, and emotions in the story. The first edition of this new format is the book “Look Where We Live! A First Book of Community Building,” and Long leads each video.

Ballet Quad Cities dancer Meghan Phillips reads to students at Frances Willard School, Rock Island, in February 2020.

“We are involved in the census because it’s probably the most important thing we can do as people involved in our community, to be counted,” Cook said, noting she sits on the regional board for Complete Count. “We will not be counted again for 10 more years.”

Participants learn and dance all about the 2020 Census as an important way of taking part in their community by being counted, she said. The end result, both in the in-person and virtual format, is a program that engages participants with dance, story, and music and inspires them to move their bodies in new and creative ways.

Courtney Lyon

“The book we danced this year was called ‘Look Where We Live.’ The dancers read the story. Each specific page is set to music with movement,” Cook said. “It’s very interactive. The students participated and helped with the movement. They dance the story and everybody learned how important it was to be counted. Each student took home a special book, and it reminded the families how important it was to be counted as well.”

Over the past year, BQC has taken the census program into schools in Rock Island, Davenport and East Moline, and area libraries, until things closed in mid-March. They have reached 1,800 people with the program in person, Cook said.

“This might be the most important thing we are going to do in this time of chaos. It’s been very rewarding for the ballet company to be part of something positive and civic,” she said.

The new video is adapted to encourage parents to participate with their kids.

“It’s really just a very fun activity for families to do together, something unique and different, with a great message,” Cook said. “Social, emotional and experiential learning is what Ballet Quad Cities is all about.”

Finding new inspiration online

BQC – the only professional ballet company between Chicago and Omaha – had to cancel its planned performances of “The Sleeping Beauty” April 18, and “Ballet Under the Stars” June 5-7, and lay off its dancers. Lyon is still working with some of them remotely on Zoom.

“They’re young artists, in the early stages of their professional careers, so I started teaching them online as well,” she said, noting dancers have class every morning normally, and her new lessons go beyond ballet, including yoga. Lyon also has to tailor training to fit their home space, such as a bedroom, living room or basement with low ceilings.

Ballet Quad Cities performs at Augustana College’s Brunner Theatre Center in 2019.

“I was feeling, like every artist, do you exist if you can’t do your art?” she said of choreographing and performing for live audiences. “Do you exist as an artist if you can’t share it with anyone?

She recruited three of the BQC dancers to try out a new piece she set to Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous “Flight of the Bumblebee,” using Zoom. “The thing about Zoom, it only allows you to see where the camera is focused on,” Lyon said. “Because of that, funny things happen – people go off camera, come back on camera.”

“You have to figure out what the limits are,” she said. “I’m talking so much more for the video. And you have to look at the limits of space and safety for dancers. If they dance en pointe, they have to have a certain kind of floor so they don’t slip. If they jump, they can’t be on concrete.”

“I love restrictions in art, because it makes me be more creative,” she said. “This is what’s happening to everyone.” She filmed her final product, edited the music and the video, also titled “Zoom,” which will be posted online, likely on balletquadcities.com.

Ballet Quad Cities performs at Augustana College’s Brunner Theatre Center in 2019.

Lyon received a $1,000 grant from Iowa Arts Council, for emergency relief due to Covid. “If I can, I’m gonna keep making my art. It was very nice to be recognized by the state of Iowa,” she said.

 Finding new sources of revenue

Like many businesses, artists and arts organizations, life in the third month of shutdown has forced BQC to get creative in raising money, to stay on their toes. In addition to several individual online fundraisers, timed to Giving Tuesday (May 5), BQC has been the beneficiary of two generous local businesses.

Lillie & Pine – which sells handcrafted bath-and-body products using plant-based ingredients by a daughter and mom team – raised $500 by May 1 for the ballet company. “They personally feel this company is so important to the community,” Cook said.

Quilt Addicts Anonymous (like BQC, based in Rock Island) has a new quilt pattern – “En Pointe” — created by its owner, Stephanie Soebbing, and all proceeds through May 15 will go to BQC.

Joedy Cook

“The ballet company in my town is part of the fabric of our region,” Soebbing posted on her website. “They have had to cancel the remainder of their season due to Covid-19. In addition to ballet performances and the school of dance, which our 5-year old daughter attends, they also participate in community outreach for bullying prevention, raising awareness for the 2020 census and much more.

“We want to see them and their performers make it through this time, and donating the sales from an easy quilt pattern that looks like it is designed on point … get it? … is a perfect way to do it,” she wrote. To order it, visit https://bit.ly/2z8pSoM.

Cook said the company plans to perform “Sleeping Beauty” in spring 2021, and she’s benefitted from this break partly in raising awareness in the community.

“It’s been nice to talk to talk to people and explain what a regional company really means,” Cook said. “All our artists and dancers live here; the artistic staff lives here. So many times, people think ballet companies are similar to orchestras, that musicians come in from out of town for performances. It would be impossible to bring in dancers just to perform.”

“Our entire budget, except pointe shoes, every dime goes back here. We spend all of our money here,” she said.

To see BQC School of Dance’s new video, visit youtube.com/watch?v=zRXF2ejDtV0&feature=youtu.be.

Ballet Quad Cities (founded in 1996) is the longest-running resident professional ballet company in the state of Iowa and western Illinois, one of only 100 in the nation, according to its website. The easiest way to support BQC, if possible, is to send a check to Ballet Quad Cities, 613 17th St., Rock Island, IL 61201.

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Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.