My Life in the Age of COVID: Boston Ballet Principal Dancer Lia Cirio

The Boston ballerina was supposed to spend the month of March dancing the lead in Carmen. Then, the pandemic happened.

Lia Cirio and Tigran Mkrtchyan in Jorma Elo’s Carmen, photo by Liza Voll; courtesy of Boston Ballet

As the COVID-19 pandemic upends every aspect of Boston life, we’re checking in with some local residents to learn how they’re processing our new normal. They’ll share serious thoughts on their concerns for the city—and yes, some silly recommendations on what to binge-watch, too. For the rest of the series, click here.

On Thursday, March 12, Boston Ballet principal Lia Cirio was rehearsing onstage at the Boston Opera House, running through last minute notes before opening night of Carmen. But then, just a few hours before the curtain was scheduled to rise, Cirio and her colleagues received some shocking news from their director—the ballet was getting postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak, before they could perform the program even once for an audience. Now, instead of mounting performances every night as a feisty Spanish antiheroine, Cirio has found herself doing pliés in her kitchen in her Jamaica Plain home. We talked to Cirio about how she’s keeping herself busy, what worries her about the future, and what a professional ballerina reaches for when she needs comfort food.

How surprised were you to learn that Carmen was going to be postponed? What was receiving that news like?

It felt like the stage was pulled out from under us. I think I was just in shock that it happened so quickly—we had heard that a bunch of our fellow dancers at San Francisco Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet had had their shows cancelled or postponed, so we were all kind of whispering about it. And I have a friend in the hospital industry who was telling us that it was going to happen pretty soon. So I knew this was coming, but I thought we would at least get to opening night or the first weekend. Even a couple days after, I was still shocked, disappointed, and sad.

What is your level of concern right now?

I am pretty concerned. I go through phases where I’m just awestruck, and can’t believe this is happening to our world. And then I go through phases where I’m very anxious and almost in tears because of the uncertainty—I feel like it’s going to really affect me and my world, the arts community, and the funding and things like that. I’m wondering how we will stay afloat. Of course I’m concerned about everyone’s health and containing this virus, but I’m also looking at the bigger picture—this is my livelihood; it’s what I get up in the morning for. So wondering how we will continue that is really hard.

How have you been coping?

For a few days I was really in wallowing mode, just watching Netflix and not being very active. But then my mom sent me a quote on Instagram that said “Victory comes from finding opportunities in problems,” and that inspired me to do something to help me cope. I’ve always wanted to start some sort of clothing line where my designs could benefit charities, and I thought this would be a perfect time. So I created some shirts to sell, and the profits benefit the Greater Boston Food Bank and the Boston Artists Relief Fund that they just set up. The design is just something simple— [they say] “Art heals, wash your hands.” It’s a reminder to wash your hands, but also to remember that art is a huge part of our lives and that it brings joy and helps people when they’re in a terrible time. So, selling those has been an uplifting thing for me to help me get out of my rut.

These past couple of weeks have certainly looked different than what you expected. Walk me through what your daily routine looks like now that you’re not performing every day.

I’m trying not to sleep in too much because, as dancers, we have to have a schedule; we have to be kind of strict. So I get up between 8:30 and 9. I make coffee. Then I feed the cat I’m fostering through Gifford Cat Shelter—that’s been fun for this whole quarantine thing; it kind of was perfect timing! And then by 11, I try to either do a pilates or ab series or our physical therapy. Our physical therapist at Boston Ballet set up this thing so we can do our dynamic stretch class, which is stretching and cardio, remotely. And then I do a barre, and try to do as much center work as possible just to keep my technique going.

As dancers, we’re so used to daily class and rehearsals and moving in a studio, and just sitting around on a couch doesn’t maintain our physique or technique. Usually if we had this much time off, we would be in the studio working out and staying in shape, but we’re not allowed in the studios.

What are you using for your barre at home?

My kitchen island! Or sometimes I just do a center barre without the barre, which is a different way of working, but it’s great.

Anyway, after that, I of course Netflix and catch up on stuff. I’m just trying to stay busy.

Cirio working from home. Photo courtesy Boston Ballet

What is it that you’re missing the most about normal, pre-social-distancing life?

Seeing my colleagues and just being around them. Dance is so physical and you’re touching each other all the time, so it’s very strange to not have that contact. I also just miss jumping in the studio and getting to be free and move. Dance is my therapy in life—I take all my emotions and put it into my art. So not having that outlet has been tough.

How have you been navigating relationships and staying connected?

I discovered this app called House Party and have been using that with my friends, two from New York and two from here, all dancers, and it was super fun. That was a great thing. Almost every night, I’ve either FaceTimed with people, or done a House Party. It’s interesting because I’ve been talking even with people that I normally wouldn’t text or just don’t talk to as much. It’s like we all just need to vent or be speaking to each other. I have a lot of good friends in American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, and Miami City Ballet, and everyone’s feeling the pain of having shows cancelled or postponed. So it’s not like we’re alone, which is nice.

What have you learned about yourself during this unprecedented period?

I have to be busy or I go crazy. Also, I definitely snack when I’m bored.

What have you been keeping in your fridge for comfort food?

I really love the Amy’s cheese enchiladas. I have those in my freezer. And Cheetos puffs. When I’m dancing I’m usually not able to eat a lot and I want to eat really healthy, so it has been nice to just be like, “oh, I can eat this now.”

Are there any tasks, hobbies, or back burner projects that you’re now getting the chance to pursue?

I finally got a chance to organize my closet and purge a lot of dresses that I’ve had since I was 18. I did my taxes. And then I’m choreographing a piece for the Boston Ballet mainstage next year, so I’ve been trying to find music for that. When I choreograph, I like to have a story or a word or a poem that inspires me, so I’ve been trying to figure that out as well.

I also was getting annoyed that I was on Instagram so much, so I kind of just threw my phone down and decided to pull out all this friendship bracelet making stuff that my friends and I got when we went to a lake on vacation a long time ago. So I’ve made a bunch of friendship bracelets just to keep busy and not look at my phone!

If someone’s quarantine goal is to become more cultured, which ballet would you recommend they look up on YouTube?

Aww, I love that! Well, Swan Lake is the purest and just has the best music. For a contemporary ballet though, which can also grab people, I’d say look up Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort. Those are two of my favorites.