Meditations on dance during a catastrophic time

by Lewis J. Whittington for The Dance Journal | photo credit Bill Hebert

As the dance world tries to anticipate the impact of the pandemic on an already fragile industry in a culture where it is undervalued, often ignored, and continues to remain the orphan of the performing arts, Steven Weisz, editor of The Dance Journal, questions “Why, if dance is so inherent in our personal survival and well being during does it not have a more prominent place as an art form and why is it always struggling for financial crumbs to survive?” The quick is perhaps in our natural desire as humans, as demonstrated throughout the millennia to dance through time and memoriam….

In the dance cinema classic “The Red Shoes,” ballet impresario Boris Lermontov, played the Anton Walbrook confronts ballerina Victoria Paige, played by Royal Ballet’s Moira Shearer.

Boris: “Why do you want to dance?

Vicky: “Why do you want to live?

Boris: “I don’t know exactly why, but … I must

Vicky: “That’s my answer too.”

This dialogue encapsulated how most dancers feel at one time or another, whether they are ready to go on stage or are performing a spontaneous solo in their living rooms to cope with the dire news about the current global pandemic that keeps them in isolation.

Yes…We Must  

With dance companies, schools, studios and public performances remaining shut down and now reimagined virtually on the internet, the industry as a whole, from the top international companies in the world to the smallest of studios, try to sustain for as long as it takes so they may hear in person again a choreographer or partner say 5, 6, 7, 8.

The dance world has survived through catastrophic human events before, including plagues both natural and man-made.  Just in the past century, the industry was a casualty to the first two World Wars. In the 50s, Japanese dancer Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno resurrected the language of Butoh, Japanese dance theater of darkness, in the wake of the cultural concussion after WWII and the psychological fallout of the atomic bombs that decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the 80s and 90s, a generation of dance artists was lost to the AIDS epidemic, many in the prime of their creative careers. After the 9/11 attacks, all of the theaters and concert halls were shuttered for months.  And now with the coronavirus, we have an extended theater shut down in New York, the epicenter for dance in America.

For more than a century, dance has been captured on film, and with the introduction of the internet, in real-time as well. Now, during the Covid-19 pandemic, film and all platforms of live streaming is a way for students in dance schools to take a class and rehearse for pending performances.  Dance company members can stay connected and as colleagues to the community at large to collaborate, share, and work through this unprecedented crisis.

While these methods of practicing dance are crucial at this juncture in time, ultimately they are mere one-dimensional mirrors to being part of the in-person ephemeral experience of live performance.

Gotta Dance! Gotttttaaa Dance!                                 

So sang Gene Kelly in the musical Singin’ in the Rain, making movie history in his iconic solo that had him dancing in the rain on a city screen.  Now, we’re spending our days dancing alone in our living rooms and watching others dance alone on the internet waiting for the coronavirus to end its reign of viral terror.

Meanwhile, the vital human connections, the shared humanity, and the collaborative nature of being together for the creative energy and ethos of dance in all of its forms is on hold. Like music, it is in many respects a universal language. Yet, so many of the basic components of dance as a living art form continue to be in jeopardy.

The dance industry is particularly vulnerable to the whims of public taste and the box office bottom line as well as the supporting funders and organizations that agree to pick up the mediated costs, or not. Dance in America remains completely undervalued and underfunded by this government.

Despite these harsh realities, dancers find the money to take class, travel for jobs, and perform in multiple companies as they gleefully whistle ‘What I did for love’ when they don’t even qualify for unemployment.

In 2001, the technology for home computers was primitive compared to what laptops and mobile devices can do now.  The overnight explosion of people broadcasting as they dance from their homes and apartments is more than just a fun activity.

Dance schools that are closed down are relying on it to keep students on track with their courses and training.  Commercial studios are relying on it to stay in business. Dance companies are devising ways through virtual programming and video archives of previous performances to stay connected to their dancers and their audiences.

In the initial month of self-quarantine, there has been a plethora of virtual dance spaces, remote classrooms, and ZOOM ensembles.  Will it continue and expand or will interest subside if the shutdown of studios, schools, and dance theater remains for much longer than is predicted?

Dancing in a sea of uncertainty

In an interview earlier this month about how dancers are coping with the shutdown, BalletX director Christine Cox spoke of the passion and commitment that dancers have as primal in “their need to move, it drives our soul. It strengthens our connection to the world and empowers us to be who we are.

Cox, was one of the first company directors to cancel performances for the foreseeable future and to shut down her studios on Washington Avenue in Philadelphia even for the company’s dancers and employees.

Like many dance companies, BalletX is using the internet to sustain and survive the crisis. “As a company, we’re making efforts to stay connected. There are company classes and all those things. I wanted everyone to quarantine until there is a better understanding of this. Until we have antibody testing, I’m not going to feel comfortable for the studio space to be open.”

There are too many risks in a closed studio setting. Right now in Philadelphia, you have to be really sick to be tested. Which is just crazy. People are asymptomatic and walking around.”  And this virus, Cox observes “seems like an airborne AIDS in the way it just takes over the immune system.

Cox recognizes that the current crisis shows how glaringly precarious the position of smaller companies and freelance dancers are who often work without contracts, medical insurance, or unemployment. Cox said BalletX was fortunate in that “my dancers have health insurance and they are on scheduled time off. So we’re not furloughed right now. The dance world is so tricky because you are contracted for so many weeks.”

This pandemic has shown that dancers, ultimately must strive for ways to build a realistic post-pandemic dance world that protects themselves and their infrastructure. It is not a stretch to believe that things are going to be worse for the dance world after this. All gig dancers, however loyal they are to a company, should be paid a fair wage preferably for performances as well as rehearsals. Directors of companies who want to pay their performers will now be more than stretched by the overhead of maintaining studios, schools, touring, costumes, and industry fees, just to name a few expenses that often prevent fair contracts.

Going forward there needs to be a grassroots industry-wide movement to develop strategies that will provide security for dance companies and freelance dancers.

The eternal power of dance

Even people who don’t dance are now dancing. Twyla Tharp, in her latest book, ‘Keep It Moving’  wrote, “We are all dancers. I fear that too often civilians view dancing as something for the chosen few.

If social media is any indicator, Tharp’s fears are unfounded. Online platforms have become an online dance free for all, lending more evidence to the fact that dance is a universal language.  One needs only to tune in to TickTock, FaceBook, Instagram, ZOOM & Twitter to see the swell of performances created by professional and amateur dancers, and just plain uninhibited movers seeking to let their inner dance star out.

Why do we dance on no matter what? Is this passion for movement in our DNA? Is it creative inspiration or just the need to exercise the body in a physical manifestation of the subconscious? Or is it purely on a more instinctual level? Choreographer Martha Graham believed both that our bodies manifest dance through “blood memory” and also believed in the metaphysical “dance is the hidden language of the soul.

No matter what catastrophes loom, no matter what obstacles we now face, there is no doubt that we will dance on as long as we can because we must.


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