Presenting Dance As We Consider Reopening Post-Pandemic

By Steven Weisz for The Dance Journal

As the economy begins to open back up, and more and more businesses attempt to re-launch, it is time to consider new ways (or old ones) that will allow dance to still be publicly presented.  However, before entertaining new ideas and models, we must consider how dancers can work and perform together safely given the ever-present Covid 19.  Dance companies and practitioners will need to develop a set of safety guidelines for rehearsals as well as performances.

After speaking with two medical professionals in the field about protecting dancers, they offered the following specific suggestions in accordance with CDC guidelines:

1. Consider performances by smaller ensembles of 5 or fewer dancers as opposed to using the entire company.
2. Be sure artists are temperature scanned and have provided a basic self-certification checklist to determine possible exposure risks. This would include a rundown of possible covid symptoms over the past 14 days (fever, cough, respiratory issues, etc.) Samples of return to work certification checklists are readily available on the internet.
3. While perhaps still very prohibitive or even unavailable, dancers could be rapid tested and cleared. This, of course, would be the ideal.
3. If rehearsing in a studio, be sure it has been fully sanitized and everyone entering and leaving also washes or sanitizes their hands. If you can rehearse remotely, that would still be considered preferable. All studios should be sanitized between uses, this includes all contact surfaces from floor to barres to even bathrooms and dressing areas.
4.  If choreographers can change their current approach so that there is less partnering and more social distancing in their work, that would be preferable. Contact improvisation would not be recommended at this time. It is acknowledged that this may affect the overall meaning of the work but again these are recommended safety guidelines. Virtual creations that have occurred during this pandemic have shown that such distance choreography, while not preferable is possible. Choreographers should view this as a challenge – work created with 6 feet apart.
5. Keep partnering at all possible to a minimum.
6. If dancers can wear a mask while performing/rehearsing, that would also be preferable. However, if prolonged use is required, breathing one’s own air during exertion may also pose issues and so performers will need to take into consideration the nature of the work, their own health, and bodies and the associated risk factors.

These are but a few suggested guidelines but are by no means a definitive or authoritative list of precautions. Companies and artists will need to develop and adhere to their own established guidelines. These will need to be clearly set and communicated before performances can be presented again.

Assuming these first of these hurdles have been cleared, the next challenge will be how to present dance safely to the public.

It’s likely to be a long time before people will pack a theater or auditorium to see dance. Of course, this assumes that many of these venues for presenting live performances will be able to weather this pandemic and remain open.  If they are able to do so, the question still remains as to whether audiences will feel secure enough to return. If social distancing rules are still being applied, a full house may only consist of 40-60% of normal capacity, if even that. Will this be profitable enough for operation? Will ticket prices have to go up to compensate? How will this affect venue costs including the additional burden of cleaning and sanitizing the theater?

Dancers and choreographers have long been rethinking the physical relationships between performer, audience, and space.  In Philadelphia, with few traditional proscenium venues even available or affordable, companies have explored a variety of alternative spaces and methods of presentation. We have created performances in living rooms, parking garages, museums, outdoor spaces, and developed more intimate and meaningful encounters with the public. We have experimented with moving audiences through spaces and weaving the use of projections, virtual reality, and other electronic media in the context of our work. Now, in this seemingly new world, we are perhaps better equipped than most to develop new forms of production in alternative spaces. We will be able to envision the rigors of social distancing guidelines not as restrictions, but as new tools and means of self-expression.

Productions in this post-pandemic world will most likely need to be smaller, shorter in length, and cheaper to be effective. We will also need to use what we have learned during this time of self-quarantine, to draw in new audiences. Simply appealing to fellow dancers, friends, and family, who have previously made up the majority of our audiences, will no longer work if these new models are to be profitable.  Smaller and shorter length productions will require a larger audience pool to make up in volume what is lost by the use of traditional theater settings. Ultimately, the challenge to all of us will be to create an intimacy and connection with an audience without actual physical proximity.

So, how do we do this?

Below are but a few ideas that I have gleaned from seeing previous arts productions as well as from discussions with artists in our community. This is by no means a definitive list but merely a starting point for invention. I welcome readers to contribute to this list by posting comments and ideas. Collectively, we can keep dance and performance alive in Philadelphia and offer new, exciting, and collaborative ways to draw the public into our art form while pushing the boundaries of movement and invention.

For all of these performance models, my physician friends are highly recommended that tickets be advance purchase only to avoid additional interactions with the public. Handling of cash at the time of performance should be avoided at all costs.  If you do not want to sell your tickets in advance online then payment at the door should be electronic only – Paypal or Venmo. Even the handling of credit cards on-site poses issues.

With the warmer weather and Summer just around the corner, creating outdoor performances in parks and other spaces would be ideal. Being able to charge for such performances in public spaces may pose some challenges of its own, but passing the hat and doing a pay what you can model just might work. If an outdoor performance can be in a gated or restricted space, then creating a ticketed event is possible. In New York, one theater group got inventive using hula hoops placed on a lawn to mark seating spaces that were properly socially distanced. Another group used a similar model by spraying chalk spaces of different colors to guide audiences to proper seating arrangements on the lawn. Outdoor performances that are not overcrowded pose less of a risk to both performers and audience.

This can be done either indoors or outdoors. Effectively, an audience is guided safely through a landscape while performers remain in assigned places performing.  Social distancing is strictly enforced between audience members and performers as they weave through space.  In essence, the experience is similar to going through a museum but instead of paintings, it is one of observing smaller dance performances. Choreographers can be creative playing with both repeated phrases while inserting new ones to create a semblance of cohesiveness or structure to a piece and to the viewing audience. They can also use this format to present pieces of a story that unfold as the audience moves.

Selecting a very large venue or space but only having a small audience well-spaced allows for safety, but also can make an effective statement at the same time. Examples such venues might be the Rotunda or Armory but there are many others.  What is the effect of having an audience of 25 in a space for 500? This kind of environment can make for a most interesting dynamic. One issue around such an arrangement is that the venue rental would be cost-prohibitive and you would have to pass multiple groups over a shorter period of time to simply break even, let alone be profitable. One might need to negotiate with venues to consider price reduction or even a  partnership to make such a presentation viable.

Keeping your audience in their own cars is a safe and effective means of social distancing. We are starting to see the return of the drive-in movie theater. A similar setup could be equally applied to dance. Guests could pull up to designated spaces to watch from their car windows an ongoing performance. Musical accompaniment could be heard via well-placed speakers or even by podcast on individual cell phones. Dance companies could charge by the carload or by the head.

By contrast, the drive-through model is one where the dance performance is restricted to certain pre-designated spaces along a path or roadway. The audience, in their car, then drives at select intervals along the path to view and ongoing performance. This is very much like some of the drive-throughs done at holiday time of animated winter wonderlands. Spaces for pausing would need to be designated and rules for driving along the pathways established to prevent accidents.  Large open spaces would be required for such performances.

It is likely that the larger museums and even pubic gardens will be able to reopen and maintain viability. These institutions have been presenters of dance in the past and cultivating these relationships will be critical to the performing arts sector. Demonstrating that live performances in their spaces can add new sources of revenue from presenting sponsors or provide added value to their members and donors will be key. Performances may have to be modified in such a way so as NOT to draw a large crowd to any one given space. The guided audience model already discussed may work perfectly for this type of presentation and work could be presented inspired by specific art or even botanical displays.

Other space partnerships could be developed with large companies, many of which have their own buildings with common spaces and even outdoor areas. Performances could be offered to select groups and departments throughout the day as a way to relieve the stress and offer enrichment to their employees. Such breakouts have already existed in corporate structures and dance performances could easily be interjected and paid for by these companies. Another example would be real estate companies looking to show off new commercial spaces where performances could enhance the buyer experience. In general, the creativity here needs to not only be in how to create the performance but also how to establish the economic part of such partnerships.

Not a new concept by any means, but a return to the days of the art salon in one’s home could be effective in presenting dance post-pandemic. Solo or small groups of dancers could bring their performances directly to people’s homes (or into their own homes), followed by an opportunity for shared discussion and even a communal meal. Partnerships could even be formed with local restaurants to provide a prepared meal post-performance. A set fee would be charged for the performance. While effective in creating a novel relationship with potential new audiences, personal safety will have to be paramount and the negotiated fee profitable for this to be effective.

There is no denying that dance, even virtually, has brought this world a bit closer together and filled us with much joy and relief during this period of self-quarantine. We can lament the loss of more traditional spaces and ways of presenting our craft, or we can choose to chart a new course for the unforeseen future. As dancers, we need the presence and bodies of each other to move, to collaborate, and to create. Establishing connections with each other and with our audiences will always be central to our craft.  It is indeed this human touch above all that allows us to move and break free from our isolation.

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