This story originally aired on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday.
It was a warm Friday night in Hermann Park.
Free tickets for covered seats at Miller Outdoor Theatre, released a week earlier online, were claimed within minutes.
And on that night, with the hill overlooking the stage filled with people picnicking and watching eagerly, Houston Ballet returned for its first in-person performance in more than a year.
"I actually got a bit emotional driving to the theatre for the first time, which sort of caught me off guard," she said.
Leading up to the performance, Miller said she felt anxious. But when she arrived, it hit her how much the audience – not just the performers – were waiting for this moment.
"You know, as a dancer in the studio you have all these things going through your head,” she said. “Am I going to slip and fall on stage? Can I get through it anymore? It's been 14 months since we had a performance.”
"And then driving up to the theatre and seeing everybody just getting together, it was like – that doesn't matter, nobody cares if I make a mistake, it's about being up there and the connection with the audience again," Miller added.
The ballet’s 2021-2022 season officially begins in September. And while the evening of May 7 marked Houston Ballet's return to live dance, there were key differences: temperature checks, masks backstage and COVID-19 testing three times a week leading up to the show. These protocols, developed with Houston Methodist Hospital, allowed maskless dancers to partner safely together.
"You know, that moment right before your music starts and they say, ‘OK, we'll take your mask now,' is just so exciting," Miller said. "And then you get to go on stage and do your thing. And the audience was so there with us. It was just wonderful."
Miller performed a pas de deux, or a duet, called "Flower Festival in Genzano" by choreographer August Bournonville, with soloist Hayden Stark.
It's a very technically challenging piece, said Miller, but the pure feeling of happiness and the feeling that she was lucky to be dancing that night relaxed her.
"I just let it all go," she said, before adding with a laugh: "Yeah, I feel pretty pleased with how it went, which is something you never hear a dancer say.”
The program, entitled "Reignited," included only solos and duets, and featured just 10 dancers from the 61-member company. To allow time for the air on stage to disperse between dances, Houston Ballet displayed dance films produced during the pandemic on a big outdoor screen.
Another choice made for COVID safety was the use of recorded music to accompany the dancers, to avoid crowding musicians in the orchestra pit. Instead, string players of the Houston Ballet Orchestra performed on stage to kick off the program – also marking their first time to perform for the public in more than a year.
Sherry Cheng was in the audience that night. For her, the joy on stage was "palpable."
"Every leap, every turn, every single element they executed ... just the heart of it, is what's so wonderful," she said.
Cheng said that, even with the creativity displayed by artists during the pandemic, nothing can take the place of live performance: the energy that flows between performer and audience, and the feeling of having the hometown ballet company back on stage.
"Just the ovations and clapping after every single solo ... they were just being cheered on the whole night," she said. "It wasn't just clapping, it was literally whooping and hollering! And I actually loved doing that."
After a year defined by isolation, Cheng said she was moved by the sight of bodies touching – lifting and embracing each other in dance – a sign that, maybe soon, we can all be closer again.
"I think everybody in the arts is feeling more hopeful that things will start to return to normal," said Cheng, who is also a musician and writer. "A lot of groups have announced fall seasons with that hope, and things could still change. But we always start off with that hope."