This July marks Sierra Nevada Ballet’s 19th year of being a part of Reno’s Artown Festival. Thanks to Artown Executive Director Beth MacMillan and her dedication to the art form, every Tuesday night for the month of July dance has traditionally lit up the stage at Wingfield Park, and for 18 years SNB has performed on one of those Tuesday nights for over 2,000 people. SNB’s Dancing By The River program has become very popular with some visitors from other states planning their vacations around SNB’s Wingfield date.

This free SNB program is always different and features many styles of dance, top professional dance artists from all over the world, live music and song. This program costs SNB between $15,000 to $25,000 to produce. The funding generally comes from the E.L. Cord Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Nevada Arts Council, the City of Reno, the Carol Franc Buck Foundation and donations from individuals in the community.

This year due to COVID 19 things are very different. There are no large live performances at Wingfield Park, and there is no funding for performances. But there will be a virtual Artown Festival and SNB will be a part of it (online) presenting Dancing By The River – (Still Dancing!)

Artists are very special people, and I reached out to some of them, explaining our lack of funding. The response was amazing. Due to the generosity of many of our loyal artists, SNB will present an exciting, brand new virtual program featuring the very popular international tap star, Sam Weber; composer/musicians Susan Mazer and Dallas Smith; the wonderful international conductor/composer/musician/singer, Milton Williams; former Joffrey principal dancer, Domingo Rubio; SNB principal dancers: Ananda Bena-Weber, Erica Chipp, Oliver Adams, Karina Gonzalez (Houston Ballet), Alejandro Gonzales (Oklahoma City Ballet); SNB soloist, Carson Ford, and the full SNB company of professional dancers.

I never expected to actually enjoy creating a ballet online, but it has been both a challenge and a new creative experience. I have the honor of choreographing to the original music of African-American composer Milton Williams which begins with his beautiful song” I COULD DO ANYTHING” and goes into a moving pas de deux. Williams wrote this music over 30 years ago, but the subject matter is very appropriate for this time with social distancing, job loss, fear, isolation and social injustice. Milton explained: “Throughout my life fellow African-Americans would ask: ‘aren’t you angry at how you are treated in the world?’ My answer was a mantra which I kept repeating to myself : ‘I can do this.’ This song is my personal message.” After choreographing for almost 50 years, I am very excited to present my first original virtual ballet choreography to Milton’s music.

Another original piece on the program is by SNB’s Carson Ford to Ben Howard’s song, Keep Your Head Up. To prepare this piece, the SNB company met together (live) at various out door locations around the City, keeping social distancing and (at times) wearing masks. SNB had been meeting virtually on Zoom since mid March and the first time we all met in person was on June 17, 2020 at 11 AM at the McKinley Arts Center parking lot (thanks to Alexis Hill and the City of Reno). It was an amazingly moving experience. As I began to give the first warm up exercise to the group, we were filled with a joy that is impossible to describe. There was not a dry eye at McKinley that morning. The SNB company has enjoyed working on this piece together, and their spirit really translates through Ford’s choreography. He said: “I want to do something uplifting that helps all of us to (as the song says) keep our heads up during this time.”

This program has been a real act of love by all of the artists involved and will be presented in that spirit to our wonderful Reno community in a free virtual program. In addition SNB will present the 2012 production of Giselle that was part of the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival. Both SNB productions will be shown on the Artown website on July 14 through July 31 st .

These are very frightening times for all of us in the arts, and we can not help but ask ourselves: “will we survive this?” Each time those fears pop up, I find myself remembering the beautiful song of Milton Williams: “I could do anything ….I shall endure for I know that I can.”