Ballet

Houston Ballet Orchestra performs at Wortham for the first time since pandemic

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Houston Ballet Orchestra string musicians performed together at Wortham Theater Center for the first time since the pandemic for an upcoming ballet video project to be filmed at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Photo: Lawrence Elizabeth Knox / Lawrence Elizabeth Knox

Ermanno Florio, music director and principal conductor for Houston Ballet, remembers the last time his musicians were together onstage. It was March 11, for a mixed program dress rehearsal.

Since then, approximately 30 percent of Houston Ballet’s full-time staff has been laid off until further notice. Those remaining on the payroll have experienced a decrease in their wages. And regularly scheduled layoff periods for dancers and orchestra members’ have been extended without further notice.

Which made this month’s reunion for Houston Ballet Orchestra members all the more emotional. In mid-January, 21 string musicians performed together at Wortham Theater Center for the first time since the pandemic forced Houston performing arts venues to close.

“Because they’re all string players, we didn’t have to deal with expanded wind instruments projecting air,” Florio says. “Everyone social distanced onstage 6-feet apart with one musician per stand. Normally they share.”

Extra safety precautions were taken. Recording sessions were spread across three days, from Jan. 14 through 16, to minimize physical contact. Orchestra members submitted to two COVID-19 tests, one five days out and one immediately before the performance. They also completed health forms through an app setup by Houston Ballet, and had their temperatures taken upon arriving onsite.

“Everyone proceeded directly to their chairs to unpack. I used a microphone,” Florio adds. “It was a different way of making music, but we’re trying to be as creative as possible given the circumstances.”

The recording is slated to accompany an upcoming ballet video project to be filmed at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston later this year.

“Stanton (Welch) has this concept of dancers walking through the galleries at the museum,” Florio explains. “They’ll wear Marie Antoinette, late 18th century style costumes. The idea is to play the music we recorded as the soundtrack and have the camera follow the dancers as they interact with paintings.”

Another first, considering that Houston Ballet dancers haven’t returned to the stage yet, a company representative confirmed.

“It’s a baby step toward being back in the theater,” Florio says.

Houston Ballet anticipates additional pay cuts for the remaining 2020-2021 season. So he’ll take any win he can get. “What we do is bring people together. When the music starts there’s a sense of unity. I still get shivers thinking about it — it’s gratifying and good for the soul.”

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  • Amber Elliott

    Amber Elliott covers arts and society for the Houston Chronicle.

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