“Swan Lake” on the lake

Returning to the stage

Syracuse City Ballet hosted its first in-person performance in over a year
Published: September 1, 2021

After a long year of COVID, Syracuse City Ballet dancers are finally returning to the stage to perform "Swan Lake" on Onondaga Lake.

Ballet shoes hit the outdoor stage and the dancers performed a piece from “Swan Lake” as they were facing the beautiful Onondaga waters. It had been 18 months since the Syracuse City Ballet had a live performance.

In March 2020, Syracuse City Ballet was two days away from the opening of their show, Cinderella, and at that very same time, the pandemic shook the world. Syracuse City Ballet had to cancel, with only two days notice, and put their business and all their live shows on hold.

Elizabeth Naughton, the company executive director, only joined Syracuse City Ballet in May 2020 and wasn’t there for the initial shock, but she said the company took a hard hit:

“It was devastating financially, and also was a huge setback.”

2019-2020 was Syracuse City Ballet’s biggest season to date with productions of “Dracula” and “The Nutcracker,” and they reached over 16,000 people.

According to Naughton, 60-80% of the revenue of Syracuse City Ballet came from ticket sales, so they had to implement a strategy to survive after the pandemic hit. The company is now relying on donations from fundraisers, CNY Arts and audience donors.

Syracuse City Ballet also had to let some employees go when the pandemic hit, and just like the rest of the world, they waited to see what would happen next.

Eventually, in July 2020, Syracuse City Ballet launched a digital season that lasted until January 2021. The program featured six shows, including an original piece called “Peter & the Wolf” which will premiere in front of a live audience in September.

Two Ballerinas holding hands with one arm up in the air smiling at each other during their performance
After a long year ballerinas are finally able to safely return to the stage and perform in front of a live audience.

This pandemic brought another big change for the ballet – Kathleen Rathbun, who created the company 25 years ago with cofounder Harriett Casey, recently left the company. On July 31, 2021, Syracuse City Ballet announced Rathbun’s departure from her role as artistic director.

“She is just such an incredible force,” said Naughton. “ And it was just an opportunity, I think, for her personally to take a step back.”

Rathbun left for personal reasons. She is still very close, in the same building even. Rathbun is now focusing on running the Ballet and Dance School of Upstate NY, which she started nearly 30 years ago.

After her departure, the ballet company made their ballet master, Mexico-native Aldo Kattón, the new artistic director. That means Kattón plans the entire season, is in charge of finding the dancers and selecting the repertoire.

Kattón seemed very excited about his new position. He also said he wanted to include every type of dancer in the company, not just one body type.

“I’m more open right now, for the versatility. I would like to show off the versatility of my dancers because I think dance is for everybody,” Kattón said.

Aldo Kattón leading rehearsal

Lucy Hamilton, who just turned 24, is one of the dancers Kattón selected. Hamilton arrived here two weeks before the performance from Landenberg, Pennsylvania to dance for “Ballet by the Lake.” She was performing the part of Carmen, a ballet that comes from Opera and a novella by the same name. Hamilton, like everyone else, had a tough time during the pandemic. She could barely train and didn’t perform for a whole year. So, she was really excited to perform live again:

“I love dancing. I love moving. I love the interaction with the audience,” said Hamilton. “I’m so excited.”

Hamilton will be part of all the performances coming up, including “Peter & the Wolf” and “The Nutcracker.”

Kattón will also be directing those shows. He created the show “Peter & the Wolf” for the digital season and is now really excited to bring it to a live audience. 

“Ballet by the Lake” debuted this new in-person live season on Aug. 14 and Naughton was incredibly happy with it.

“It was exhilarating,” said Naughton. “Personally, I don’t think I’ve been in the crowd that big in like a year and a half. Just me personally. So it was just incredible to have so many people in one place.”

Audience member Gina Parott, Camillus resident and a long-time Syracuse City Ballet fan, thought the performances of Ballet by the Lake were wonderful. Parrot is highly looking forward to the upcoming season.

“The venue itself was remarkable.What a perfect setup for the Ballet by the Lake,” Parrot said. “Being outside was a relief and alleviated the concerns of COVID.”

The next shows will be “Peter & the Wolf” with performances on Sept. 18 and 19th, which will also be outdoors at Syracuse Inner Harbor Amphitheater and then “The Nutcracker” will close the year in December. Syracuse City Ballet is hoping that “The Nutcracker” will be indoors.