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Raymond Ejiofor as Hades and Keva Walker as Nymph 2 in Heidi Duckler’s “Underway.” Photograph by Rush Varela

Dance in the Time of Covid-19

How West Coast companies are staying creative during the shutdown

Who knew that the performance of American Ballet Theatre’s world premiere, “Of Love and Rage,” that I was privileged to see at Segerstrom Center for the Arts on March 5 would be the last live dance concert I would share with some 3,000 thrilled theater-goers. Yes, that’s a rhetorical question, but since the world irrevocably changed in a matter of weeks because of Covid-19, the novel coronavirus, all dance troupes, performing arts organizations and any place people gather—whether for culture, entertainment, dining, drinking and/or to experience nature—have effectively shut down.

And while the words ‘social distancing’ seem at odds with dance, terpsichores and choreographers are nothing if not creative. Indeed, they’ve been answering the call in numerous ways: Major dance organizations around the world, from ABT and New York City Ballet to the Royal Ballet and the Australian Ballet are offering free streaming performances, while individual dancers are storming social media to give free classes, dance parties and literal do-it-yourself movement fests.

In Los Angeles, Debbie Allen has been giving weekly Instagram Live instruction at @therealdebbieallen, Los Angeles Ballet, having been forced to cancel its June performances of “The Sleeping Beauty,” also offered several classes through IG (@losangelesballet), while Sia and “The OA” choreographer Ryan Heffington has been throwing IG dance parties at @ryan.heffington.

But in the real-life City of Angels, where dance has been on an upward trajectory for the past few years, companies of all sizes have been hit hard. Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre, BodyTraffic and Diavolo|Architecture in Motion—troupes scheduled to perform at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in a season devoted solely to local companies—have all had their engagements canceled.

Duckler’s site-specific company, whose last performance was January 31 at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County with 600 people in attendance, is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. In addition to doing a new work at the Wallis, “Chandelier,” which had been slated for April 15-18, Duckler’s members were set to perform “Underway,” March 13-14 as part of Los Angeles Opera’s “Eurydice Found Festival.”

The piece, which was to take place beneath the 7th Street Bridge, was called off at the last moment, partly because of the threat of rain, but more importantly, Governor Newsom had—at that time—banned gatherings of more than 250 people.

“The dancers were totally game and wanted to go through with it,” explained Duckler, whose audiences were expected to be no more than 150 each night, “but the singers and lighting designer said ‘No.’ It was the day before the performance and I asked if they would be willing to be filmed, so we filmed for two days, capturing the singers on Zoom on Friday and filming the rest of the scenes on Saturday.”

Duckler said she’ll have a screening at her company’s Bendix Building studio, hopefully, sometime this summer. For the Wallis performances, she explained that they would begin rehearsals online to develop movement and music ideas.

“I’m looking forward to that as an experimental process. If there are duets and trios, they’ll be working together on Zoom. It’s a great tool and we use it every morning, including for a meeting with the staff. We’re all working remotely.”

It’s not take-out, it’s take-on.

Heidi Duckler

As for future performances, Duckler is optimistic her banner year will be able to proceed, with pending dates including “Unsettling Ramona” at the Southwest Museum of the American Indian. In the meantime, the shutdowns have led Duckler to ask hard questions: “How do we message our community? How do we keep our artists employed and take care of them? We have a commitment to our artists and our community.

“That’s why I developed online rehearsals and workshops,” she continued. “It’s different and interesting, because you think you couldn’t be as intimate, but it can be very intimate. You’re dealing with close-ups, which I think is interesting and I’ve been wondering how that would change my choreography.”

Having danced in such places as parking structures, laundromats and abandoned hospitals, Duckler is now challenging people to make dances at home, with her Instagram account (@heididuckler) featuring the #SocialDisDancing challenge. Offering a virtual how-to guide for artists wanting to continue their work, she’s asking people to create site-specific pieces in their living quarters.

“You have to keep a positive attitude, try your best and look at the possibilities of what you can do. It’s not take-out,” explains Duckler, “it’s take-on.”

Joseph Davis and Guzmán Rosado of BODYTRAFFIC performing Wewolf’s “Resolve.” Photograph by Skye Schmidt

Also taking on the task of keeping a company during these unprecedented times is Tina Finkelman Berkett, co-director, with Lillian Rose Barbeito, of BodyTraffic. Founded in 2007, the eight-member troupe has national and international name recognition, with the New York Times having dubbed it the “company of the future.”

As the company-in-residence at the Wallis this season, BodyTraffic gave concerts in September and were scheduled to perform “The Minghella Project” from April 18 to May 2. A series of texts that the late film director Anthony Minghella wrote for dance, the work was to be choreographed by Jonathan Lunn.

“Our last performance with an audience was March 7 in Chico [California],” explained Berkett, “and our last day in the studio was March 11. The next morning, we sent email to our dancers saying. ‘We’re going to pay you but we don’t think anyone should return to the studio.’ They were working on a new piece by [BodyTraffic dancer] Jamal White and we were supposed to leave for a three-week tour in Italy on March 9.

“The Italian presenters kept postponing,” added Berkett, “and then they finally told us the theaters are closed. We were also supposed to go to Serbia, but when we knew that none of that was going to happen, we realized it wouldn’t be safe for our dancers to be in the studio.”

Berkett said a joint decision had been made to pay the dancers through the end of March. “They are so committed to us—they live in L.A. to work in BodyTraffic, so with all of our touring cancelled, we have no money coming in and it’s a heavy financial burden for us.”

Another irony was the notion that BodyTraffic was slated for a five-week tour in China, beginning in June. “It was nearly 30 shows,” Berkett sighed, “and almost our entire year was dependent on revenue from that one tour. So much advance work is done, so much time is spent preparing visas, so many hours spent with our technical team and so much money is spent in doing those things. And it was the same with Italy.”

Berkett, looking on the bright side, though, said, “the exact hot spot of the virus was Italy. It’s such a crazy thing, and our other major tour was China. Should I go play the lottery?”

For now, Berkett hopes that the troupe is able to hold their summer intensive and teen intensive in July. “Not only because we’re so committed to those programs but our dancers are employed as educators for them.”

As for an online presence, Berkett said she’s not a big fan, although she has been posting dancer profiles on their social media accounts (@bodytraffic). “Lillian and I are such deep believers in live art we feel it’s just not the same to see it on a video as opposed to in a theater live. It’s tricky. There’s amazing content made specifically for video and online, but I don’t know if they’re made for proscenium theaters that they translate well.”

Berkett did say that they were in discussions about providing full-length videos of past BodyTraffic concerts to theaters where they were scheduled to perform but admitted she “wants to hold out to see how long this [virus] lasts.”

In the interim, Berkett has launched a Dancer Relief Fund and noted that the shutdown “comes at an interesting time, because the dance world is changing so much. It’s different than what it was years ago. What is best for our company? What do they need? What’s important—getting a big paycheck or health insurance? What are priorities and what do people need to live to their fullest potential?

“I don’t have solutions yet,” she said, “but I now have the time to think about those questions.”

Eiko Otake’s “A Body on Wall Street” for Dare to Dance in Public. Photograph by William Johnston

One maker that does have an impressive online presence is choreographer/producer/film director, Sarah Elgart, who launched her online film festival, Dare To Dance in Public (@dare2danceinpublic), four years ago. Dedicated to dance that happens outside of stages and studios, with judges having including bold-faced names such as Desmond Richardson and Vincent Paterson, this year’s festival had its first live screenings in January at REDCAT as part of Dance Camera West (a festival dedicated to screening films about dance that is now in its 19th year).

Since Covid-19 struck, Elgart, along with associate producer Zoe Rappaport, has created D2D Six Foot Distance Dances that asks a series of questions, including how do we dance in isolation? How do we connect? How do we create relevance dancing in the privacy of our own homes? What do we feel while being physically limited by an invisible enemy?

Elgart believes that in the face of the virus, creativity should be amplified. “I’ve been dancing almost every day doing something physical in isolation since I’ve been in this [position]. I think it’s interesting what’s going on with the internet and how this situation that we’re all in universally is, in a way, bringing us together differently.”

Elgart, whose site-specific works have included venues ranging from airports and bus terminals to museums and office buildings, with her troupe, Arrogant Elbow also having presented works at such prestigious festivals as Jacob’s Pillow, explained: “In the choice not to go out into public, it’s not really just about protecting yourself, but about protecting others. You can have the virus and it can be dormant in you. That’s a really interesting sort of new normal. For once we have to be connected remotely and think about each other from a distance. And  relevance comes for each individual. If the dance they create is relevant to them, then it’s relevant.”

Elgart acknowledged that some dances will be better than others but also believes that the issue is a personal one. “Is this relevant to me right now in this moment? As an artist, as somebody who is used to creating value in isolation, if you will—not necessarily having a venue to perform in—you have to believe in the value of what you’re doing. I think that’s both a challenge and a gift. We’re all working in a vacuum to a certain extent anyway, and now more than ever.” 

Diavolo performs “Humachina.” Photograph by Sharon Bradford

Also contemplating the public health crisis is Jacques Heim, director of Diavolo|Architecture in Motion, one of L.A.’s most high-profile dance troupes. Now in its 28th year, the company, a 2017 finalist on the television show, “America’s Got Talent,” has been touring nationally and internationally with 12 members for more than two decades and has an additional 10 members in its educational company, Volo.

Needless to say, Diavolo, whose last performance was in Wisconsin in late February, will not be appearing at the Wallis in May, which was to be its debut in that venue. Known for its enormous, custom-built sets that include a two-and-a-half-ton aluminum wheel and a 17-foot long rocking boat, the troupe has a large studio east of Downtown L.A.

“That’s becoming the elephant in the room,” explained Parisian-born Heim. “We have to keep our studio, to not only store our structures, but for rehearsals and performances.”

Heim added that he, along with general manager, Jose Hernandez and education director Dusty Alvarado, are doing what they can to help their dancers. “Basically, all our dancers are out of jobs now. We do conference calls and Zoom, and what all of us are doing is try to reach individuals who loved the company for years and want to help us.

“Jose is also writing grants and trying everything to find funds and Dusty’s helping me with social media (@diavolo_la). But in the month of March, I saw so much on social media and every dance company is bombarding media platforms that I decided not to do anything yet. I want to do it when it’s more meaningful, not because of being worried that we’re going to be forgotten.”

It’s unlikely that Heim or his troupe, will soon be forgotten. With their live performances featuring death-defying leaps and breathtaking feats of athleticism that leave audiences wanting more, it’s the humanity of the dancers that is at the heart of every performance—and at the heart of Heim’s philosophy.

To him, artists are the “most resilient and dedicated human beings. We became artists because there was something inside us that we had to do—expressing ourself through our own medium—and for us, that’s with movements, with dance, with architecture. The men and women of Diavolo are the most tough human beings I ever met, doing the most physically demanding and dangerous work.

Jacques Heim, director of Diavolo|Architecture in Motion, with dancers. Photograph by George Simian

“They’re like gladiators,” he added. “We believe that eventually when we come on the other side of this crisis we’ll be even more strong because of the tenacity and belief that we will make it.”

To that end, the troupe is creating a new piece, “Escape.” The work, according to Heim, takes “a courageous look into humans’ impulse to escape [and] refusing to accept the shackles of modern society.”

For now, though, Heim said it’s about putting ideas on paper, with the dancers “eventually doing a big Zoom where, first and foremost, we see their beautiful faces. We have to stay creative. That is our juice, our blood, to somehow stay creative in some shape or form or capacity.”

He agreed that it’s important they look ahead and will be giving his dancers movement homework. “This is the motor of Diavolo. We see obstacles—do we turn around or do we face it? We analyze it, we find a solution, we find a way to overcome this obstacle. It’s what we’re all facing now. I think it would be good and healthy for us to look at this work, “Escape,” as a metaphor for overcoming obstacles.”

And like dance companies everywhere, Heim said, “questions arise. Are we going to be able to survive? Are we going to be here in six months? Now I cannot think that way and even though I’m a very realistic man, I have to put one step forward, one step at a time, the same way I’ve been fighting for the last 28 years.

“It was never an easy road. You’re in the trenches every single minute. Are you going to make it tomorrow? Are my dancers going to be safe? Are the shows we create good? That’s the landscape.”

That landscape now includes Heim thinking about creating a private, up close and personal experience with the company, inviting a small group of people to the studio to “escape with Diavolo. We give them some black gloves with our fox logo on it, black masks, we give them disinfectant, some alcohol Purell, a few glasses of Prosecco and they come and watch the show. That’s what we’re working on. It feels good, it’s healthy and it’s good to be thinking about that.”

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