Growing up with a sister who danced six times a week, I referred to her passion as a “spart,” a portmanteau word for sport and art. As a pianist and a competitive rock climber, I recognized the duality of dance, fully art, yet fully sport. I recognized its Spartan characteristics: strenuous, rigid, physical, flexible, self-abnegating. It’s a practice that pushes boundaries and impedes personal space. So, when the coronavirus—which spreads via respiratory droplets and close contact—came on the scene, dance performances went off the table.
“Perspiration is an issue,” says Vanessa Logan, the executive director of Texas Ballet Theater. Above all, she adds, because of partnering, “social distancing is not really possible for dancers.”
Alongside social-distancing measures, the shutdown of Dallas theaters and a ban on gatherings smacked dance companies cold. And it’s not just dance companies. Charles Santos, the executive and artistic director of TITAS, a nonprofit dance presenter, explains that arts organizations comprise a fraction of the “creative economy,” which creates thousands of jobs on the stage, behind the scenes, and in kitchens, dining rooms, and valet parking lots. All of which, in turn, generates tax revenue for the city.
“This is a highly successful economic engine,” Santos told me in March. “And it is just at a complete standstill.”
As a dance presenter, TITAS was left high and dry. First, Santos explains, presenters don’t perform original works, rather, they bring companies to Dallas to perform their own works. Second, presenters don’t have copyrights to any of the works they present, so they can’t stream anything on their website to raise money. TITAS therefore turned to federal funding and private dollars, submitting applications to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL), and to The Arts Community Alliance (TACA), a Dallas nonprofit that started the Emergency Arts Relief Fund in response to the pandemic.
Dance companies, too, had to get creative fast as their revenue streams all but evaporated. Many started relief funds on their websites, asked patrons to donate tickets to cancelled shows, and turned to corporations and donors. Texas Ballet Theater and Bruce Wood Dance, a Dallas-based contemporary dance company, streamed previously recorded performances.
Both TBT and Bruce Wood, as well as Dallas Black Dance Theatre, have been vigorously applying to grants and government loans, such as the PPP. Meanwhile, the three companies are conducting company classes virtually, and their dancers—whom all three companies have continued paying—are using Facebook and Instagram to keep connected with audiences, sharing their workouts, recipes, and favorite books and games.
DBDT dancers, for example, invite the company’s Instagram followers to participate in the company dance class on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, they share exercises and stretches to relieve the bodily stresses of working at home.
“It’s just about connecting with our community—because that’s normally what we got to do with our performances,” says Joy Bollinger, artistic director of Bruce Wood Dance.
“Just as important,” Logan adds, is “keeping our dancers engaged and keeping everybody [within the company] connected. You know, this business is for people who have a true passion for it. And when that’s taken away, that’s a challenge. Not just physically, but also mentally. And how do we make sure that we’re taking care of everybody to the best of our ability and keeping them focused on something that they’re focused on all the time?”
Enter kNOwBOX, a digital dance company. Cofounded by Texas Woman’s University alumnae Martheya Nygaard and YeaJean Choi (now the managing director and programming director of kNOwBOX, respectively), kNOwBOX functions to connect resources and people through the digital space.
The company started out by sharing resources via social media every week; kNOwBOX would provide a description and a link to blogs, websites, books, or dance companies. Next came the podcast, on which kNOwBOX hosts dance companies and local artists to talk about their creative process and their relationships with dance.
Manager of Development Reyna Mondragon explains that, lately, the podcast has featured dance company directors discussing how COVID-19 has affected them. The hosts have been asking the questions like, How does a dance educator or a company director continue to instruct virtually? How do we make classes and resources accessible for students without internet?
The digital company also started a video miniseries in response to social distancing and stay-at-home orders, on which they interview dancers and dance educators familiar with the digital space who can advise the dance community on how to continue programming at a distance.
“There was a lot of conversation on what to do [to continue dance digitally], especially since dance is a physical practice,” Nygaard explains. “We wanted to aggregate these experts that have already been in the digital space, or navigating it, to share some advice and tools.”
Unfortunately, kNOwBOX had to cancel the international tour of its 2019 dance film festival, and the artists comprising the company have lost freelance performance and choreography gigs. But as a company, kNOwBOX thrives in this environment and wants to help others do so.
The company started the NB Short Series, to which dancers can submit 30- to 60-second dance films to be streamed on kNOwBOX’s Facebook, YouTube, and IGTV later this summer. The company is also streaming its 2019 film festival on Vimeo and donating part of the proceeds to the Artist Relief Tree, a fund for artists affected by COVID-19 closures.
“We’re trying to support art that’s already been created,” Nygaard says, “and then use the proceeds of that to then go back into the artist community to support artists.”
Like Texas Ballet Theater, Bruce Wood, and DBDT, Indique Dance Company, a Dallas-based Bharatanatyam dance collective, is also using social media to stay connected with audiences and with each other, despite the postponement of their biggest show.
Indique was scheduled to perform their original piece Satyam/Bias in the Winspear Opera House as part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project. (Bharatanatyam is a classical Indian dance-form that combines pure dance and nonverbal storytelling; Satyam, the Sanskrit word for truth.) Still, the company is making do.
“Right now, we see our role, if you will, as, We should try to lift everybody up with our art,” says Saumya Tayi, a dancer with Indique. “And so, we’re just having fun with that.” They’re inserting a little levity into a heavy situation by posting comedy routines on their social media.
Staying connected as a company has proved challenging: “We all miss dancing together,” Tayi says. “My current goal is to pick a piece of music and choreograph a minute of it, and then challenge another girl on the team to choreograph the next minute of it, kind of like an ice bucket challenge, but with dance.”
Interestingly enough, Tayi’s piece for Satyam/Bias presciently portrayed the invisible barriers of social distancing and sheltering in place. Loosely based on the story of the Berlin Wall, her piece told the story of a wall built in the middle of a town. It’s a story of families, friends, and lovers who were suddenly split up, a story of businesses struggling after losing half their customers.
“When the wall comes up, and the actual suffering happens after being split apart,” Tayi says, “what happens in the piece is, actually, people realize that they should be a community together and that they were stronger together despite their differences.”
The piece portrays quarantine life up to this point, Tayi laughs. The irony being that some people, even though we’re all craving human interaction, are, in fact, politicizing the coronavirus and using it stress their differences. But it shouldn’t matter what your political views are, Tayi says, we should simply sympathize with those who’ve lost their livelihood to the pandemic.
Although Indique’s Elevator Project performance has been rescheduled for June, Tayi is unsure if we’ll see Satyam/Bias then. She thinks people will want to watch something fun and light rather than intense and introspective.
Frankly, uncertainty describes the state of every dance company at the moment.
Theaters were officially allowed to reopen on May 1, but Gov. Abbott’s orders make it unclear whether or not that includes performing arts venues in addition to movie theaters. Opening at 25 percent of the maximum capacity of doesn’t make sense financially, anyway.
Meanwhile, rescheduling this year’s postponed performances has proved a full time, heinous process.
“It’s like a puzzle piece right now,” Bollinger says, “where you move one event—our Fort Worth show, for example, went from April 25 to September 5—and we’re hoping that that can still happen and that by then, some things have cleared. But we just don’t know. And so yeah—it’s just, Create a new schedule but then we’ll see.”
Social distancing presents a real roadblock, too, she adds: “The thing about our rehearsal process would be the partnering. We’d be incapable of doing part of our job with social distancing in order. So, we have to tread really carefully and cautiously.”
Despite grasping for funds, TITAS is confident. They removed all international companies from the upcoming season and are representing it as an “all-American season.” Partly because nobody knows what travel will look like in the future, partly because it’s the right time.
“As we’re all trying to rebuild, we’re going to focus our energy on the artists from our own country as they are trying to rebuild,” Santos says. “We’ll be back. I mean, we have plans for a really great season.”