Nearly three months after theaters began to close, we don’t seem any closer to “returning to normal” and instead face the reality that this crisis will forever change the way we dance and our world. The slow creep of coronavirus has made it difficult to see where we are and chart where we might go next. Nevertheless, I’ve begun to make out what I will call some “stages” as we’ve transitioned from confusion and immediate relief to short-term solutions and reckonings with the underlying structures that this disease acutely reveals. We often view dance on a “stage” (literally or metaphorically) as a platform from which to reflect, look anew, and consider another position. Like grief, our evolving response to the pandemic does not fit neatly into defined periods. But while we are still deep in the malaise and muck of this crisis, I hope that by considering its stages, we can begin to look back and look out to a new future.
Stage 1: Visceral Confusion and Immediate Relief
Back in March, a wave of performance cancellations, postponements, and reschedulings were rapidly announced as lockdowns pressed into effect. Email updates often offered either too little or too much information. Some crisply outlined updated schedules and promised to follow up with ticket buyers, while others waxed poetic about the importance of gathering in person and implored support, now more than ever. In the meantime, artists were left stranded, served force majeure clauses choked with previously unimaginable Acts of God. In a public conversation over Zoom, artist Adrienne Truscott described losing more than a year’s work in the span of a week as canceled spring gigs pushed up against development periods for forthcoming shows and then hit germinating conversations with presenters, all falling in a heap with no paycheck in sight.
Emergency funding quickly followed for artists and organizations as the enormity of the economic impact became alarmingly clear. A survey organized by Americans for the Arts noted that 95% of the more than 11,000 artists surveyed had experienced income loss, and that 80% said they did not have a recovery plan. Artists Relief, an alliance of funders including Creative Capital, Foundation for Contemporary Arts, MAP Fund, and United States Artists (among others), quickly emerged to provide rapid, unrestricted $5,000 relief grants to artists facing financial emergencies due to the impact of COVID-19. At the New York City level, foundations banded together to develop relief funds for arts organizations, with the New York Community Trust aggregating over 44 million dollars in aid.
Grantors also shifted their modes of support: expending additional funds to relief efforts, offering new support to current or past grantees, and allowing organizations to turn project funds into general operating support. Taking an utilitarian approach, some foundations revised their grants to give more awards of smaller amounts to a greater number of applicants, while others, like the National Dance Project, gave out microgrants to everyone who applied for support, regardless of their advancement to the second round of grant review.
Through the CARES act, national government slowly extended unemployment to freelance artists, though reports of the website crashing, busy phone lines, and challenging fine print, not to mention the delays in getting stimulus checks, meant that many did not ultimately receive promised support. In the meantime, organizations around New York City stepped up to offer additional direct aid to artists: Abrons Arts Center gave out cash grants to creators living in their neighborhood, Dance/NYC started a relief fund for individual artists, and communities organized mutual aid funds, seeking to fill in specific gaps to help artists of color, LGBTQ artists, and freelancers. The lean structures of these grassroot efforts enabled them to quickly distribute money, often faster than larger organizations mired in bureaucracy.
Stage 2: Short-term Pivots + Online Content
As the pandemic instituted a choreography of social distancing, artists and institutions organized new ways to create and present work. Artists, who had the time, resources, and mental capacity, began rehearsing online, clearing the furniture in their living rooms to create together on Zoom. Using digital platforms, artists performed via InstagramLive and Twitch to bring a semblance of liveness (glitches and delays included) to viewers who could pay artists directly via Venmo and Paypal. Taylor Mac crafted the streaming service Trickle Up NYC as a subscription-based platform that used profits to provide $10K commissions to artists chosen by their colleagues, pointedly eschewing an application process for direct aid, with an emphasis on ongoing support.
Institutions, unable to gather audiences in communal spaces, began to provide content online. These offerings were almost always free, with donations to the organization encouraged. The range of material—archival performance footage, at times augmented with pre-show talks or hosted as a “watch party” with commentary; live streamed talks; distanced studio visits; and virtual galas—happened in “real-time,” but increasingly felt surreal. Fusebox Festival pivoted to an entirely digital platform in less than a month and presented what Associate Artistic Director & Curator Anna Gallagher-Ross called a “public access television channel” for contemporary performance over three days. Many online offerings felt more like material “about” performance than the work itself, a compendium of contextual content that made me miss the visceral impact of live performance.
The ease of shifting between tabs on a computer screen, instantly leaving a meeting, and quickly toggling between video from 1982 and live streams often left me feeling exhausted, and missing the unexpected pleasure of seeing a friend in the lobby of a theater, the quiet moments reading a program before the show concluded, and the walk home afterwards. Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s piece Chameleon: A Biomythography, presented jointly by EMPAC and New York Live Arts online seemed like the first glimmer of a more sensitive approach. Over the span of several hours rehearsal footage, pre-recorded video, somatic workshops, and discussion unfolded on my screen as Kosoko used the platform Discord to guide the experience and take a break when needed. The project team embraced the medium’s relationship to the internet, and added links to the chat function, encouraging viewers to explore a companion syllabus.
Stage 3: Reconsidering Relationships
Increasingly news cycles depicted the virus’ arc as an 18+ month journey toward a vaccine, a cultural adjustment, and an economic collapse to be felt over the next decade. Through this uncertainty, larger questions emerged about the relationships between artists and presenters, the ethical responsibilities presenters have to audiences, and the role of art in society. While folks were eager to seize the unparalleled opportunity to throw off oppressive systems, others, overwhelmed by the unknown, announced further cancellations.
During this period, artist and advocate Andrew Simonet wrote in an email to artists that, “this is what we train for,” referencing the creativity, ingenuity, and entrepreneurship of artists made them the best guides for these uncertain, financially-limited moments. Other artists noted that they were taking this time to slow down, wary of attempts by institutions to co-opt their enterprising in service of inequitable systems that predicated the necessity of resourcefulness in the first place. Raja Kelly’s article in Dance Magazine, “Has Anyone Asked Artists What They Need?” queried what institutions were doing for artists, rather than seeking artists to help promote their initiatives or provide content at little to no cost. These questions grew particularly acute as organizations began fundraising, seeking support for their continuity while they stopped or drastically reduced payments to artists.
As the relationship between artists and presenters grew ever more precarious, a coalition of artists, presenters, and administrators drafted the working document “Creating New Futures: Working Guidelines for Ethics & Equity in Presenting Dance & Performance.” The team combined testimonials, suggested next steps, and presented a public reading and response session to address the structures that were broken before the pandemic, and are acutely visible now. Erin Boberg Doughton, Artistic Director and Curator of Performance at PICA, was quoted “If we are not serving our mission, we are ethically and legally corrupt. Ethical bankruptcy could be worse than financial bankruptcy.” Indeed, as organizations approached financial challenges, their values and mission statements have been tested.
Some organizations, like JACK, pivoted entirely and responded to immediate needs by becoming a food distribution site. Others, like the Mark Morris Dance Group, found ways to put their skills to unique topical use and created movement sequences for essential workers. Still others, like American Ballet Theater, re-articulated their missions, saying at a recent virtual gala that their dance “provides solace, meaning, and beauty,” important balms during a crisis. Dance/NYC’s broad advocacy campaign asserted that #ArtistsAreNeccessaryWorkers, and that they serve the city by leading tourism, strengthening education, fueling the economy, and ensuring health, wellness, and imaginations—critical tools for societal reform.
Stage 4: Looking ahead
As restrictions lift and cities begin to cautiously open, where will live performance be in the next year? I imagine this time might remind us of our responsibility to others, and offer an unparalleled opportunity to craft a new future together. And, I mourn the generation of elders that are lost in this crisis and the waves of anxiety that cause some to cling more closely to their resources. I wonder if we will develop new habits born from fear of others, predilections for the familiar, and reactions to scarcity that might relegate the arts to luxury. But maybe, just maybe, live art will emerge from this crisis as an experience more prized than ever—something deeply missed, with its resonances (virtual, archival, distanced) crucial saving graces amidst the crisis. Ultimately, I think that our future will be a mix of all of the above. And as much as I hope this crisis subsides soon, I hope it is more than a stage for us. I hope it can be a turning point of reconsideration, growth, and advocacy. The Joyce Theater’s marquee in New York reads “We Will Dance Again.” I know that is true, and may that again be different.