When my telephone rang very early on a September morning and a quantity from Finland appeared on the display screen, I instantly thought, “The project is dead.”
Amid the ever-worsening pandemic, I used to be imagined to be heading for Helsinki to function the dramaturge and inventive adviser on a brand new full-length ballet, “Jekyll & Hyde,” on the Finnish National Ballet. My agent wasn’t eager on the thought of me attempting to get to Finland with the virus raging, even when by some miracle, the ballet, which was set to premiere on Nov. 6, was nonetheless taking place.
The prognosis for the American performing arts was so grim although, I couldn’t even visualize being in rehearsal in my very own nation once more. So I used to be willfully holding out for Helsinki, for a undertaking that had been in growth for over three years.
It was Tytti Siukonen, the ebullient and environment friendly producer of “Jekyll & Hyde,” on the telephone that morning. It took me a second to comprehend what she was saying: Everything’s shifting ahead, and I ought to e-book a flight as quickly as potential. Val Caniparoli, the present’s creator and choreographer who, like me, lives in San Francisco, had begun creating the ballet on Zoom in May whereas we have been in lockdown; he had made it to Helsinki in August and was deep in rehearsals. Now the remaining of us needed to get there.
Like a lot of the world, Finland had locked down for a number of months final spring. But a mix of elements — together with the nation’s small inhabitants, wonderful well being care system and belief in authorities — meant that by summer season, the case load was very low and the nation was largely open.
Management and security specialists on the Finnish National Opera and Ballet started making a “preparedness group” in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and Culture, following suggestions from the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, to determine the best way to begin up once more.
But the United States was on Finland’s “red alert” listing, so Americans weren’t allowed in besides beneath extraordinary circumstances. Since most members of the inventive group for “Jekyll & Hyde” (together with the set and costume designer David Israel Reynoso and the lighting designer Jim French) have been American, Tytti was terrified that the undertaking would collapse if the corporate couldn’t get us into the nation.
The excellent news, she informed me on the telephone, was that efficient instantly, artists might be included in the “special group” class, created for these doing duties deemed “essential” for a given discipline. Essential. I took that in for a second. It was astonishing that the Finns have been involved sufficient about conserving cultural alternate alive that they might provide artists a particular monitoring quantity to get us throughout their locked-down border. “Really?” I mentioned to Tytti in disbelief. “Yes. Come. We need you.”
I shouldn’t have been so stunned. Art has performed a significant position in bringing this as soon as poor and remoted nation into the worldwide enviornment, and the federal government subsidizes tradition in an enormous method. That’s why artists proceed to be employed — and why, though socially distanced performances won’t ever cowl their prices, firms in Finland are placing them on, safe in the data they’ve a monetary cushion.
So I went to Helsinki. These are edited excerpts from my day by day journal.
Oct. 6: A digital rehearsal
I e-book a flight for Oct. 15. I’ve to get a Covid-19 check 72 hours earlier than flying, self-quarantine for 72 hours upon arrival, after which get a second check — if each checks are damaging, I’ll be granted entrance into the opera home for rehearsals.
To make amends for what’s taking place, I be a part of a midnight (for me) digital manufacturing assembly with the group for the primary time. It’s 10 a.m. in Helsinki and all of the division heads and plenty of craftspeople are on the decision. I scan the faces of the production-starved Americans onscreen, as we witness a performing arts group in full swing. We’ve all forgotten what this looks like.
The huge problem of the day is the music. Only 30 gamers can match into the socially distanced pit, so the sections of the rating requiring large-scale orchestrations must be prerecorded and performed on tape; different components shall be carried out stay. Regardless, the entire rating needs to be recorded, in case a musician checks constructive in the course of the run. The conductor, Garrett Keast, a Texan who lives in Berlin, has solely two weeks to rehearse and file the entire thing with two separate teams of musicians. Scary.
Oct. 12: Nasal swabs by the bay
I get examined at a free web site run by the town of San Francisco down by the Embarcadero, the place you stare at sailboats on the bay as they stick a swab up your nostril. Quick and simple — and my damaging outcomes arrived by way of textual content this afternoon. I assume I’m actually going.
Oct. 15: Takeoff
I’ve traveled incessantly my entire profession however have forgotten the best way to pack. How chilly is it? What type of electrical plugs do they use? Is opening night time dressy in Finland? (Will we make it to opening night time?) Mostly my suitcase is full of protecting gear — masks, goggles, meals for the airplane. I can’t consider how nervous I really feel.
Oct. 16: Essential employee, ballet division
I’m sitting (double-masked) at Heathrow Airport Terminal 2, having survived the primary leg of the journey. I had a close to catastrophe on the San Francisco airport: When I introduced my papers to the employees at British Airways, they informed me nobody was allowed into Finland besides relations.
I gave them my contract and my designation as an “essential worker.” They checked out me in bewilderment: “Essential? What do you do?” I sheepishly defined that I’m the inventive marketing consultant on a brand new ballet. Silence. The gatekeepers at British Airways can not wrap their heads across the mixture of “ballet” and “essential.” And they definitely can’t learn the Finnish doc. Eventually, they figured the thought was so unusual it should be true, they usually relented.
Oct. 17: “We’re Finns — we like social distancing”
Every seat is taken on the Finnair flight to Helsinki. There’s no social distancing (though everybody wears a masks), and persons are milling about in the aisles. Nerve-racking.
When we land, the border-control guard checks my papers and welcomes me to Finland: The mixture of “essential worker” and “artist” doesn’t faze him for a second.
On the experience into city, my driver regales me (in wonderful English) with tales of Sanna Marin, Finland’s 35-year-old prime minister (who also happens to be a vegetarian, raised by same-sex parents). “She’s not from my party, but I respect her,” he says. “We all do. She’s done a great job with Covid, so we listen to what she says. Besides, we’re Finns — we like social distancing.”
Oct. 17-19: Getting to work
I don’t sleep much because I’m too excited to see what’s happening with “Jekyll & Hyde”; my reward is a four-hour Zoom rehearsal. I love watching Val work — he’s so calm and specific, you can’t guess where he’s going, and then he puts it together, and suddenly it’s all clear. The dancers are fierce and alive. In masks. I long to be in the room.
While I wait to be tested, I walk for miles around the city. Trams are full, kids are in school, everything’s open, restaurants are packed. A hip-hop group is dancing in the plaza. I pass an egg-shaped chapel made from bent birch wood and then a church dug out of prehistoric rock. Inside, people are singing.
Oct. 20: Covid-19 test
At dawn, I go to a neighborhood clinic for my Covid-19 test. Fingers crossed.
Oct. 21: So close …
Tytti sounds upset on the phone. I panic — have I tested positive? The lab didn’t get a decent sample, she tells me. I’ll have to try again, which I do immediately.
But it means I can’t be at the first onstage rehearsal tonight. Instead, I watch on Zoom as more than 100 dancers and crew members cram into the theater to listen to Madeleine Onne, the company’s artistic director, welcome everyone. And then suddenly, 16 asylum beds swirl onstage, forming the mental asylum where Dr. Jekyll undertakes his experiments. I’m like a hungry child with my face pressed up to the window of a cake shop, so close I can smell it.
Oct. 22: An actual live rehearsal
My negative test result in hand, I have a complete day of rehearsal in a theater for the first time in almost a year. Backstage, watching the dancers warm up and the crew set the stage, I feel immediately and blissfully at home.
Val asks me to do some character work with the dancers, who try valiantly to understand what this jet-lagged American in a face mask is saying in rapid-fire English. There are lots of story issues to be solved and transitions to be imagined, but the work feels exactly where it should be. At lunch, we gather in a beautiful light-filled cafeteria and watch tiny dancers eat huge plates of food.
They give me a 10-page document of Covid-19 mitigations to adhere to. I wonder, but not aloud, whether we’ll make it to opening.
Oct. 25: Changing it up
We’ve divided up, so that I work with Val’s assistant, Maiqui Manosa, on coaching while Val continues staging in the studio. The ballet has 19 scenes, and it’s a huge challenge to complete. We make Covid adjustments where necessary. The ballet begins with Robert Louis Stevenson hallucinating from drugs that combat his lung disease; we dissuade the dancer from actually coughing, fearing the audience will think it’s the dancer who is sick and not the character.
Oct. 26- 28: Our best and worst instincts
Today, I finally get to see the ending. The ballet builds to the moment when Jekyll and Hyde battle it out in a complex duet for two almost naked men. It’s a visceral fight between our best instincts and our worst. I find it incredibly moving to watch these dancers, so vulnerable and so strong.
And then, at night, we gather in a dark theater and start building light cues. I had forgotten the thrill of that first moment when a lighting designer transforms the stage into the mysterious world of our imaginations. It feels miraculous … and also like a profound return to normalcy.
Oct. 29: A first pass
This morning is our first rehearsal with the orchestra. It’s heart-stopping just to walk in and hear musicians tuning. We have to stop and start several times, but by a small miracle, we actually make it through the entire ballet with about three minutes to spare. Madeleine is elated. Now we can finesse.
Oct. 29: A night at the opera
Tonight, I attend the opera! A real live one, called “Jaal” (or “Ice”), performed on the stage where “Jekyll & Hyde” will be, with full orchestra, 100 singers, a new Finnish score and a creative team of female artists. The theater was only about a quarter full — but when the lights went down and those gorgeous live voices began filling the space, I wanted to cry. At intermission, there were pre-ordered drinks waiting at candlelit tables, people talking about the show and taxis waiting outside, just like old times.
Oct. 31: Keeping the story taut
Happy Halloween. Val and I walk home from dinner late at night, trying to sort through Jekyll’s journey in Act 1. A lot of time elapses between when he drinks the transformative potion and when he actually turns into Hyde, so sustaining the drug’s euphoria until his “alter ego” appears is tough. We come up with a solution to try on Monday.
Nov. 2: Pre-election jitters
We’ve now introduced three dramatic “sightings” of Hyde in Act 1, renewed jolts of adrenaline that keep Jekyll’s conflict alive. It works, and we feel jubilant until we remember that tomorrow is the election back home, which immediately floods us with anxiety.
Nov. 3: Synchronicity
A muscular dress run with Cast 3 in the midst of chaotic election news from home. I sit in the balcony and watch the pianist in the pit performing Chopin in perfect accord with the dancer playing Stevenson, though neither can see the other.
Nov 6: Opening night
Everyone is remarkably calm at our final rehearsal. And then suddenly, there we are, in fancy dress plus face masks, holding our breath at 7 p.m. as the lights dim on a night we never thought would happen, in this sane and reasonable country where art still seems to matter.
Lucas Jerkander and Michal Krcmar, our Jekyll and Hyde, find their groove immediately. Even though the theater is at half-capacity (600 people), the energy is palpable. It occurs to me that the story of Jekyll and Hyde is perfect for this moment, in which the highest and lowest of our dueling natures are on full and equal display.
Knowing that my next opening night may be in the distant future, I try to savor every second. After the applause, we all gather backstage, where Madeleine thanks, by name, every single person who created this premiere. And then we elbow bump and go home, elated and grateful.
Nov 7 At 5 a.m., I head to the airport. In line for my Finnair flight, I am surrounded by a group of passengers in full hazmat suits, goggles, gloves, masks, face shields, the works. Who are they? Where are they going? Realizing that the world is suffering through another enormous wave of the virus bursts my monthlong bubble. I close my eyes and try to hold on to the memory of last night. It will have to last me a very long time.
Carey Perloff is a director and playwright who served as artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater for 25 years. She is the author of “Beautiful Chaos: A Life in the Theater.”