Prior to the complete shutdown of performance venues throughout California due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the last review of a dance concert in LA Dance Chronicle (LADC) was of American Ballet Theater’s production Of Love and Rage choreographed by St. Petersburg born, Russian-American choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky. The review was written by Joanne DiVito and published on March 10, 2020 and the performance took place at The Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts. My last review, published on February 24, 2020, was of LA Dance Project’s performance of I fall, I flow, I melt choreographed by Benjamin Millepied. Since that time, LADC has published reviews of works solely presented online.
Recently I watched a conversation with dance writer Eva Yaa Asantewaa on Mark DeGarmo’s Interview Series: Creativity and Creative Practice. At one point Asantewaa said that she was not so interested in what dance artists are creating online during the pandemic, but that she was, however, excited to see what they come up with once they can get back into their studios. I agree.
Even before the pandemic, performing artists were having a difficult time brought on by the California Assembly Bill 5 (AB5) aka the “gig workers’ bill”. This bill became law in 2020, and if fully enacted, had the potential to reclassify millions of independent contractors as employees. The bill was originally designed to help protect Uber and Lyft drivers, but it soon became clear that it put in jeopardy the livelihood of the entire independent workforce in California, i.e. dancers, actors, musicians, and anyone else who worked as an independent contractor. The fate of this bill is still pending upon the outcome of cases being litigated in the courts. Under a new bill (AB 2257) freelance writers, photographers, translators, and musicians would be exempt from AB5 and therefore able to continue working as independent contractors. I have not had the time to wade through the entire bill to see if dancers are among those exempt, but will keep digging through the legalese.
When the pandemic brought the world to its knees, I, of course, was concerned about my own health and that of my family and friends. I was, however, also extremely concerned about the safety, health, livelihood and future of my colleagues in the arts. Because I live in the Los Angeles area and because I write about dance, this article focuses on dance artists in and around LA, but the effects of the pandemic go far beyond our community. Because I still have friends and colleagues around the world, and I have kept up with the news regarding the virus, I see and feel how the pandemic has affected the dance artists surveyed for this article, which also represents a far wider group of people. As time has passed, my fear and concern has steadily grown into anger because it is my opinion that much of this pain and death could have been prevented had we had a strong government with leaders who genuinely cared about people rather than their own ideologies, money and power.
LA has lost four very prominent dance centers that I know of since the pandemic, Meg Wolfe’s we live in space founded in 2016; Edge Performing Arts Center in Hollywood’s Television City, Pieter Studios founded 2010 by Jmy James Kidd; and Pacific Arts Center and Dance Studios founded in 2001 by Shida Pegahi. Larger entertainment institutions such as Cirque du Soleil which just filed for bankruptcy, were not immured to the wrath of COVID-19. Thousands of dancers lost their jobs with Cirque du Soleil went under. I do not believe the public truly understands the damage that has been done to the arts and the entertainment industry by this pandemic.
Needing to do more than simply write about the art that is or is not being presented, I contacted many of my colleagues in the Los Angeles area to ask how they were faring. I wanted to know their reactions to the pandemic, the closures of performance venues and studios, the loss of work and income. What were they thinking? How were they coping? Were they continuing to create, and if so, how? I wanted to hear their views on how they think dance will survive and what it will look like in a post pandemic world. None of us know what the world will be like. Are we already living in a “new normal”? Please no!
As I suspected, their responses were as varied as the artists themselves. My dance colleagues are talented, smart, wise and above all resilient. Surviving in the dance world alone, one has to be able to adapt, re-invent oneself and/or create something from practically nothing. To quote a friend: “All Art is political.” Artists create in response to what they see or the lack of its being there. Art can be entertaining, yes, but even then there is often a thread of social commentary woven within the artists’ creative fabric. One simply has to not just look, but to actually observe.
The survey went out to numerous dance artists and although only about a quarter of them responded, it turned out to represent a wonderful cross section of dance styles and artistic visions. I wish to thank everyone who took the time and energy to let their thoughts and feelings be known.
My first question was directed to people’s gut reaction when it became clear that we were in a (hopefully) once in a lifetime pandemic and Governor Newsom had sent out a statewide mandate to Shelter-in-Place; closing all but essential businesses.
“Fear,” Wrote Deborah Brockus, dancer, choreographer, entrepreneur, curator, producer, and Artistic Director of BrockusRED. “My world crashing that I have worked so hard with so little money to create. Gone over night. I am a reader of history and know the impact of a pandemic on a society. But I had been following what was happening in China and Italy and was waiting for it to come here”” It was when the SXSW (South by Southwest) Music Festival was cancelled that Brockus knew that her earlier fears of all her productions being cancelled were definitely headed for the same fate. “Spring is our busiest production time both for Los Angeles Dance Festival and company performances and also studio rentals, and it all fell apart.”
In a response that was shared by many, Benita Bike, Choreographer and Artistic Director of Benita Bike DanceArt Company wrote “I was near finishing a new dance and 2 weeks away from a performance when we had to stop rehearsing in mid-March. Everything just went on hold, and the March performance was cancelled.”
Joanne DiVito, dancer, choreographer, entrepreneur, and writer said “I remember thinking it was like my world was caving in in slow motion. I had at least 20 – 25 bookings this fall that suddenly disintegrated before my eyes, one by one. Even worse, the world of live theatre (my soul, and what I live for) was gone…and for how long I did not know.” Tam Warner, dancer, choreographer, and writer said that her first thought was that the pandemic would probably be short lived. “I was disappointed to miss some of the shows I was scheduled to review but thought I would be right back at it before long.”
Janet Roston is a choreographer and the Artistic Director of Mixed eMotion Theatrix. The company was in its final rehearsal for a product of their storytelling/movement work titled So Now You Know. The production involved working with seniors and teens from one of Southern California’s theater communities and it was right at the point where the company was to be integrated with the community when the Shelter-in-Place order came down. Although not cancelled, Roston says that she is not certain when it will be presented. “Personally, I was so frustrated that we couldn’t perform So Now You Know,” She said. “There had been so much work from the community members, it was going to be a beautiful experience and we were so close to performance. But I know that we will have a chance to bring it to life, the theater is dedicated to presenting it and I just need to be patient.”
Victoria Marks, performer, choreographer, filmmaker and educator, and Micaela Taylor, dancer, choreographer and Artistic Director of The TL Collective had totally different first responses. Marks said, “When I first heard that we had to shelter in place, I was relieved. I WANTED to be home, to stop being in motion, to slow down., Taylor wrote “My initial reaction to the shelter-in-place order was bitter/sweet. Honestly up until that point I was moving so fast that I didn’t have time to process everything that was happening in my life,” she said. “The TL and I were preparing for our next full evening length ’90Sugar performed at Royce Hall alongside Ate9 Dance Company and Barak Ballet. With all of the excitement leading up to the performance there was definite level of concern to meet every need that was required of our biggest production to date. Before every show I always think “Man if I only had more time…” well little did I know I would be met with a five month long period to further prep for what is to come.”
The initial reaction to some was for the health of the world. Alexx Shilling (Choreographer, dancer, artistic director of Alexx Makes Dances, curator) “My gut reaction was some combination of relief at a decision being made which I had hoped would make us all safer, extreme grief and recognition of the enormity of the pandemic and some anxiety around the immense uncertainty. There was a part of me that was wishing for global recognition of our interconnectedness, like a wake up.”
Most had no idea that the pandemic would go on for as long as it has. A few weeks at most is what most thought. Sadly, everyone’s hopeful thinking proved to be incorrect and were suddenly faced with the dire truth that their livelihoods and those of their company members and students were in jeopardy. Studios were closed, as well as concerts and tours that took months, if not years to line up were cancelled
Laurie Sefton, Choreographer and Artistic Director of Clairobscur Dance responded with “ I was mostly frustrated that after so much work we would have to cancel our upcoming performances. We were scheduled to perform with Spellbound Contemporary Ballet, here in LA in April. They were coming from Italy and we had all kinds of things we had to cancel. Housing for them and the performance venue and teaching not to mention months of rehearsals with my dancers. I thought at the time that we would merely be postponing the event.” Louise Reichlin, Choreographer and Artistic Director/Choreographer of Los Angeles Choreographers & Dancers/Louise Reichlin & Dancers wrote that her company was in the middle of school residencies. “The schools called us one day to say we could still come teach, but not perform because only the number in the classroom was allowed. This was followed the next day with cancelling all plans to be on campus for any reason, as the LAUSD and Glendale schools did a fast shut down.”
Initially, Achinta McDaniel, Choreographer and Artistic Director of Blue13 Dance Company was also filled with fear and anger; anger that was directed at our government. “Primarily because of the U.S. response to COVID-19 and taking it so lightly when we should have been locking down much earlier, taking the threat seriously, working on plans to combat the pandemic, and bracing the economy for disaster,” She stated. “My company, Blue13 had just completed a successful world premiere of our work Terpsichore in Ghungroos at the Wallis in late February, and had subsequent touring scheduled, from Las Vegas to Tennessee, all of which had to be canceled or rescheduled. All of us were suddenly without work or prospects, with no realistic end in sight.”
Shenandoah Harris, dancer, choreographer and Artistic Director of Psychopomp Dance Theater, was also filled with fear, anger, disappointment and sadness. “The order went into effect on March 13th in LA, which was the same day, my company had a several day run of already sold out and wait-listed shows at Highways Performance Space. We had already completed tech, dress rehearsal, set up a merchandise table fully stocked and were expecting to make enough money to cover the months of previous rehearsal fees (stipend to dancers, rehearsal space etc.)” Harris stated. Highways moved forward, but everything was in flux. “I was extremely frustrated with the leadership in the local, state but most of all federal government”. Five other confirmed performances of Psychopomp Dance Theater were postponed and later cancelled leaving the entire company without a way to perform work that they had spent months creating and rehearsing; not to mention the time, money and effort it took to plan and obtain the performance opportunities and venues.
Nannette Brodie, choreographer and Artist Director of Nannette Brodie Dance Theatre was both shocked and disappointed. “We had to cancel 7 performances and some had contracts signed and others with grant requirements to fulfill. Most were simply postponed until further notice.” Kelly Hargraves, dancer, filmmaker, curator, Artistic Director of Dance Camera West was of course saddened at the news but fortunately Dance Camera West had already made plans to online stream its festival. “I knew we would have content for a while, although I knew our live events were in jeopardy”. Rosanna Gamson, dancer, choreographer, educator, Artistic Director of Rosanna Gamson/World Wide was “Disappointment—Sugar Houses, a piece that we’d been developing for four years, was “postponed” on March 18 when we were scheduled to open on March 25 at REDCAT.”
Sophia Stoller is the Artistic Director of Iris Company and stated that her initial reaction to everything shutting down was shock and fear, but that she was determined to find a way of moving forward. “Things were evolving so quickly and it felt like the world was crumbling. Iris Company had hired 13 new performers in February, cast alongside 8 company members for our largest scale immersive production to date, N A R C I S S U S. We were scheduled to start rehearsals on March 31.”
Donna Sternberg is the choreographer, Artistic Director of Donna Sternberg & Dancers. When the order to Shelter-In-Place came down, her company was working in Mexico and her dancers rightfully had concerns about getting back into California. “ I wasn’t worried about that,” She said. “but because we had been in Mexico for a week I hadn’t been reading the US papers and didn’t know much about what was actually going on. When we returned there seemed to be a lot of uncertainty so my initial reaction was pretty much wait and see.”
Judith FLEX Helle, dancer, aerialist, choreographer, Artistic Director of Luminario Ballet, and writer said that at first her company’s dancers, aerialists, choreographers and staff reacted with panic and dismay as they witnessed everything they had worked so hard to arrange simply disappear. “Luminario Ballet had a commissioned full length new work 3 night show at a premiere performing arts venue in Los Angeles which was cancelled, and all our out of state touring shows for 2020 (residencies and performing arts venues) were cancelled,” Helle wrote. “Basically, we are now on hiatus until further notice, and all staff, dancers, etc. are on unemployment or food stamps or trying to get work delivering food, warehouse job, etc..”
The choreographer and Artistic Director of JazzAntiqua Dance & Music Ensemble, Pat Taylor said that her initial reaction to the pandemic and ensuing shut down was two-fold. She had an “uneasiness with having to immediately convert my college dance course I was teaching into a remote class and being unfamiliar with the platform being used which was Zoom. And although ultimately there was great support in making the transition, I still felt myself being resistant” She said. “Second was fear/worry about finances. In addition to my personal loss of income, the company immediately lost $20,000 in income for the months of April -June.”
Dance programs in schools, private studios and in colleges and universities were, of course, greatly impacted by the closures. Dancers train in class, rehearse in studios and perform on stage working closely together and constantly making physical contact. Suddenly in-person training ceased to be available.
Initially Leigh Purtill, Artistic Director of Leigh Purtill Ballet, was angry. “I believed I was safe, my studio could be kept clean, and dance was beneficial to people’s physical and mental well-being. My attitude changed very quickly when I learned how dangerous the virus was. As the artistic director of a ballet company with plans for a big fundraiser in April and our annual repertory performance in October, I was in denial that we would be impacted,” She said.
Francine Kessler Lavac, Associate Artistic Director of one of Los Angeles’ longest operating dance studios, Westside School of Ballet, was obviously deeply concerned for the people around the world, for her dancers and for the ballet world in general. “Our ballet classes and our Spring Show would be immediately affected,” she wrote. “We were more than half way through preparing for the Spring Performance, and we were already in a rhythm of preparing – our rehearsal schedule, our regular ballet teaching — all of that came to an abrupt halt.”
Molly Lynch is the head of two dance programs. She is the Chair of Department of Dance at University of California, Irvine and the Artistic Director of the annual summer program, National Choreographers Initiative. The faculty at UCI met in March to voice their concerns to make plans for how to complete the Department’s spring courses. The decision that they made, although difficult, was their only choice and the right decision to make. “I also had preparations moving forward for the National Choreographers Initiative (NCI) for July!,” she said. “I had selected my 4 choreographers and was working on the audition/applications of the dancers. I just STOPPED! It was a let’s wait and see what will happen next.”
Choreographer and Artistic Director of Nancy Evans Dance Theatre, Nancy Evans Doede has also been on the dance faculty at LaSalle College Preparatory for over 17 years. The school is also where her company rehearsed and therefore those were also cancelled. “Then it became apparent that there would be no rehearsing for an unspecified time,” Doede stated. “We had been working practically non-stop all year, so in a way, it was a forced respite for everyone. All of us were very anxious and worried about what would come next.
On a personal note, I was in the midst of setting a solo on Doede’s company. The solo titled Clearing was choreographed by the late modern dance legend Viola Farber for Ze’eva Cohen in 1979. Two of Doede’s dancers had completed the difficult process of learning Farber’s solo from an old and grainy video. Hopefully, we will proceed with the rehearsals and performances post pandemic.
Andrew Pearson, dancer, choreographer, founder of Bodies in Play, wrote that when the Shelter-in-Place was finally mandated by the governor, he had already made the decision to self-quarantine. He worked at two schools where the decision to move courses off campus had just been made. Also, each day he received more and more emails from colleagues that their performances and classes had been cancelled, so, as it is said, the writing was on the wall. For a while he remained optimistic, thinking/hoping like so many of us, that this was temporary. “During that first week watching our national “leadership” on TV, it started to sink in that this would be a much larger and longer problem. I think I started to go into a state of numbness followed by a state of mourning, which I’m still in to a certain extent,” he said. “I had just started rehearsing for a new production I had hoped to workshop in June and premier in September. I have continued to chip away at this work some, but I’ve relieved myself of any sense of product or deadline for the time being. I also greatly miss being a patron of dance and theater. I used to see performances almost every week. Seeing live performance was my fuel for creating my own work. It’s been inspiring to see how artists have responded and continued to make work during this time, but it hasn’t fueled me to make my own work in the same way.”
Sarah Rodenhouse and Victoria Brown (Co-Artistic Directors of MashUp ), bypassed much of the emotional responses to my survey and dived directly into solutions. “Similar to our fellow performing arts companies, MashUp’s programming was immediately interrupted with the Safe at Home Order,” Cordano wrote. “The elimination of gathering audiences and collaborators halted all active programming, for in many ways, dance is inherently the opposite of social distancing. We evaluated each of our projects, open grants, pre-existing contracts, and commitments to our artists to determine the best route forward. We discussed how we could continue to serve our community in the near-term, while maintaining our quality of work within the financial and physical constraints of COVID-19. A few projects were outright cancelled, others were postponed, and a handful went virtual. This process took a significant amount of planning and time; we revisited budgets, creative decisions, and logistics within the ever-evolving COVID-19 regulations.”
In Part II, which will be published next week, I will take a look at how long it took before the fear, anger, and hopelessness wore off and these incredibly able dance artists rolled up their collective sleeves and began to do what they do best – create! From here on out, I will refer to each artist by their last name.
Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Sign “Closed But Still Awesome” from the web.