Art & Entertainment

Dancing in the Age of Social Distancing: Reimagining Performances

Reading time: 4 minutes

The Lincoln Center, the Bolshoi Theater, the Royal Opera House: places once filled with lively sounds, dances, and passion, now stand empty at the will of a global pandemic. The past few months have marked the wake of a new era for the entertainment industry, as events worldwide have had to be postponed, canceled, or digitalized, and the industry of ballet companies is no exception to the rule. 

The official website for the National Ballet of Canada reads “it is with a heavy heart I announce that the remainder of the 2020/21 season has been canceled.” The New York City Ballet announced back in October the postponement of its Winter and Spring season as well, without plans of reopening before September of 2021. These companies do not stand alone, as dancers across the world have seen their living rooms slowly turn into their dance studios and their long training sessions take the shape of Zoom classes.  

But as times have brought uncertainty, they have also brought innovation and potential for new ideas.  

Both the American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet have seen an increase in their digital content. Discussions, open rehearsals, and lectures, things that were usually reserved for donors of the company, are now being made available online and reaching a broader audience. At the same time, dancers have been taking to social media and uploading on their own, bringing performances from their kitchen to all over the world.  

The New York City Ballet, while canceling the season, also decided to put on a show. “New Works Festival” consists of videos of five different dances, by five different choreographers. The dances contained multiple paradoxes and complicated movements; not only were dancers asked to dance in the water of the Reclining Figure pond, but they were also to stay six feet apart at all times.  

For just a few minutes in five different performances, dancers in waterproof booties gave life to the surrounding areas of Lincoln Center. Andrea Miller, one of the five choreographers, compared the empty buildings to “a temple without prayer, without people is just stones.” And described being able to perform outside every day as conjuring the passion and belief they have in dance. “Even though all of the theaters are closed, artists and art are very much alive,” said Unity Phelan, one of the soloists in the piece.  

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The National Canadian Ballet announced a partnership with VIBE Art, an organization dedicated to the education of children and youth, at the beginning of November to offer virtual content to a younger audience. The content offers workshops organized by people with first-hand experience in the world of ballet companies and dance, such as dancers, teachers, and other staff members. 

The Canadian company has also been attempting to continue with their digital season, kicking it off with In Between, a performance choreographed by Alysa Pires. The choreography, like many others during the digital season, had to be adapted from the originally planned four dancers to be a solo and was to be performed in outdoor spaces in order to comply with the coronavirus guidelines. The dance, as Pires puts it, “conveys a sense of yearning and restlessness that feels especially prescient in the context of the coronavirus pandemic”. 

In April, the ballet dancers of the Paris Opera performed multiple at-home dances in homage to France’s first-responders. One such performance was the sequence to Prokofiev’s “The Dance of the Knights” from Romeo and Juliet. The end of the performance is a verbal commendation to those first-responders and laborers during COVID, stating, “we thank the doctors and all the nursing staff, farmers, teachers, researchers, traders, supermarket staff, garbage collectors… everyone who mobilized for all of us.” 

On the other side of the world, The Australian Ballet introduced At Home with Ballet TV in response to the COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic. As the official website explains, “Throughout its centuries of history, ballet has always offered the most wonderful escape from troubled times, and even though our theatres are closed, we want to offer you that gift.” In the span of this project, they filmed and produced performances of numerous famous pieces, including, but not limited to, The Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Romeo & Juliet, Paquita, Giselle, and Swan Lake. 

While coronavirus cases have been soaring across Europe, ballet companies in Australia have been able to return to a relative level of normalcy and hold live performances due to the very low number of COVID-19 infections. West Australian Ballet for example, which reopened in June with very strict guidelines enforcing social distancing, temperature checks, and ensuring small audiences, was just recently able to increase its audience capacity to 60% and offer more tickets for their upcoming Nutcracker performance this Christmas. 

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Also in Cuba ballet companies have been able to slowly reopen. Starting in October ballet companies, such as the Cuban National Ballet, were allowed to once again hold in person classes and start rehearsing for performances in the theater of Alicia Alonso. Dancers had been confined to practicing at home from the beginning of March, and during the summer some companies televised their choreographies and rehearsals.  

Before reopening in September, dancers from the famous Bolshoi Theatre spent time isolated but continuing to practice and perform as they were. Ivan Vasiliev and Emilia Vinagradova shared a one meter ballet bar in a 66 square foot attic to continue practicing, stretching, for two-hours a day.  

Vladimir Urin, the director of the Bolshoi, although not confident about the theatre’s reopening, was not pessimistic about fearing budget cuts. He states, “A little over 60% of our budget comes from state subsidies. The rest is our income and sponsorship money. All sponsorship money and state subsidies have been maintained for us so far, although we are not working at the moment.” Now with the theatre open once again, these dancers and directors may have new chances to create amazing performances on stage. 

Most companies, however, who have not been able to steadily reopen and hold live performances are facing great economic struggles, regardless of whether they are holding online events or not.  

The arts, a sector already relatively underfunded in many countries, might be at the brick of a global catastrophe if they are not able to reopen next year and make up for some of the revenue lost.  

The New York City Ballet lost about eight million dollars for just canceling their Spring season and expects losses of over fourteen million dollars without this years’ sales of the Nutcracker.  

The world of ballet was already a financially unstable one. While some companies have tried to keep paying their dancers, the pandemic has inevitably financially affected dancers all over the world. In May, ballerinas Misty Copeland and Joseph Phillips organized a virtual performance with thirty-two dancers from fourteen different countries meant to raise funds for dancers impacted during lockdown worldwide. The video was titled Swans for Relief and had raised 290k dollars out of their 500k goal as of mid-November, with donations still open on Go Fund Me. 

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