Home Blues Even vampires have the blues: Ballet dancer’s pandemic returns to center stage in Oregon

Even vampires have the blues: Ballet dancer’s pandemic returns to center stage in Oregon

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Chris Kaiser rehearses in his cape for the role of Dracula with Oregon Ballet Theater. He spoke with OPB about his experience as a ballet dancer without a hall, group rehearsals or performances during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brian Simcoe/Oregon Ballet Theater

Chris Kaiser spent the first two months of 2022 getting inside Dracula’s head.

“He’s definitely bloodthirsty, [and] I think I’m a bit heartbroken by the passing of his wife,” he said. “It seems like nothing can scratch his itch and he just wants more.”

As a soloist with the Oregon Ballet TheaterKaiser stars as the Prince of Darkness in the company’s staging of the ballet Draculawhich is on stage in Portland until February 26.

It’s a world away from where it was in early 2020, when, like all performance venues, the Oregon Ballet Theater had to abruptly close. Like many people, Kaiser initially thought it would be a short break from performing.

“We all thought, you know, it was going to be two weeks,” he said. “So we were like, ‘Oh nice, we have a two-week vacation.'”

Ballet is physically demanding, so the shutdown presented an entirely different physical challenge for Kaiser: how do you stay in elite dance shape when you have no instructor, no dance company and no studio?

Kaiser lives with his partner, Jessica Lind, who also dances with Oregon Ballet Theater. Together, they did what everyone else did: they put together a quick do-it-yourself routine at home.

“We made our own ballet barre out of PVC pipe,” he said. “We woke up every day and opened a ballet class on YouTube and practiced every day.”

The time away from the ballet studio gave Kaiser the space to experiment with his workouts a bit. He did more cross-training than he normally would. He found time for hiking and camping. He even dug into his home-brewing hobby.

“I ended up brewing quite a bit of beer during the pandemic,” he said with a laugh.

But it wasn’t all workouts and recreation. The couple could do their normal ballet barre exercises, but their core practice – the moves that involve jumping and spinning through the air – weren’t possible in a Portland apartment.

Then this pandemic malaise also started to set in.

“It was like, ‘Why am I doing this?'” Kaiser recalled. “’Why am I getting up? Why am I training? Am I going to be on stage again?’”

“But in the back of my head,” he added, “I was thinking, ‘This is all I have. All I have is my training.

The Oregon Ballet Theater will end up being closed for 18 months. Kaiser said something unexpected began to happen around this time: He didn’t get weak; in fact, he suspects he’s gotten stronger with the extra cross-training. But eventually her body began to change.

“It was this blessing in disguise,” he said. “Also, this really difficult thing.”

Since Kaiser was unable to dance ballet for six to eight hours a day, his muscles began to change. His turnout — the classic move where a dancer twists their legs so their knees face outward with their heels together — wasn’t quite right anymore.

“I feel like, anatomically, humans aren’t supposed to stand in these positions,” he said. “So we ballet dancers have to shape our muscles. Repeating those moves is the only way to do that.

Chris Kaiser in rehearsal with Oregon Ballet Theatre.  The theater was closed for a year and a half, empty of live performances.

Chris Kaiser in rehearsal with Oregon Ballet Theatre. The theater was closed for a year and a half, empty of live performances.

Brian Simcoe/Oregon Ballet Theater

When the ballet finally resumed rehearsals months later, a lot of things were different. The dancers had to get back in shape, but they also had to relearn how to dance together.

“When everyone is dancing together, you kind of have to be aware of where you are in space and when,” he said. “I feel like it’s a muscle unto itself, and all dancers kind of lost that muscle.”

Many new restrictions have also been put in place. The dancers had to rehearse – and still rehearse – while wearing masks. For a time, only dancers who lived together could practice duets with each other. This gave Kaiser and Lind the chance to dance professionally with each other at OBT for the first time, which was a little exciting for him.

Over time, however, their muscles reconfigured. Their participation rates have improved. They have rediscovered this sense of dancing side by side.

After those months of cross-training and doubt, Kaiser said everything felt fresher than it had in a long time.

“It’s almost like, ‘Wow, this is a new art form I’ve discovered,'” he said.

Slowly the performances also started to come back. First a live-streamed ballet with a virtual audience, then a live performance outdoors along Portland’s waterfront. Then, finally, back to the theatre.

Now Kaiser is on stage as Dracula. Two years into the pandemic, he’s still finding ways to push his body, playing a character that’s still under stress.

“The way I carry myself, I feel like I always tend to struggle,” he said. “Like, I’m so hungry, it’s coming from within.”

Listen to Chris Kaiser’s conversation with OPB Weekend Edition host John Notarianni using the audio player above.