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Ballet Dancers In Kansas City Take Performances To The Streets During The Coronavirus Pandemic

Steve Gibson Photography
Ballet Street Project has filmed in iconic locations in Kansas City, such as Union Station.

The pandemic has shut down stages and that’s been hard for people who work in the arts. With many venues still closed, actors, musicians, and dancers are finding new ways to create — outdoors.

With indoor venues like the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts shut down, dancers in Kansas City have spent about six months building up reserves of creative energy.

A new initiative, Ballet Street Project, is letting them put some of that pent-up motion to use by taking dance outside and into the streets.

"Even in this time of solitariness, we can still reach for each other," says producer and co-director Tempe Ostergren. "And words can't always express emotion. So there's such a need for something like dance."

Ostergren, a former dancer with the Kansas City Ballet, sat on a bench last month outside the Liberty Memorial, with her young son in a nearby stroller.

These days, Ostergren has turned her focus to parenthood. But, during the coronavirus shutdown, she says she was struck by some of the videos cropping up on social media: ballet dancers in Los Angeles, Paris, and Amsterdam.

"They started to post these beautiful videos," she says, "just people dancing wherever they could."

When some of the restrictions here were lifted, she says her friends in dance, some also with ties to the Kansas City Ballet, met outdoors at the Riverfront.

"It had been months and months," she recalls, "and we finally just decided to get together and we're sitting there chatting and we thought, 'You know what, why don't we do a video like this?'"

This combination of unexpected free time, she says, and the need for a creative outlet led to the Ballet Street Project: ballet unstaged and outdoors.

18th and Vine.jpg
Kids gathered around the Charlie Parker statue in the 18th and Vine district as Ballet Street Project dancers performed.
courtesy Camp Fire Heartland

On a recent weekday in the outdoor courtyard at the 1900 Building in Mission Woods, Ostergren stood next to Ron Berg as they looked at some of the images in his camera.

"The work during (the) pandemic for someone like me, who’s a commercial photographer and director, has been a total paradigm shift," says Berg. "It's been pretty much nonexistent."

His regular clients, like ad agencies and design firms, are still working from home.

The Ballet Street Project, he says, has adopted a bit of a guerilla approach to taking over the Kansas City streets, filming in iconic spots like 18th and Vine, along the Kansas City Streetcar line downtown, the West Bottoms, and Liberty Memorial and Union Station.

"As I have filmed these and been up close and personal in the streets, almost every time I get chills, they're such athletes," Berg says. "And I think we forget that."

Steve Gibson Photography
For Ballet Street Project, Lamin Pereira and Lilliana Hagerman, both members of the Kansas City Ballet, danced across the pedestrian bridge behind Union Station.

In one video clip, Liliana Hagerman and her husband, Lamin Pereira did a pas de deux, a dance duet, on the Freight House pedestrian bridge at Union Station. In regular clothes and tennis shoes.

At the time, Hagerman says, she was just a few weeks past having surgery.

"I just got to do a lot of arms and stuff and just felt the music," she says. "So it's been very easy for me to try and get myself back into dancing for real. So it's like step by step."

Dancer Danielle Fu says each location has a different energy. On the grounds of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, she and her husband, Liang Fu, did about five or six takes, exploring new ideas with the music.

"I think one of the reasons we all dance is that not only (do) we love the feeling of the movement, but you get to express who you are through the movement," she says, "and that's something that's really been lacking in the pandemic."

Liang Fu says he tried to choreograph the movement a little bit, but it was mostly improvisation.

"In a setting like the theater, it’s always staged, we’re confined inside," he says, "but in the outside, somehow the nature of the street, it gets you to feel really free."

Steve Gibson Photography
Dancers Sidney Haefs and Whitney Huell, left to right, along the Kansas City Streetcar line in downtown Kansas City.

In these uncertain times, says Tempe Ostergren, people need art more than ever, and dance can express our need for connection and openness.

"Ballet really can capture that, you know, just physically having an openness," says Ostergren.

"And we also just wanted to create something that was beautiful, expressing and uplifting and liberating for both the dancers and the audience members."

She says she and her friends are still working on the finishing touches, but look for Ballet Street Project’s own series of videos in the coming weeks.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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