Lesley Rausch in Ulysses Dove's "Red Angels" photo @ Angela Sterling
It’s been forever since I last posted here.
Pandemic. You know how it is.
But, it’s time to stop using global disease as an excuse not to write, so here goes.
A few months ago, I ran into Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch on the street near the Seattle Center. We got to talking about the year+ of Covid, about ourselves, about our dreams for the future.
I’d just retired from my 35-year career in public radio. The pandemic put the kibosh on my plans to attend grad school in New York, so I was thinking out loud about my next step. Lesley—who’s approaching 40, an age when many ballet dancers contemplate their futures—knew exactly what I meant when I talked about transitions. We said our goodbyes, looking forward to PNB’s next artistic season.
That conversation really stuck with me, so in August, I asked Lesley if she’d be willing to talk to me regularly over the next months, about everything from getting back into ballet shape to what it means to be one of PNB’s senior dancers to her thoughts on the future.
We met for the first time on a beautiful early September afternoon. The yellowing leaves on the trees above the bench where we sat, not far from PNB’s Seattle Center home, filtered the sunshine although not the construction noise from nearby Climate Pledge Arena.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of emotion when we come back to the theater,” Lesley told me. “On both sides of the curtain.”
I’d asked her about the ballet company’s upcoming season. On September 24th, Rausch and her fellow dancers are scheduled to return to the McCaw Hall stage for their first performance for a live audience in more than a year. I write “scheduled,” because if we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that nothing is certain. For now, though, both artists and ballet fans like me are looking forward to the big night.
For Lesley, it’s been a long and emotionally arduous road back to the stage.
Like almost every arts presenter in the world, PNB shut its doors in mid-March, 2020, the day after the dress rehearsal of choreographer-in-residence Alejandro Cerrudo’s “One Thousand Pieces.”
Lesley wasn’t onstage that night. She was rehabbing an injury, prepping to perform the title role in the classic ballet “Giselle,” the next scheduled presentation last April. But when Governor Jay Inslee mandated that all public venues shut down, her plans went out the window.
“We didn’t know if--or when--we’d be coming back,” she recalls.
As the weeks passed, it became clear that PNB’s artistic season---at least as planned—was over. Although the ballet company quickly decided to pivot to a digital season, starting with previously recorded performances, nobody could predict when they’d dance again for live audiences.
For Lesley and her husband, former PNB Principal Dancer Batkhurel Bold, the end of the artistic season normally meant they'd return home to Hawai'i. But Covid travel restrictions trapped them in a Seattle limbo: no jobs, no way to travel, no clue what to expect moving forward.
Like all of us, Lesley struggled to keep her spirits up. Often, she couldn’t summon up the energy to attend the online classes PNB offered its dancers. Instead, she did a lot of Pilates, and took long walks with her husband, exploring Seattle neighborhoods they’d never had the time to see when they were both working.
She was grateful to get regular unemployment checks, and even though PNB had laid off the majority of its staff, company managers committed to continuing health care benefits.
Despite her relatively stable situation, Lesley was emotionally gutted by the extended break from her beloved ballet. She’d never spent so much time away from the studio. Unlike her younger colleagues who could spring back into their careers after a six-month hiatus, as Lesley homed in on her 20th season with PNB, she knew her performing days were numbered.
Lesley as the Stepmother in Jean-Christophe Maillot's "Cendrillon." photo @Angela Sterling
PNB called back its dancers in August, 2020, but it wasn’t business as usual. Operating under strict Covid safety protocols, the dancers were divided into small pods of four to six people. They rarely encountered anyone outside their group.
Lesley hated the separation from her friends and colleagues, but she says the hardest thing was getting her body in shape for the demands ballet would place on it.
“It was a shock,” she says. “All those tiny little muscles that allow me to roll slowly up to pointe, they weren’t there anymore.”
She remembers those first couple of weeks back as “tortuous;” each evening she’d return home in tears.
“It was really hard to believe that I could ever get back to the place I was before.”
Beyond the work needed to get her body ready, Lesley was gutted by the fact that Covid protocols dictated that only dancers who lived together could dance as partners, in the studio and onstage. For her, it was the loss of one of the things she loves best about ballet.
“It’s such a unique experience, and I didn’t get it at all last year.” She pauses, as tears well up in her eyes. “In a way I took it for granted.”
Lesley did have one opportunity to work with a partner, though. She was paired with Dylan Wald in a duet from George Balanchine’s “Apollo” for a performance marking his promotion to Principal Dancer.Lesley and Dylan Wald in Balanchine's "Apollo," 2020. photo @Lindsay Thomas
It’s been almost a year since that performance streamed online, but I still remember the shock I felt when I watched Lesley reach out her hand to Dylan, their fingers lightly touching. We’d all been shuttered away for so many months, deprived of casual hugs, handshakes and physical contact. Seeing these two dancers connect made me weep both for what we’d all lost, and in gratitude to the artists who let me experience that contact vicariously.
Last summer, Lesley didn’t know if she’d even get the chance to dance for a live audience again. If the pandemic dragged on for too long, she feared it would be just too difficult to summon the discipline to work as hard as she needed to prepare her body.
Now, though, as she and her colleagues approach the launch of the new artistic season, she’s less anxious, maybe even a little hopeful. She made it to another artistic season with PNB.
But Lesley’s clear that while things seem close to normal in the studio, nothing is normal, or at least not the way it was in the “before times”. Millions of us heading back to classrooms or office cubicles are experiencing that same combination of hope and trepidation. We long to have our old lives back.
What’s changed, at least at PNB, is a lot more understanding about how to dance with the a deadly virus.
“We’re all in masks, and there are stringent protocols about what you can do,” Lesley says. This season, the company gets to rehearse in larger groups, rather than in the small pods they were restricted to last season.
Plus, the new rules allow vaccinated company members to dance together. Lesley’s been rehearsing a pas de deux from George Balanchine’s “Diamonds” with Dylan Wald. She’s also learning two duets from Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Silent Ghost,” one of three Cerrudo ballets that make up PNB’s opening program, “Singularly Cerrudo.”
“To be able to come back and really, truly work. It’s such a blessing,” Lesley says. But she confesses that it’s been an emotional homecoming.
“I cried at least five times the first day back.”
Lesley Rausch anticipates more tears when the McCaw Hall curtain goes up on September 24th. Onstage and off.