No Dancing around Covid-19, the Philadelphia Arts Community seeks to persevere

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

After weeks of alarming news about the spread of Covid-19, cases started to be reported in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.  As of March 16th, the Pennsylvania Department of Health is reporting 63 cases in the state with 9 confirmed cases in Philadelphia. Other suspected cases are currently being tracked. An inevitable rise in people carrying the virus is putting restrictions on all public events to minimize the spread of the disease.

The Trump administration had been downplaying the seriousness of the disease, but Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading expert on infectious diseases and pandemics, has revealed the harsh scientific reality that the disease is already circulating across the entire United States. Covid-19 is highly transmissible and has been exponentially spreading in since January of this year.

In Philadelphia, the reality started to hit last week as officials were calling for limits to crowd size – first limiting gatherings to no more than 5000 people, then to 500, and then to 250 by weeks end. There will probably be more restrictions coming this week following neighboring states restrictions to no more than 50 people at any public gathering.

By March 12, all but a few area dance, theater and music companies were canceling scheduled performances. The Kimmel Center, The Annenberg Center, Fringe Arts and other major venues have all suspended operations for at least the remainder of the month.

The Impact on performing artists

The impact on dance, theater and music workers and community, by the nature of their work, presents special circumstances.  Actors, musicians, and singers can often be in performing environments where they are in close proximity with other performers, and in theaters with hundreds of patrons.

Dance company directors were already making the hard decisions to do what they could to protect the safety of their dancers and support staff. BalletX artistic director, Christine Cox was one of the first to announce a suspension of company operations for the time being.  Cox posted the shutdown on FaceBook on March 11 writing, “This has been the hardest decision I have had to make. In an effort to be proactive and protect our community I have decided to postpone our Spring series which was set to open March 18.”

Dancers are used to listening to their bodies, and it goes without saying that they routinely overcoming physical pain and garden variety colds and flu to keep moving. However, the circumstances of this pandemic are quite different. The risk level is potentially higher to dancers because coronavirus is highly transmissible in a profession where body contact, ensemble work and direct partnering are often the norm.

While it may be assumed most dancers, because of their youth and stronger immune systems, are at a lower risk of serious illness if they contract the virus, this may not be an accurate and complete picture because of the lack of medical data and a full picture about the etiology of this virus. Perhaps most disconcerting is the possibility of transmission by individuals who may be asymptomatic.

Livelihood and basic survival

The other challenge many dancers face is the lack of unemployment insurance. Outside of private patronage, there is virtually no industry help or unemployment safety net.

Choreographer Roni Koresh brought immediate attention to the crisis on social media and articulated much of the anxiety that is now resonating in the dance world, writing “Going through this madness and trying to make sense out of all of this…I think that all Foundations should switch from project base projects grant to a support an artist grant at this time, so many organizations are going to let artists go because everything is getting canceled, we need help to survive right now !!! please divert all resources to keeping all of us alive.”

For dance companies who tour regularly as a vital component of their solvency, there is a slate of unforeseeable challenges to plan upcoming seasons as more and more travel restrictions are being imposed with no end in sight.

Recently, Philadanco had to deal with this crisis while on a very successful tour in Germany, which was called to an abrupt  halt when the government put the country in a virus lock-down.  Director Joan Myers Brown also had to postpone the British leg of their tour. Brown and her dancers faced hardship and confusion as a result of travel restrictions issued by Trump that made their return to the US more difficult.  However, by Sunday, Brown was able to announce to her myriad of FaceBook followers that she and her Philadanco family were finally safely home and healthy.

Dance for life

As the shadow of the crisis looms large over the Philadelphia dance community , they have been left to their own devices for now to come up with contingency plans to ensure their survival.

Actors Equity has addressed Congress about an emergency package and the League of American Orchestras has been lobbying for more provisions for musicians. Nothing comparable is in place for dancers, who are perpetually the orphans of the performing arts.

Dance as a viable way to make a living continues to be a challenge.  NPR arts reporter Marcie Sillman, who reported about the shut down of Seattle’s entire performing arts industry, is quoted as saying that those in the arts are living on “the economic edge even in the best of times.” Pacific Northwest Ballet director Evelyn Walker told Sillman that their company has contingency plans for up to three months.  Sillman reports “then they are going to have to borrow on a line of credit.” However, for smaller groups “who don’t have that luxury…the situation is dire.” Sillman said that plans are in the works in Seattle by arts leaders to lobby lawmakers to provide additional emergency funding.

Similar measures have to be pursued aggressively in Philadelphia. The arts community generates millions of dollars in revenue and business for the city, attracting tourists year-round. The arts contribute to the vitality of the city and a whole range of related service industries from restaurants and bars to hotels, attractions and transportation.

A smart initiative, offered by PhiladelphiaDANCE.org, with widespread adoption on social media (over half a million views and shares), was the suggestion that patrons of performances who had already purchased a ticket to a performance donate the money instead of asking for a refund for canceled shows. But of course, that can only help things in the short term. PhiladelphiaDANCE has also called on arts funders to step up in this time of crisis and use potential funds and grants to support individual artists in need. Lastly, they have lobbied with political officials and other organizations to include freelancers in any unemployment package that may be offered through federal programs.  Steven Weisz, the founder of PhiladelphiaDANCE.org, is also concerned that “once we are out of crisis mode that the dance community takes a hard look at how we can institute future safety nets for our community, should the need arise again.”

What we do for love

The uncertainty is overwhelming at this point. It is hard to build a realistic new normal going forward, but dancers have resilience.  Now more than ever, they have to mobilize their strengths to stick together, both for their art and their unique community. There have been multiple online initiatives offering everything from community fundraising for mutual support to networks for teaching dance pedagogy online and even streaming live dance classes.

The Philadelphia dance community has always been extraordinary in their ability to do a lot with minimal resources. This, more than ever before, is a time for everyone in the community – company board members, administrative directors, artistic directors and dance artists themselves, to channel fear and uncertainty into new strategies and industry activism. This will not be easy but the arts is a vital piece of each of us and our common humanity. When this pandemic has finally passed, the Philadelphia dance community will find the way to dance yet another day.

About Lewis J. Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

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