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A Year Later, Some Eugene Performing Artists Hang On Despite Uncertainty

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Melorie Begay/KLCC News
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Changing COVID-19 case counts have put venues and artists in precarious positions as they must adapt to shifting risk levels. KLCC’s Melorie Begay checked in with a few members of Eugene’s performing arts community to see how they’re navigating the current state of live entertainment. 

 

Eugene Concert Choir Artistic and Executive Director Diane Retallack says she’s tried to be as informed as possible about safety because singing, particularly in a choir, has proven to be risky in a pandemic. One of the earliest super spreader events in 2020 happened at a choir practice in Washington state. 

“Here’s one of the most beautiful artforms in the history of the world, and it’s dangerous, it’s shocking, it’s a terrible thing to experience,” she said.

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Credit Eugene Concert Choir
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Dr. Diane Retallack, Eugene Concert Choir Artistic Director & Conductor, conducting during their Christmas performance in 2020. The Holidays Around the World concert was recorded and released on YouTube.

Most of their performances have been cancelled, but Retallack says they’ve been able utilize technology in new ways. They invested in equipment for singers to perform live without latency issues. And they started producing video content for YouTube, like last year’s Christmas performance.

“The pandemic forces you into doing things that you say ‘well someday I’d like to do this and slowly we were stepping up to a new kind of presence like that but no I’ve done way more in a lot of different ways of reaching people through the internet,” she said.

Retallack says she’s not sure when they’ll return to normal performances, but it’s something she’s looking forward to.

 

She says the concert choir is planning to hold a Beatles Forever concert outdoors in June and the chamber choir, Eugene Vocal Arts, is currently rehearsing for a show called In Celebration of Woman that’s expected to open soon. 

Eugene Symphony Violinist Lisa McWhorter, says she's eager to get back on stage, but she’s cautiously optimistic.

“I mean I can imagine, but that’s where from this year, it’s like well it’s hard to hope for this and then I’m trying not to hope for this, I’m trying to just be open to whatever,” MacWhorter said.

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Credit Melorie Begay/KLCC News
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Violinist Lisa McWhorter stands in her backyard. McWhorter says she cautiously optimistic about when she'll get to play at a normal performance. Regardless she's thrilled about the possibility.

McWhorter says she spent the last year looking inward and reflecting on her identity as a musician.

“Talking to people who are missing hearing performances and hearing about people who really want to hear live music and that that’s really sustaining for them, or something that’s missing for them,” she said. “I realize that is actually really missing for me also. Being on the other side of that. The giving side of that. ”

McWorther says losing the ability to perform in front of others has been challenging. Like the Eugene Concert Choir, the Eugene Symphony held outdoor performances and virtual events in lieu of in person perfromances seen pre-pandemic.

“I love the music so much, so I like to share it with other people. And my early experiences with music were being an audience member so that’s the part that I like to give like ‘oh this is the music that I love to hear so I want to give it to others people to hear,” she said.

Pulling together performances whether virtual, in open air, or with a limited audience has been both difficult and a source of inspiration for the mother-daughter duo Donna and Hannah Bontrager.

“You’re living with uncertainty and there’s so many things you can’t pass along on as sure decisions to a whole team of people whose lives and livelihood, and at least near future, depends on decisions that you make and how well thought out they are," Hannah say, "I’ve just been so grateful for being able to think through those decisions with my mom."

 

Hannah is both a dancer and the Executive Director of Ballet Fantastique, and Donna is the Choreographer and Costume Designer. Hannah says pre-pandemic life was a constant grind for them both, but the pandemic slowed things down.

“The silver-lining of that rest time I think is maybe a time of artistic renewal and having a little bit more space and breath to think about how things could be different,” Hannah said.

While the Bontrager's had the opportunity to explore COVID-friendly performances, like holding one on a golf course, they have the added pressure of trying to figure out how to stay afloat. To add to this, Hannah welcomed a baby boy named Finn in March 2020.

 

With indoor performances on hold most of the year, she and Donna constantly have to maneuver around changing risk levels. It can be financially risky to plan a show only to have it cancelled.

Donna says canceling their New Year’s show was when she realized how big an impact the pandemic had on the company. Though she says financial support in the form of grants has helped.

 

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Credit Melorie Begay/KLCC News
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Donna Bontrager (left) and daughter Hannah Bontrager (right) stand for applause after the show in April. Together they own Ballet Fantastique.

"It really helped and we knew that we had those funds and we should keep working and keep putting together programs, we should reschedule the thing that didn’t work on News Years and we should keep on producing,” Donna said.

Ballet Fantastique returned in early April to a limited audience that was live-streamed. Jewels was a sort of greatest hits show featuring previous works and performances. This look back, Donna says, is part of what keeps them going.

“We’ve brought pieces back on the stage that go back at least eight years, some of them. It was amazing to see our product and what we’ve accomplished so far, and it was encouraging,” Donna said. ”So to be honest about being scared I don’t think I’ve ever been super scared about this whole situation. I have a lot of hope.”

It’s unclear when live entertainment will go back to normal though some have their eyes set on fall. Until then, it seems artists are still at the mercy of the pandemic.

Copyright 2021 KLCC

Melorie Begay is a multimedia journalist for KLCC News. She was the Inaugural KLCC Public Radio Foundation Journalism Fellow. She has a bachelors in Multimedia Journalism from the University of New Mexico. She previously interned at KUNM public radio in Albuquerque, NM and served as a fellow for the online news publication New Mexico In Depth.
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