As Anchorage and Alaska hunker down during the coronavirus pandemic, many people crave the artistic, athletic and social gatherings that play vital roles in normal times. With illnesses on the rise here, those gatherings have increasingly shifted online. In Anchorage, several arts groups, public workers and small businesses are turning toward their webcams to connect with their communities, in many cases creating free content, as the world confronts the pandemic. Here are five.

Loussac Library children's librarian Elizabeth Nicolai streams a bedtime story session with help from a puppet on March 24, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Storytime

The Loussac Library’s head children’s librarian Elizabeth Nicolai sat at the front of a small theater, just as she and other staff members usually do most days. But last week, it was empty, the room quiet except her voice as she began the “Hello, Children” song for her audience.

Lots of librarians are streaming storytime while their facilities are closed, but Nicolai said she sees value in being a familiar face for Anchorage children during a scary and confusing time. She notices familiar family names who tune in as she reads.

“We miss the kids. I’m glad we can still do this,” she said.

Nicolai credits authors and publishers who have granted permission for their work to be used this way. On Tuesday, she read “It’s Time For Bed,” by Ceporah Mearns and Jeremy Debicki, and illustrated by Tim Mack, and “If I Was The Sunshine,” by Julie Fogliano and Loren Long.

Nicolai told her audience she planned for her next storytime to use “mindfulness” as a theme.

“It’ll be very peaceful, and helps us all find some of that calm that we need right now,” she said.

A schedule for the library’s virtual storytime can be found on its website.

Nicolai reads a bedtime story. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Fitness with levity

Stephanie Wonchala knows the internet is full of exercise videos, but she’s hoping to add a dash of levity for an Alaska audience. She has been recording one or two workout videos a day from her closed dance-fitness studio on Tudor Road.

“Because there is so much free content available online, I’m just trying to find ways where I can connect with my community,” she said.

Stephanie Wonchala films a dance workout video from The Annex on March 21, 2020. Her partner John Norris is at right. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Wonchala and Norris film a jungle-themed workout. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Wonchala is the executive director of Pulse Dance Company and the owner of The Annex, a yoga and fitness studio. On a Saturday morning, she cued up her upbeat playlist, arranged some jungle-themed props and lighting and recruited her partner, John Norris, to join in the sweaty silliness.

“I’m having a blast creating content that is hilarious and super dorky,” Wonchala said. “If I’m laughing at myself, and everyone is laughing with me, quarantine isn’t quite so bad.”

Find the free Move With Steph videos on YouTube.

An animal a day

Sasha’s morning snack time was broadcast for the world to see as Alaska Zoo camp coordinator Emily Miller talked about the porcupine’s eating habits. Sasha, one of two porcupines at the Alaska Zoo, drew viewers from various places around the country as she munched her fruit and veggies.

“It’s just providing some educational relief,” said Alaska Zoo executive director Pat Lampi.

“We wanted to step up our distance learning program and share some free videos, something for people to tune into on a daily basis, something to look forward to,” he said.

The Alaska Zoo is closed while Anchorage hunkers down, but its staff is ramping up its distance learning programs. That means virtual visitations with a different animal, Monday through Friday. Education director Stephanie Hartman said she hopes the streaming sessions will remind people that the animals are still being cared for.

“The free program that we do every day at 11 is just really to give people something to do, give kids something to watch, remind people that we’re still here for them,” Hartman said. “And hopefully they can find a little relaxation time.”

Viewers can find a schedule at the Zoo’s distance education webpage.

Alaska Zoo porcupine Sasha looks out from a mobile pen during a streaming lesson on March 25, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Alaska Zoo camp coordinator Emily Miller hosts a livestream lesson. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Alaska Zoo polar bear Cranbeary walks during a livestream polar bear lesson hosted by education director Stephanie Hartman on March 26, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Alaska Zoo polar bear Cranbeary eats fish. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Creating art together

Ballet instructor Farah Zoetmulder held one last class before the Alaska Dance Theatre building closed entirely earlier this month. It was her first attempt to connect with dancers through video streaming.

Like many organizations, ADT is moving quickly to conduct its offerings to an online platform. That started with some free lessons and challenges that were free to the public and posted on Facebook. Next week, it will begin using Zoom to reach its students.

“We’re going to figure it out. There’s probably going to be a lot of kitchen ballet going on,” Zoetmulder said. "I’m going to urge my students to use caution.”

Ballet instructor Farah Zoetmulder hosts a livestream lesson for Alaska Dance Theatre's Facebook audience on March 20, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Ballet instructor Farah Zoetmulder hosts a livestream lesson for Alaska Dance Theatre's Facebook audience on March 20, 2020. Instructor Melissa Jabaay assists at right.(Marc Lester / ADN)

Zoetmulder, ADT’s associate director, said keeping dancers engaged is important for a dancer’s conditioning.

“When you get to those elite levels, it does start to deteriorate pretty quickly,” she said. “If your muscles aren’t being activated, if you’re not using the technique, if you’re not using your body in this way, this change and things become a little harder.”

It also allows her students to make the most of the human connections they’re missing and craving in a new socially distant environment.

“Both kids and adults will really come back with a renewed appreciation, (like) ‘Wow, I love being in this beautiful space. I love being in this beautiful building. I love being around other people who are doing this and I love creating art together…’” Zoetmulder said. “I think there’s going to be a real surge of that, and I think that’s something to look forward to.”

Alaska Dance Theatre’s free videos are posted on its Facebook page.

The band plays on

Blackwater Railroad Company includes, in front, Tyson Davis and Isaac London, and on stage, Ben Sayers, Nichole Campanale and Leo Stormash. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Tyson Davis, guitarist and vocalist in the folk and bluegrass band Blackwater Railroad Company, said audience energy has been key to the band’s growth over the years. Its five musicians feed off the crowd, and the crowd gives it back.

“It just gets into this warring sort of madness, and it’s intoxicating,” Davis said.

So he expected it to be odd to play to a mostly empty room, but hours before their performance Friday evening he said he was excited to give it a try. Blackwater Railroad streamed the free concert to its Facebook audience from the Matanuska Brewing Company in Midtown Anchorage.

Business ground to a halt for the band when the pandemic-related shutdown began. The longer it goes on, the more of its planned performances are in jeopardy. But Davis said the purpose of this show was to help people in the hospitality industry who have been struggling since the shutdown began. It was fundraiser for an Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association fund which aims to assist those people.

“Over the past seven years that Blackwater has been in existence, these people have taken care of us,” Davis said of restaurant and bar workers. “So we want to give back and make sure that we can raise some money for them and, hopefully, help them make ends meet in these difficult times.”

Davis said Matanuska owner Matt Tomter helped enlist sponsors and organize the event. Upper One Studios pitched in to produce it. On Friday, the band spread out to give each other proper social distance and played for its fans on the internet for more than two hours.

You can see the show on the band’s Facebook page.

Fiddler Nichole Campanale performs. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Blackwater Railroad Company performs for a livestream audience at Matanuska Brewing Company on March 27, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)