What a time to be alive. How often have we heard that this year? Usually said with some mix of disbelief, awe, and sarcasm, I certainly don’t believe any of us imagined a retrospective of 2020 would show dancers spending most of our time at home or behind a screen. Yet, as it always does, time presses on and we adapt. For example, in May of this year, in response to the changing times, Director’s Lab West - an annual conference for theater directors and choreographers - translated their event to the digital space, live-streaming conversations between influential performance makers. In one such conversation, between Los Angeles based director Jessica Hanna and Anne Bogart, Artistic Director and founder of New York’s SITI Company, Ms. Bogart put words to our situation which greatly shaped the way I’ve moved through the rest of this year. To paraphrase, she said while we may no longer be sharing space, we can still share time, as she smiled into her laptop’s camera to share a real moment of connection.

So, with this in mind, as we near the end of the year, the below highlights just some of the ways the dance industry has continued to share time in 2020.

Note: while recognizing the global scale of this pandemic, this article focuses on work created and presented in the United States.

Three performances on individual platforms floating on ware 6 feet apart
Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company "At a Distance" − Photo: Stephen Pruitt

A Year of Firsts

March 30

Dua Lipa and dancers on The Late Late Show with James Corden’s #HomeFest 

Broadcasted live on Corden’s nightly program, this combination of Lipa’s relaxed Zoom performance, her lyrics “don’t show up, don’t come out,” and the first real-time synchronized back-up dancing we had seen in weeks (performed and shot safely from the dancers’ homes) allowed this performance to “set the tone for a new wave of audio-visual creativity forged under unprecedented constraints” (Time Magazine).

April 10 (premiere)

Cooped-Up: Drive in Dances for Cooped-Up People presented by LanDforms Dance

Co-Directed by Leah Crosby, Danielle Doell, and Ari Kaufman, Cooped-Up is a contemporary dance performance described as a “mash-up of a drive-in movie, scavenger hunt, escape room” in which audiences remain safely in their cars while dancers perform from their homes and yards. The Seattle-based work makes way for multiple artist involvement and has continued to have a life beyond its April premiere.

May 16

Parked presented by Jacob Jonas The Company

In what has become a go-to presentation option for many dance companies, continuing on the drive-in theme introduced above, Parked allowed a cast of 16 dancers to share both time and space with their audience while practicing CDC Guidelines of social distancing and mask-wearing. The one night pop-up event took place in a vacant parking lot, using the car’s headlights to light the performance.

August 6

Godspell presented by the Berkshire Theatre Group

For the first time since closures began, audiences were treated to a live musical theater performance. Through representation by Actors’ Equity Association, the production had such strict safety guidelines that the director, Alan Filderman, used the pandemic as a concept for the production, with hand sanitizer, plexiglass, and 6-foot yard sticks as part of the show’s gimmick. Choreographer Gerry McIntyre had to teach the movement while masked with performers following along behind their mobile, life-sized spit guards. The performers also lived together, forbidden from seeing outside guests, and were tested everyday - but the trouble must have been worth it as the production earned a 2-week extension.

October 5

Kiss presented by PARA.MAR Dance Theatre

Performed in a parking lot in the Avondale neighborhood of Chicago, this new company directed by Stephanie Martinez proved that not even a pandemic can prevent the emergence of new dance. As Ms. Martinez puts it: “I founded PARA.MAR during the pandemic because I felt compelled to create a job opportunity for the exceptional artists who were forced out of work and to bring community art back to Chicago.” The choreography was developed with the dancers in isolation over the summer and performed with masks, socially distanced from the audience.

A Year of Rethinking Tradition

April 25

Digital DanceChance, DanceWorks Chicago

Since 2014, DanceWorks Chicago has been producing DanceChance, “a one-hour event designed to offer opportunities for choreographers to show their work informally, create a forum for dialogue among artists, and build audience for dance.” With the closing of the Lou Conte Dance Studio along with social distancing orders, DanceWorks hosted their first Digital DanceChance in April, with the platform now welcoming dancers and choreographers beyond the Chicago area.

June 20

Dance We Must by Jacob’s Pillow

Hosted virtually by Kyle Abraham and Wendy Whelan, Dance We Must was a new take on Jacob’s Pillow’s annual fundraising gala and an opportunity for artists and supporters world-wide to tune in together for special digital performances as well as the live honoring of the 2020 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award recipient, Ronald K. Brown.

September 11

9/11 Table of Silence Project by Buglisi Dance Theatre

Originally performed on the 10-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the Table of Silence Project has since been performed annually in the Josie Robertson Plaza of the Lincoln Center. Described by Artistic Director, Jacqulyn Buglisi, as a “free public performance ritual for peace,” the ritual took on new meaning in the face of the pandemic and the fight for black lives. While in previous years, the event featured more than 150 dancers, this year’s event cut that down to just 24 in order to maintain healthy distancing and was live streamed to a global audience.

October 24 and 25

San Francisco International Arts Festival

This annual festival, usually held in May each year, was pushed to October in response to the pandemic and presented in three open air venues in the Upper Fort Mason area of the city. In keeping with their mission of presenting multicultural performance projects “focused on increasing human awareness and understanding,” this year’s festival took on the theme “Be Part of the Recovery: Socially Enlightened and Physically Distanced Outdoor Performances On the Bay.” The two-day event featured 6 Bay Area dance companies.

October 21 - November 1

Fall for Dance Festival

In its 17th year, the New York Times calls Fall for Dance a “highlight of New York’s cultural calendar.” This year’s programming brought dancers to the stage to film each program and featured four world premieres by choreographers Kyle Abraham, Jamar Roberts, Dormeshia, and Christopher Wheeldon. While the theaters remain closed to audiences, the event was made available to purchase and view on demand. Though audiences were not sharing time with the performers, they were able to witness new works which had been created in real time with the dancers.

It’s clearly just the beginning of a new wave in innovation, resiliency, and far-reaching connectivity for dance artists.

A Year of Perseverance and Resilience

April - August

19 Acts of COVID-19 Bravery

Curated by Kate Ladenheim and Brendan Drake, this project responded swiftly to the stay-at-home orders by commissioning several artists to create digital work that not only adhered to and was viewable through social distancing guidelines, but also acknowledged what it means to be brave in 2020. While most of the projects remained viewable on the project’s website throughout the summer, many projects were scheduled to be experienced in real time through live streaming.

August 30

Lady Gaga and dancers on MTV’s Video Music Awards

After months of cancellations and postponements for most music and performance events, MTV’s annual Video Music Awards decided they would work to safely televise their live show. While most performers prepared solo acts, Lady Gaga went as full out as ever, along with Ariana Grande and a slew of dancers. As stated by Variety Magazine: “Before proceeding any further, let’s acknowledge the clear superstars of the 2020 MTV Video Music Awards: Lady Gaga’s mask designers.” Thanks to this costuming, audiences could enjoy the choreography of Richy Jackson in the way we’re used to seeing it: with dancers not only sharing time, but space and energy.

performers in white maintaining social distance on a beach at night in Corinna Kinnear's "Ocean12"
Corina Kinnear "Ocean 12" − Photo from footage by Glyn Gray

August (premiere)

Ocean 12 directed by Corina Kinnear

A happening, somewhere on the beaches of Santa Monica, close to midnight, that happens to have dancers. Premiering in August with several follow up performances, this event puts a priority on health and safety guidelines, but I can’t speak much more to the experience. As noted on their website: “it’s not in my nature to be mysterious, but I can’t talk about it and I can’t talk about why.” — Rusty Ryan

October 4 (premiere)

Sunday with Smuin presented by Smuin Contemporary Ballet

While safety guidelines, mask wearing, and separating dancers into rehearsal “pods” has provided many companies an opportunity to return to the studio, the question remains: how can we reach a sizable live audience? In this genius collaboration between San Francisco’s Smuin Contemporary Ballet and the classic steak and seafood house John’s Grill, Smuin dancers performed on a stage built by the Grill’s team, viewable by the restaurant’s outdoor diners. This first iteration presented choreography by company dancer Cassidy Isaacson and company founder Michael Smuin and the event has continued beyond its premiere.

October 9

At a Distance presented by Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company

In another brilliant act of ingenuity, Austin-based choreographer Kathy Dunn Hamrick developed a work to be performed not only outside - but on water! Utilizing floating platforms created by set designer Stephen Pruitt, the performers would be tethered 6-feet apart with their audiences “at a distance”, viewing from the shore. Unfortunately, just days before the show was set to premiere, the city shut them down. However, as this is a year of resiliency, the company performed anyway, scrapping their original ticketed event for a more organic pop-up experience.

A Year of Dance in Revolt

May 13 (premiere)

Cyber Clown Girls Show

When city shut downs prevented the exotic dancers from Los Angeles’ Jumbo Clown Room from going to work, dancers Reagan, Gabrielle, Coco Ono, and Kitty the Stripperina took things into their own hands and set a new precedent for being one’s own boss as night life workers - especially for womyn. Since May, their virtual platform has not only allowed exotic dancers from all over the country to continue to make money, they’ve also donated over $12,000 to various non-profit organizations including Planned Parenthood and the Marsha P. Johnson Institute.

May 31

Jo’Artis Ratti Krumps at a Black Lives Matter Protest

“Krump was created to bring awareness,” says Jo’Artis Ratti, also known as Big Mijo, one of the creators of Krumping. So when thousands began taking to the streets in response to the murder of George Floyd, Ratti allowed his body to make his statement. In a poignant video with more than 20,000 views on his instagram, the Krumper walks through the crowd to dance face to face with a line of police officers, framed by protesters holding signs saying “no justice, no peace” and “silence is compliance.” His body speaks volumes. 

October 3

Soul Train for a Nation, Wide Awakes Dance Corp

In solidarity with Dancing Rising: NYC, Lift Every Vote 2020 and We Are The Black Smiths, Wide Awakes Dance Corp, organized by choreographer Leslie Cuyjet, hosted Soul Train for a Nation to help bring awareness to and promote voting with an emphasis on “collective joy and resistance.” The event was then reactivated on November 1st - 3rd in what they called “Voter Relief and Debrief: a place to relax and and be in communion with each other while we continue to promote the vote.” The goal was to bring both joy and healing to voters before and after braving the long polling lines.

November 5 - 20

BTW US Cyberspace created by Dancing Earth

Dancing Earth Indigenous Contemporary Dance Creations, founded and directed by Rulan Tangen, has always served a mission to “create and support global Indigenous dance and related arts, to encourage and revitalize awareness of bio-cultural diversity through expression, for the education and wellness of all peoples.” BTW US Cyberspace took “all peoples” to a new level by reimagining virtual performance into an “interactive mini-series of dynamic episodes.” Through dance and technology, this program explored “themes of repetition and renewal, finding healing, and remembering ancestral knowledge.”

This list just scratches the surface, of course, as it would be impossible to include all of the wonderful dance moments of 2020. So, though we’ve reached the end of the year and the end of this retrospective, it’s clearly just the beginning of a new wave in innovation, resiliency, and far-reaching connectivity for dance artists. I look forward to sharing more time with you soon.

Top photo credits from top left: Performer Candace Thompson-Zachery from André Zachery's "Just Past and Beyond" - Tara Sheena, "How To Be in a Crisis (2020)" - Alexandra Pinel, "Catnastics" - Caroline Haydon, "Caesura" - Clémence Debaig, "Strings" - Julia O. Bianco, "Smile" - Kate Ladenheim, "This crisis looks good on you" - Mei Yamanaka, "as sure as sure can be" - Kayla Hamilton, "In the Now" - Here's T(w)o Collective, "nothing to see here" - Brendan Drake & Matthew Ricketts, "Spare Room" - Ali Goss & Liz Oakley, "Is anybody out there?" - Bridgman|Packer Dance, "Embrace in the Time of COVID-19" - Sahar Sajadieh, "Becoming the Fourteenth Moon" - Vincenzo Catarisano, "Serving the Public- A Dinner Theater Experience" - Laurel Snyder, "I've never done this before" - Reid Herreid & Holly Taylor, "Just a Gesture" - Same As Sister, "VIR{US}"

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