Ottawa

Housebound by pandemic, performers swap lessons online

For two friends who met on the set of a hit musical, last spring's theatre shutdown could have been devastating. But when Austin Sora and Ruth Kwan decided that instead of sitting back, they'd learn something new — from each other.

Friends Austin Sora and Ruth Kwan say artistic exchange has been a lifeline

When COVID-19 lowered the curtain on the performing arts, Ruth Kwan, left, and Austin Sora, right, moved back home to Canada, where they started exchanging piano and ballet lessons online. (Submitted by Ruth Kwan and Austin Sora)

For two friends who met on the set of a hit musical, last spring's theatre shutdown could have been devastating.

But when Austin Sora and Ruth Kwan suddenly found themselves unemployed and back home with their parents in Canada, they decided that instead of sitting back, they'd learn something new — from each other.

"There's me, who can't do much of anything and falling over [while learning ballet]. But then [Austin] feels exactly the same way when she goes to the piano," joked Kwan, who began exchanging online lessons with Sora in June. "It's fun."

"It started out as one hour of ballet, one hour piano. It's turned into four hours because it's social hour as well. But it's nice to connect, support each other and share what we love with one another," said Sora, adding that the two friends have also shared some of their recent collaborations on social media.

Kwan says there were some challenges teaching Sora how to play piano over the internet, but their shared enthusiasm for learning something new has kept them both going during the pandemic. (Submitted by Ruth Kwan)

Run for the border

The two met on the Phantom of the Opera tour, where Kwan was pianist and conductor, and Sora danced. The tour ended in February 2020.

When COVID-19 hit, Sora was auditioning for new roles in New York City. She opted to move back home with her parents in Toronto for the duration of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Kwan had been performing in Miss Saigon in Florida. She remembers driving through the night to make it home before the border closed, then moving in with her in-laws in Ottawa.

We are both experts at what we do, but we're both beginners at what the other person does. It's humbling.- Austin Sora

To stay busy, Sora decided to offer online ballet lessons to friends and other performers who were suddenly out of work. Kwan signed up, but as a total beginner, she realized she needed one-on-one help.

"I obviously couldn't pay [Sora]. I just lost my job. But I said, 'I can record tracks for you on the piano if you need,'" Kwan said.

Sora replied that she'd always wanted to learn how to play the piano, and since she now had access to her grandmother's old one, it was time to learn. A weekly lesson exchange began.

Sora says it wasn't until the Phantom of the Opera stopped in Hawaii that she got to know fellow performer Kwan. This photograph was taken opening night. (Submitted by Austin Sora)

Humble beginnings

"There's something so beautiful about being a beginner and not knowing what you don't know," said Sora, adding that it's brought the friends, who got to know each other during Phantom's stop in Hawaii, closer.

"It's neat because we are both experts at what we do, but we're both beginners at what the other person does. It's humbling."

Kwan says she had a childhood dream of becoming a ballerina, but never had time to learn to dance while pursuing her music. During the pandemic, she's been able to fulfil that goal. (Submitted by Ruth Kwan)

It's also provided stability and a creative outlet during a tumultuous time.

Though Kwan and her husband had planned to return eventually to Ottawa, where Kwan was to leave full-time performance for a job in the public service, the virus sped up their timeline. She says she came to rely on the lessons during a difficult spring while she waited through the lengthy hiring process for her new job.

"I mean, it was everything. I was literally just sitting around watching TV and looking forward to my weekly lessons because it was a new challenge and something artistic that I could express in a new way," she said.

For Sora, who said she stopped dancing during the pandemic's early days because she found it difficult not being able to perform, learning piano was a way to rediscover her creativity. 

"This was a way to connect with what I love in a new way and to keep that fire alive," she explained.

After months of learning music and dance online, Kwan and Sora met up this summer in person in Kingston, Ont. Seated beside Kwan is her husband Anthony Cheung. (Submitted by Ruth Kwan)

The new normal

Both say their lives have since normalized, with Sora working part time for an arts non-profit, while Kwan began full-time work in government in August.

But they're continuing to push themselves creatively, garnering attention on social media with videos of their dance-piano collaborations.

WATCH | Dancer Austin Sora and pianist Ruth Kwan decided to teach each other their respective skills:

After pandemic job losses, pianist and ballet dancer team up to learn from each other

11 months ago
1:39
Dancer Austin Sora and pianist Ruth Kwan met while working on a hit musical, but both found themselves out of jobs when the pandemic hit. So they decided to teach each other their respective skills. 1:39

"People [are] saying, 'I'm crying,' or 'This is so nice,' and, 'This is the best thing of 2020,'" said Sora.

Though this began as a pandemic project, the two agree it's something that will continue long past a vaccine. Kwan, who's house-hunting for a place big enough for two pianos, said the two of them are good at keeping each other accountable.

Kwan was pianist and conductor for Phantom of the Opera, where she met Sora, a dancer. (Submitted by Ruth Kwan)

Sora, who plans to return to New York in the coming months, is looking at buying a keyboard.

"I think when we were going into the pandemic everyone was stressing about having their novel written or what they were going to accomplish. I never really approached that this that way," she said. "I just thought that this was a fun thing to do with my friend. And it's felt like that the whole time." 

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