The existential dance crisis due to the global pandemic, views from Burchfield, Koresh & Hughes

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

The Coronavirus outbreak poses no less than an existential crisis for the performing arts with devastating implications for Philadelphia’s dance industry, schools, and community.  The current shutdown of all theaters and studios has left companies, large and small, trying to come up with realistic contingency plans to ride out the crisis and pick up the pieces when it is over. Dance is perpetually the orphan of the arts, always struggling, usually year to year, to remain solvent. Meanwhile, it is a given that dancers in most circumstances work for too little and sometimes nothing at all. Now individual dancers working in isolation have to rethink everything to try to maintain their personal and professional artistic goals.

In phone interviews last week, three dance professionals share their perspectives on a slate of challenges dancers, choreographers, companies, and schools have to confront in the initial wave of this unprecedented health emergency.

Donna Faye Burchfield | Dean of University of the Arts School of Dance

Donna Faye Burchfield addressed the University of the Arts’ 300 dance students online on March 23, about how they would continue their studies with HOMESCHOOL.  The department’s multi-platform online network allows dance students, Burchfield assured, to “continue the important work we do.”

Burchfield immediately began to strategize with the UArts thirty-four faculty members on how to move forward. The virtual classroom experience for dancers would present a whole different set of challenges than other university fields of study.

“I tried to be optimistic, but it was very emotional and destabilizing,” Burchfield said.   “We tried to re-imagine our school in a different space. Eventually, the educators reached “a consensus that we didn’t like the language around ‘taking courses online’ and what that usually meant.”

Burchfield admitted the prospect of remote online dance teaching was more than daunting. “For people my age, it’s very foreign.”  But when faculty and students started to engage with each other. “I found…a resolve in it. We needed each other no matter what happens.”

The most promising fact, Burchfield said, was that the students were ready for this new normal. “My students have an ease about all this, that is recognizable and promising.”

Burchfield said the department will continue to develop the opportunity of ‘virtual networks’ as a way for students to feels like a school where they are “constantly surrounded by ideas and thinking, and others who are sharing this experience,”

Burchfield observed after the first week of online classes “I don’t see this as a dead-end to dance. The challenge is how does ‘together’ and ‘collective’ really operate in the virtual.”

The expansive online programming includes “The Practice Space”, a group online live feed class. For those who may miss it, there is even an archive that includes video of group interaction conducted on Zoom.

Burchfield said that the classes, study, and lectures will continue and all the requisites of the course work.  This term the students are rehearsing eighteen different dance works including pieces by Bill T. Jones, Robert Battle, Helen Pickets and Steven Petronio.

As the HOMESCHOOL programming continues to develop during this crisis, it will be a radically different experience for dance students and the impact and motivational success remains to be seen.

After the first week, Burchfield is certain that dance students will find ways to make it work. “I think they are going to figure it out. It’s going to teach us even perhaps …what dance holds for all of us,”

“We will have to participate in the larger conversation how we maintain integrity through this and what does it mean when we’re alone and how practicing alone and how can rehearsing be practical and resilient,” and, Burchfield adds, “of course we’re all looking forward to that moment when we step back to that studio together.”

 

Roni Koresh | choreographer & artistic director of Koresh Dance Company

The Koresh Dance Company was finishing up a successful tour in Florida in early March when the Covid-19 outbreak became a national health concern. “We were sold out everywhere, and it was one of the most incredible tours.” Roni Koresh recalled, “We came back to Philly and we were supposed to start rehearsal for the rest of the tour.”

But the realities started to sink in. Koresh observes, “It’s been a major shock. It doesn’t matter that it’s been almost two weeks. There is still disbelief, that something like this would happen.  Now, it’s for real. I think it’s starting to settle down with the understanding for all of us in the arts that this is for the long haul.”

Koresh was among the first dance companies to cancel the rest of their current tour itinerary. It was no longer safe or practical to be rehearsing every day, dance partnering, or engaging in the rigors of touring – “rooming together, doing everything together on the road”, Koresh added. After Florida, Koresh said he realized “This was not going to be over soon.”  Koresh announced that not only was the rest of their current season on tour over but their home season as well.

“I’m in touch with dancers every day,” Koresh said. “The hardest thing for me was to have to lay them off. The most painful thing was to have to tell the dancers they would be out for 20 weeks. No rehearsals either until September.”

Meanwhile, as a dancer-choreographer his whole life, Roni Koresh knows that it is the physical discipline, technical artistry and collaborative energy that defines an ensemble of dancers. “Our bodies need to dance, more than wanting to be in shape. There is that adrenalin in your body ready to go.”

“Virtual classes yes. But even that is so difficult. You have to remember we’re a company, a group of people getting together and being creative.  Dance is a collaborative effort. It’s frightening to have to figure out how you come back from something like this.”

“Right now my dancers are laid-off and they hopefully get unemployment and you only get a percentage of the full amount”. Alon Koresh, Koresh Dance Company’s executive director is preparing realistic contingency plans. For instance, lobbying foundations and government arts foundations to switch from project-based grants to funds for dance company operating budgets, so they can survive the shutdowns.

Meanwhile, the Koresh brothers have to sustain the studio and their school of dance. This is a big building and a big school and organization with over 35 employees. And 97% of them are unemployed right now.”

Koresh believes that the effects on dance companies, based on what’s happened so far, is going to be far-reaching.  Iy will be “at least a year or two” for dance companies to get back to normal operations once the crisis is over.

 

Alexandra Hughes | Pennsylvania Ballet soloist

On March 12, Pennsylvania Ballet soloist, Alexandra Hughes was ready to leave for the studio to run through sections of La Bayadere, which was in the middle of a ten-day run at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. Hughes was cast as one of the ballerina leads and because artistic director Angel Corella always rotates lead casts, Hughes was also dancing some of the corps de ballet ensemble sections.

Aside from her ballet schedule, Hughes had also been preparing for the annual Shut Up & Dance benefit for MANNA (Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance), one-night-only performance at the Forrest Theater scheduled for March 28.

Started in the early ’90s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, MANNA now delivers meals to over a thousand homebound people living with life-threatening illnesses free of charge, 365 days a year. The event raises upward of  $150,000 for MANNA in a single evening.

As producing director, Hughes was working daily with participating company dancers, guest choreographers, and performers for what is always a heartfelt community event as well as an electric showcase of dance diversity.

MANNA’s public relations manager Laura Payne had to tell Hughes that the organization had no choice but to cancel the benefit performance because of the new of the restrictions about crowd gathering announced by Pennsylvania’s Governor Tom Wolfe in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It all happened very quickly. I had just woken up and got a call from Laura about the cancelation. Aside from the crowd restrictions, MANNA also felt they had to devote all of their time and resources to care for their clients during this crisis.”

“Then I went to work at the ballet. That day we were scheduled to rehearse and the cast that was performing La Bayadere that night. Then the Governor announced that the guidelines for gathering should be no than 250 people. So the ballet also had no choice but to cancel the rest of the performances”.  “It was devastating,” Hughes said, “restricting public gatherings is the first course of action under the circumstances and totally reasonable. But it was really mentally hard to take in after months of work we put into performing.”

Now Hughes and the full roster Pennsylvania Ballet’s professional company have to train in isolation.  Training outside a studio environment for ballerinas required to dance on pointe, for instance, poses specific new problems. “For me it’s really hard,”  Hughes explains, “there’s only so much you can do. Even on summer breaks, it takes a while to come back. The feeling of being in pointe shoes. To keep that stamina up. There is so much involved just even taking a class.  We thought initially that the shutdown would be two weeks, so I didn’t bring home flat shoes, pointe shoes, toe pads or tape to protect my toes. Pointe work is going to be difficult to maintain.  I have new pointe shoes to break-in, but hardwood floors too slippery,”

“You can take a barre in your house, and it’s impressive how the online community has come together in that respect. But it’s not the same as being in the studio where you have a sprung floor. Center work is tough.  If you are in a house you might have space but not the right floor, where it is easy to injure yourself.”

Late last week Pennsylvania Ballet announced that the remainder of their 2019-2020 season was canceled. The two remaining programs of premieres and a concert of works by George Balanchine are rescheduled for next year. Pennsylvania Ballet dancers do have union representation and unemployment benefits, so they are somewhat in a better position financially to sit out the season. But the interruption to their daily regime presents a slate of other challenges.

“When you used to move in specific ways all the time, definitely a harsh reality when you can’t. Missing that 90-minute class every day and then six hours of rehearsal…you just can’t make that up. You can do your best to maintain the regimes, but, absolutely, there is nothing like being employed full time.”

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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