When COVID-19 revealed itself at the beginning of this year, the impact of the shutdowns were, and still are, devastating for the entire performing arts community. Students were unable to continue with their usual in-person classes and performances. Local and traveling companies had their shows cancelled, leaving many professional performers and production teams unemployed. Projects were shut down at all levels of progress; some at the early stages of the creative process, some almost show ready, and others even mid-tour.
Behind every performance is one or multiple artistic directors who use extensive amounts of time, imagination, and energy to bring their thoughts and ideas to fruition. They often spend hours at home preparing the movement prior to setting it on the dancers. The ones who run small companies commonly spend money out-of-pocket to rent the studio space itself. These individuals execute the vision and, therefore, are very passionately involved, attached, and committed to the work.
The importance of leadership is high as you are responsible for keeping the camaraderie of your group intact.
As human beings, we often feel grief when something important to us is lost. We don’t just grieve the loss of people, relationships, and material items. We can also grieve plans that fell through. In the face of this pandemic, artistic directors are coping with grief of their creative energies, and the time and fervor spent on a project that was either shutdown mid-performance, or never even came to be.
Along with this grief comes a lot of other fears, worries, and concerns. Will this group of dancers lose the chemistry they developed over months of dancing together? Will the communication and connection amongst the group dwindle? Will the choreography be remembered well? When restrictions are lifted, will the dancers be comfortable? How much of what was created can be preserved, and how much will need to be tossed away? How much time will need to be spent reconditioning before diving back into material?
Sevon Wright, artistic director of Burgundy Blue Dance Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, asked herself all of these questions after company rehearsals were halted at the end of March. The dancers had been rehearsing very hard for months, several pieces were completed, with only a few more to be set before the show in May.
Behind every performance is one or multiple artistic directors who use extensive amounts of time, imagination, and energy to bring their thoughts and ideas to fruition.
Sevon, like many others, thought the shutdowns may only last about two weeks back when it all began. She teaches dance full time and is extremely grateful that the internet allowed her to still work, even though online teaching comes with its own challenges. When it came to her company, not being able to create really started to take a toll on her, making her feel discouraged and experience a lack of inspiration as the months went on. She didn’t know what to do to keep going forward. There is only so much that can be done virtually, especially with choreography that often involves physical contact. “Everything is just a maybe, a possibly not, a maybe so.” Even finding a place to eventually rehearse has been a challenge, as many studios are not yet allowing bookings.
When rehearsals are able to start again, Sevon knows the importance of leadership and will be conscientious to her dancers’ comfort levels and figuring out what works for everyone, taking it all day by day. The main task, she stresses, is getting everyone to dance as a unit again. Choreography can be retaught, relearned and practiced, but dancing in sync with each other’s energies is what makes a good show and a good company.
Despite times being so difficult for the performing arts and everyone in the entire world, with no set plans or definitive answers, Sevon tries her best to keep up the company’s morale until life gets back to “normal”. She shared some tips on how she is taking this on.
A lot of choreographers video tape their work so that it can be reviewed at any time. Dancers can review these videos on their own, but it is helpful to review movement together as well. Through group Zoom meetings, dancers can ask any questions they may have, and it is just another reason to see each others’ faces.
Sometimes it’s refreshing to take a break from constantly reviewing choreography. Simply taking a class together, even if virtual, is a really great way for the company to bond. It doesn’t even need to be an entire full length, sweat-driven class. Warm ups, long stretches, and improvisation are still beneficial to do together. If it feels natural prior to the class or after, take a few minutes to chat with your company. Ask what everyone is up to; see how everyone is feeling. This often drums up more conversation and feels similar to the conversations that the dancers used to have with each other while waiting for in-person company rehearsals to begin.
Get creative. Your group may not be able to dance together in the same space and room. It is possible, however, to engage in other projects. Sevon had her dancers pick any song of their choosing and film themselves dancing to it for about a minute. Some dancers choreographed, while others improvised. These videos were released on the company’s Instagram account. This was a fun way to stay present online, while also giving the dancers something entertaining from their peers to watch.
Sevon gave a few other projects to her dancers. Not all of these were released online, as they became more of an outlet for the dancers to have fun. It is important, she says, to be mindful that not every individual will be in the mindset to engage, as times are very difficult right now. She does not want to make anyone feel obligated or pressured to participate as a task or a burden but rather as a way to release anxiety, if he or she wishes to partake in the project.
Emails to Check-In
Send emails to your dancers. These could be emails about classes to take, or simply just checking-in.
Be Positive and Present
Let your dancers know that you are here for them if they need anything. Ensure them that one day you will all be back together in-person again.
Remember, you are not in this alone. If you have any peers who are also choreographers, talk to them. The importance of leadership is high as you are responsible for keeping the camaraderie of your group intact. If this is challenging, or seems to be falling apart, take a deep breath, give yourself grace, and try again.