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Dance Goes Digital During The Pandemic

The Alvin Ailey troupe in "Revelations." (Courtesy Nan Melville)
The Alvin Ailey troupe in "Revelations." (Courtesy Nan Melville)

Where’s dance in an era of coronavirus? Not in any of the theaters around town where “The Nutcracker” was danced every night of December just five months (seems like five years) ago. Not in large halls or small ones. Not in studios or even outdoor stages. Not for some indefinable time to come. But dance is everywhere if you have a screen and good connectivity.

Today we can see more dance performances than ever before. It’s as if you can put on virtual reality goggles and order up the experience of your dreams. But it won’t be live, for the most part, because like you and me, dancers are physically distancing.

“I think dancers are like these artist-athlete animals, and I feel like right now they’re caged as if they were in a zoo. Animals in cages,” Mikko Nissinen, Boston Ballet’s artistic director told me in a phone interview. “And I feel they need to move and get back in the studio and express themselves and feel like who they are. I’m feeling sorry for all the animals in the world, captive in tiny spaces. And we’ve had to face it in our own way.”

Having been isolated a long time, we know what’s lost: the sense of community and shared experience that’s defined dance for 6,000 years, since tribes cavorted around campfires. We’ve lost the immediacy of bodies moving in real space, theatrical experience and the thrill of live performance.

Meantime, yes, we do have all that video content.

Always wondered what the big fuss is about Bill T. Jones? Check out the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company at New York Live Arts for archived performances and talks.

Curious about modern dance pioneers? Have a look at vintage clips of Martha Graham, including videos and discussions of her work on her dance company’s YouTube channel. Or go to one of the concert venues that compile past performances by a rich selection of artists: try Jacob’s Pillow and Fisher Center for Performing Arts at Bard College. You can graze like mad, or make a complete study of the art form — all at your own pace.

True, the dancers may be shrunk down to the size of our little fingers. We see them once removed (by the camera and only two dimensional) like distant cousins. But the upsides are considerable. We can command a performance any time we want. The event is free of charge, there’s no time spent traveling to the theater and you can park at your desk, on your couch, or in bed, wearing pajamas. You can see any style of dance, many performers, choreographers, companies and groups, and go to concert venues around the world. Search out whatever’s listed under the genre or name, and chances are you’ll be presented with a wealth of links to watch the dance of your choosing.

And, of course, there are all kinds of special productions made by dancers Zooming in during the pandemic. One of the earliest was a 6-minute video from Swans For Relief. It’s very simply described: “32 premier ballerinas from 22 dance companies in 14 countries perform Le Cygne (The Swan) variation sequentially with music by Camille Saint-Saëns, performed by cellist Wade Davis.” In those early days of isolation and shock, the melancholy music and the loneliness of each swan had a powerful cumulative effect, just in imagining all the artists worldwide who now sat at home, away from their companies, studios, and their audience.

Artists can tell you how an edited film can lose the shape of the choreography, the flow of movement across the stage, and the brilliance of a bravura sequence.

“When I was dancing in Switzerland, we did productions for television,” Nissinen recalled. “It was tedious to film, and it’s the director’s art form on top of yours, meaning you don’t have control of all the elements. I remember once being annoyed there was a section where I had a whole series of pirouettes, I think nine pirouettes, and then finished on demi pointe in arabesque. And they filmed the first few pirouettes, then cut to someone else, and then came back to me as I was finished. I was very annoyed with that, but c’est la vie!”

There’s a lot of “c’est la vie” going on these days. There’s no choice. It’s dance on screen or no dance at all. Artists have to adjust to a new atmosphere of limitations.

“If culture is to thrive, even amid deprivation, it will have to nurture new forms of invention in different kinds of space,” Justin Davidson wrote for Vulture. “The theatrical requirements of the next phase — tiny casts, restricted audiences, simple sets, and plenty of space — will be intensified by a scarcity of money…. The mantra of the next few years must be smaller, quicker, cheaper.”

Independent filmmaker Chris Engles knows all about workarounds and adapting to difficult environments. He made a documentary about the Boston-based Weber Dance company when they performed in Alaska in 2017. In a phone interview, Engles said his focus was on a simple mission: “Your job is to figure out how to capture those people and what they’re expressing. Things evolve — you can’t get precious about it.”

In those days, Engles dealt with shooting around waterfalls and avoiding marauding bears. “Planning for all contingencies is essential,” he said. “You go with an open mind, make your plan, but then be willing to make the film you were able to shoot, the footage you actually can get.”

These days, what choreographer Helen Pickett can get is far from the premiere she was about to unveil in Boston Ballet’s spring season. Her new work “Petal” was set for the Boston Opera House stage when the ballet had to cancel its spring season. So Pickett pivoted, realizing it’ll be a while before she can work with dancers in a studio. In the interim, she’d do something else. That something else is a podcast series, “Creative Vitality” in which she talks with artists twice a week.

As for Boston Ballet, audiences can feel connected to the company with artist interviews and excerpts from dancers. “I don’t think there’s harm in the videos. We get some new friends, and hopefully, it feeds the needs of our present fans,” Nissinen said. “But it’s a substitute — it ain’t the real big deal.”

Perhaps closer to the real deal are full-length works on dance sites. Very familiar to Boston fans is Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, whose annual spring visit was, of course, canceled. The NYC-based company is making full-length pieces and broadcasts of past concerts available for streaming on its website.

Another dance venue offering a variety of streamed styles is the Baryshnikov Arts Center. Fifteen years of archived performances, some not seen by the public before, are available online.

And finally, New York’s Joyce Theater features perhaps the most complete list of online platforms connecting you to dance companies and artists throughout the world with its assemblage called “Bring Dance Home.” There is treasure enough here — in concerts, talks and interviews — to last many months, and to keep your brain and spirit alive through a very long pandemic.

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Sharon Basco Contributor, The ARTery
Sharon Basco is a a journalist, critic and public radio producer.

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