This is not another article about losing dance to the pandemic. This is not another article on studios closing, or Broadway still being dark. This also is not a disregard of all of the tragedy and hardships that have occurred for just shy of a year now. This is, however, a story about positive change and community that has come out of such a dark and challenging time. Once able to see past the limitations and frustrations of our situation, a tremendous amount of beauty and creativity has emerged, and this is one particular story that I am proud to be a part of.
The California State University (CSU) system is the largest public university system in the United States. Made up of 23 unique campuses across the state of California, it offers diverse opportunities and high-quality education for those that desire it. I have the pleasure of teaching at CSU Chico, most commonly referred to as Chico State, the second oldest campus in the California State University system. When the pandemic hit in March, and the announcement was made that all classes would be moved to an online format, we all scrambled to figure out the best way to transition. For dance specifically, the concern for safety and space was a major factor. Bedrooms and garages would become spaces reimagined to take class in. Curricula had to be adjusted for physical safety, logistics, and mental headspace. Later, we would all learn the unforeseen challenges with technology, bandwidth, and Zoom fatigue, to name a few. In late April, I was invited to attend a Zoom meeting with other arts leaders of the CSU campuses. It was refreshing to meet so many other professors in the performing arts, and develop a support system.
It’s been a long time since I’ve felt such a strong community, especially considering that all of our interactions have been virtual, through a small screen.
What stood out most for me that day was a reconnection with an old friend, and the beginning of a large dance community coming together to collaborate and connect. One short meeting spearheaded by Associate Professor Heather Castillo of CSU Channel Islands led to the creation of the CSU Dance Collective months later. At first, this weekly check-in was a fantastic resource for support as we all found ourselves in similar positions. Having people to bounce around ideas and troubleshoot issues with was invaluable. I looked forward to this Friday afternoon meeting all week long. Although inevitably fried and seemingly creatively drained by the end of each week, this group gave me hope, positivity, and inspiration. When the pitch for a CSU wide virtual dance concert was posed, our collaboration took off.
Although many virtual dance concerts were happening, this concert would be the first of its kind. This massive collaboration between universities sparked an incredible amount of inspiration and creativity. 14 campuses volunteered to create work for this concert series that would take place over the span of three nights. Each concert would be different, and would stream online for free to anyone who wished to attend. In [This] Space premiered on November 27th, December 4th, and December 11th, 2020. Each dance piece was filmed at their respective institutions and environments, taking us on a magical journey through each dance program and the state.
Initially, I had an idea for a solo that would represent Chico State. As the semester went on, I was taken aback by the work of my Choreography Seminar students. Their second movement assignment was a site specific work. Typically, they would select spots all over campus to create their study, developing a narrative, theme, and having the environment they select influence the movement. Although working online made it more challenging, it did open up the span of where we could all travel to. The students created solos, and there were no boundaries on where they could go. Ironically, this class was occurring again at a time when our community was hit with major fires. The last time this course ran in the fall of 2018, Butte County was devastated by the Camp Fire. Many students used the course to work through their experiences and loss. This assignment came up again in the fall of 2020 just after the North Complex fire, as well as many others that seemed to surround and cripple the north state.
What I found the most profound about this timing was that it meant that the locations that were selected were now covered in ash with a burning red sun through smoke in the distance. These places meant something to each of the students, but perhaps looked very different than they normally do. Instead of hiding it, they all embraced the situation, and allowed that to drive their choreography. So, instead of a highlight reel of the campus, we saw these locations from all over the community, unfiltered. These pieces were so brave and honest that the theme of our piece for the concert took a major turn. Continuing with the solo I had started, the whole class got on board to have their work be a part of this piece and help create a new narrative, one that I believe it was always meant to be. Getting the opportunity to include so many more dancers was probably made most possible because we were working virtually. The students were thrilled to be amongst such a large company of dancers, and the experience also made watching all of the other pieces that much more meaningful.
Once able to see past the limitations and frustrations of our situation, a tremendous amount of beauty and creativity has emerged.
I was so impressed by the amount of work that went into this entire production. Seeing students from across all of these dance programs representing their schools was both empowering and beautiful. Some were shot by professional film crews, some were shot on cell phones. Some were choreographed by faculty, some were choreographed by students. All were original, and all took a village to make possible. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt such a strong community, especially considering that all of our interactions have been virtual, through a small screen. Watching my students get excited and involved was also significant for me in the process. Supporting them while showing what is possible with so many limitations was also important. Watching my students make connections with other dancers and supporting one another during the concert series was both beneficial for them, and a true representation of how dance can connect people. It feels like for months now, we’ve said “it’s better than nothing” all too often. While that remains true, this project gave us an opportunity that might have never happened without the pandemic. To have such a positive collaboration with incredibly talented dance educators is something I will forever treasure. And this is just the beginning.
Only a week after the premiere, In [This] Space had been viewed a combined 1,070 times. We are thrilled to continue this collaboration, and are already planning the next virtual concert. I am honored to work in such an incredible university support system, and to be a part of something so groundbreaking. While our current situation is far less than ideal, fall of 2020 began with the official start of the new dance program at Chico State. Although not how we imagined, our program is thriving and amongst the company of so many wonderful dance programs in the CSU system. At the end of the day, no matter how difficult, no matter how busy, we all came together and created a unique experience for us, the students, and the audience. After all, isn’t that the point?