On Pause: Dance Amid COVID-19

I’ve been trying to watch dance online, but can’t seem to finish anything that is longer than 30 minutes and much of what I’ve seen seems not that relevant to the present moment. I tried to watch New York City Ballet’s digital spring season presentation of Christopher Wheeldon’s Winter’s Tale and got through the first half but never finished it. SF Ballet @ Home is also streaming recorded dances but nothing I’ve wanted to watch. I really wanted to watch all of  Netta Yerushalmy’s Paramodernities, but wasn’t able to get my head into that kind of thinking. I enjoyed Larry Kegwin’s Bolero Juilliard, which is a tight and light 9 minutes of dance and music. In between trying to watch dance and taking online dance classes I keep returning to the same questions: what will dance look like in the midst of the ongoing presence of COVID-19? How does dance keep dancing?

I’ve found some interesting ideas circulating out there. 

On May 13th, I attended a National Dance Educators Organization webinar, “Re-Framing and Re-Energizing: Dancers, Choreographers, and Companies in the Time of COVID,” which features Gerald Casel, Juan José Escalante, Daniel Gwirtzman, Cory-Jeanne Murakami Houck-Cox, Betsy Loikow, Kesha McKey, Dante Puleio, and Mary Roberts. These dancer/choreographers held firm on their commitment to making dance and also saw the present moment as 1) an opportunity to “heal and be still (Mckey); 2) an invitation to pause and consider dance’s role (Loikow); an opening to “reframe capitalism (Casel). The group also talked about shifting more toward collaborations and rethinking how to open studios, theater spaces,etc. Normal wasn’t a term I heard much.

Donald Byrd, artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater, suggested in a South Seattle Emerald article that dance and ritual are “opened” by the COVID-19 crisis: “Our current pandemic could change how rituals function both in the dance world and wider society.” Byrd suggests that rituals are reminders that “perhaps we should just listen.” Byrd suggests that itt is not a matter of “if” but “how” dance will be different. The quiet of listening for “how” might be part of the answer. 

In an interview with the New York Times, Bill T. Jones remarked that he doesn’t know if he is ready for his art to “find the new normal.” Gia Kourlas asked what was left (for performance “without physical proximity.” Jones answered: “That’s what I’ve got to find out.” Jones and Byrd are asking the same question: how do performance and dance evolve in the midst of a COVID-19 crisis that has yet to show signs of easing?

Writing for Vulture, Justin Davidson posits that the future of performance will need to be flexible, versatile as artists begin to “conjure an art made of new constraints in which the strictures of social distancing become expressive tools.” Davison interviewed a number of theater producers, choreographers, composers, and artists to surmise that the next phase of performance will need to think smaller, quicker, and cheaper. This phase, Davidson points out, will be challenged by artists that are unable to work and audiences afraid to mingle. Furthermore, “institutions will stumble, or even disappear.” The global performance circuit of the (recent) past might need to give way to a more locally sourced performance culture that “could produce a whole new set of revelations.” 

So maybe it’s ok that dance is on pause but that pause does not mean there is no movement.  In the meantime, I plan to keep looking and writing for signs of what is to come.