Editorial: I am not a pessimist nor optimist but a realist – getting our community started once again

by Steven Weisz for The Dance Journal

Politics aside for the moment, if that is even possible, public discussions have begun about how to get the economy started again and what needs to be done to get people back to work safely. On one side you have those who state that it will not be safe until we all have enough antibodies in our system to fend off Covid-19 and can test for it in mass, or an actual vaccine is created and widely available. Then, there are those who see the need to get the economy moving sooner and look at risk assessment, a trade-off or balance between public welfare and economy, with the emphasis of getting as many “able body” individuals back to work. But make no mistake, across the board,  the economic comeback, they are referring to is manufacturing and essential services, not the arts.

The New Normal

For the arts and dance community, “getting things started” will pose a whole new set of questions and concerns as we try to find a “new normal”.  Assuming a vaccine is at least 12-18 months away and public gatherings of any size remain restricted, how can we as a community continue to sustain ourselves and our art? Will we be able to re-open dance studios, gather as dancers and companies to create, and hold public performances?  The optimist in me is hopeful that a solution will be found and implemented sooner than later. The pessimist sees a bleak future of having to try to sustain our efforts virtually with many companies and studios closing due to financial hardships and a need to seek other means for personal financial survival. The realist, says we must now pull together our collective creativity to determine our own future with an action plan that can be implemented. We can not afford to be passive in this process or have others determine our future.

Even if the economy gets jump-started sooner and public gatherings are permitted to some degree before there is a vaccine or wide-spread antibody testing, how many parents will be willing to risk their children’s safety by returning to the dance studio? How many adults will feel comfortable once again returning to the theater or assembling as a group for a performance? At a recent virtual special event industry conference I attended, the picture of our industry’s return is a bit bleaker than what is reported in the news. EventMB and industry research see the likely hood of mid-size events only beginning to moderately comeback by years end and into the first quarter as summed up by the chart below.

Does Re-Framing in a Virtual World Really Work?

As we wait for grants, Covid-19 funds to artists, SBA loans and our stimulus checks, there is a profound realization that this bit of money is at best a short term solution. The funds will not last each of us for very long and the prospects of any additional financial aid are at best limited. Many of the arts funders who have stepped up to help in this time of need may not have sufficient monies in the near future to help sustain individual artists let alone any new arts projects.

Dancers and dance companies are already being taxed with having to provide non-stop video dance performances and dance lessons, most for free and many paid by suggested donations or rates far below what they would normally receive for their services. This does not even begin to account for the emotional toll of dancers having to reframe themselves to perform in isolation and virtually to an already overcrowded digitized, social media world.

Charting Our Own Future

So where does this leave us as we attempt to chart our future? Figuring out how to do more than a typical webinar or live stream is key.  How do we figure out experiences that still have the energy and impact of in-person experiences? We still crave human contact, sharing, and collaboration. Performances still need to be creative and have a great structure to optimize for a great attendee experience.

In the immediate future, maybe we’re more personal, more one-to-one with our experiences. Maybe our performances are in smaller groups or we have more outdoor performances. Experiences don’t have to be in confined spaces with large groups.

In rethinking potential performance models, I am reminded of the performance salons of the 1920s in which smaller groups of people gathered under the roof of an inspiring host to listen to music or hear poetry readings with an occasional balletic performance as well. This concept was more recently translated in the last decade to Fringe performances, where solo or small groups of dancers in Philadelphia brought their performances directly to people’s homes. This was followed by an opportunity for shared discussion and in some cases even a communal meal. As small gatherings are permitted, this format may offer performance opportunities in the interim until dance can once again return to the proscenium. Such a model could also work for more personalized dance instruction or small group instruction as an outcall service.

The Philadelphia dance market is unique in that we have always used non-traditional spaces, have done more with less, and have continually re-invented ourselves to continue to grow our art. So for now and the foreseeable future. we will need to once again tap into our collective creativity to devise new models for our craft, create new revenue streams and push the boundaries of where our movement can take us. Going back to “normal” or business as usual is simply not an option.

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