The Precarity and Ingenuity of Bay Area Dance in Isolation

Kendra Kimbrough Dance Ensemble dancers Christopher Scarver, Korea Venters, Olivia Eng, Linda Steele II, and Frances Sedayao (L–R) at the Black Choreographers Festival 2020. (Courtesy KKDE)

Note: This is the first in a three-part series about the effect of the coronavirus crisis on Bay Area dance companies.

In the broader world of the arts, the effects of the coronavirus on the dance world have received relatively little coverage. But, as a form reliant on bodily contact, dance has been particularly hard-hit by COVID-19 and shelter-in-place orders.

Dancers, company directors and dance presenters are navigating an unprecedented shutdown. To bring live dance back will take a much longer time than reviving concerts, opera or theater, for these artists are elite athletes who require the equivalent of baseball's spring training to get back in the game.

Dancers also normally express themselves without words. But in this, the first piece in a series about Bay Area dance in isolation, they talk about what stands to be lost if the dance world can’t recover.

That starts with the simple question: how do dancers shelter in place?

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Aerial choreographer Jo Kreiter typically makes site-specific dances for her company, Flyaway Productions, that tackle themes of social justice – work that often involves rappelling off the sides of buildings. This month, meanwhile, she contemplated escape from her back porch in a solo she titled Narrowing Up.

When the shelter-in-place order was announced, Robert Moses immediately thought of the public schools. The director of Robert Moses’ Kin had been navigating his company’s 25th anniversary season. But he pivoted. “I’m a parent,” Kin says, “and as soon as this happened, you have concerns about homelessness. Foster care. Food insecure kids.” Working with his dancers as they sheltered in place, Moses created a dance video that has been offered to the donors of Spark SF Public Schools, a San Francisco Unified School District 501(c)(3), whose contributions will pay for children’s meals and get them the tech they need for distance learning.

Dana Lawton had been preparing the April premiere of a performance inspired by the lives of 18th century lighthouse keepers and their families who lived a spartan existence on the rocky, windblown Farallon islands, 26 miles off the coast of San Francisco, toiling to keep the oil lamp lit. The piece, she explained, is about “how individuals persevere in a treacherous situation to benefit people they will never meet. Now that we’re sheltering in place, how does routine and ritual fit in to mental and physical well-being? Because for the lighthouse keepers it was systematic, who did what, when, dependent on the weather, for the idea that we’re all sacrificing for the betterment of people whom we will never meet.” Taking a gamble on the unpredictable, Lawton has rebooked The Farallonites for November.

Michael Armstrong, Lia St. Pierre, Garth Grimball, Leah Curran, Jon Lawton, Jennifer Smith, Robin Nasatir of Dana Lawton Dances in Dana Lawton's THE FARALLONITES. (Photo by Piro Patton)

Marika Brussel was also set to premiere a new work, House of Names, in April. She says she is “profoundly impressed and moved by how the dance community, both in the Bay area and internationally, have come together so quickly and so generously. I started offering donation-optional classes online, and dancers that I know aren't earning anything right now still donated what they could, even though they didn't have to. Hundreds of teachers and dancers are donating their time and expertise to keep other dancers motivated and in shape.”

Smuin Contemporary Ballet had prepared for their annual gala on March 15, just months after celebrating a move to their first permanent home in lower Potrero Hill. The company quickly pivoted to a virtual gala, recording videos of ballets to share with donors who were asked to contribute the price of their seats. The enthusiastic response netted $267,000, a little over half of what their galas typically bring in. According to Artistic director Celia Fushille, “It was incredible. We have such a supportive board and our patron base is extraordinary. We feel so physically isolated but we’re together more than ever before. I’m trying to look for the silver lining. That’s one of them.”

Walnut Creek’s Diablo Ballet was in rehearsal for Coppélia, days away from performing at the Lesher Center for the Arts, when news came in that the mayor had ordered a shelter in place to start the next day. Artistic director Lauren Jonas recounts, “We had the dancers put on what costumes we had for Coppélia in the studio, which weren’t many.” Camera rolling, they documented what was left of rehearsal “very quickly, so that we could leave the studio by 4pm and the dancers could go to the store and get what they needed for shelter in place. It was surreal.”

Sliding in under the wire, the Black Choreographers Festival closed a successful three-week run on March 8. Festival co-director Kendra Barnes also runs the Kendra Kimbrough Dance Ensemble (KKDE) and tells me that her team of dancers, musicians, teachers and designers are now developing online courses for dance, mindfulness, and creative writing, based on KKDE’s newest work, Joy—The F.U.N. Manifesto. “Together, with our global community we aim to unapologetically cultivate joy during worrisome times,” she says. Yet she acknowledges that she and her dancers “are all having a pretty rough time adjusting. The biggest thing for my dancers right now is the loss of all income.” She is grateful to have received a grant that allows her to pay them for their time with the company through the shelter-in-place. Their Zoom rehearsals have provided “a beautiful and needed process to be able to check in with each other… I think it is essential right now to first look at ways we can stay connected to each other, support each other and hone our own individual energies.”

Planning Ahead—Or Trying To

Alonzo King LINES Ballet's last engagement in San Francisco took place at Grace Cathedral, where the company unveiled King’s new Grace before taking off on a European tour.

Having wrapped up Germany and Switzerland, they arrived in Italy on Feb. 23 to learn their Italian engagements had been canceled. Robert Rosenwasser, co-founder and creative director of the company, recounted their abrupt departure by bus for France the next day. The French were determined to carry on, theaters full in all three cities where LINES performed. They flew out of France after their last performance on March 12, amid growing concern about a pandemic.

Back home, LINES’ spring season and gala had to be canceled. Fall and spring European tours remain on the calendar, and Rosenwasser notes, “performing arts are such an integral part of public life in France, Italy, Spain and Germany, I can’t imagine that not being resilient.”

For now, LINES is planning the release of filmed repertory from its archives, and moving some classes online. Between the extensive adult dance program offered at the LINES Dance Center in San Francisco, and the company’s pre-professional, summer, and BFA programs, along with various community partnerships, LINES’ commitment to education runs deep, attracting attendees from beyond the Bay Area. “How will people be comfortable with traveling to educational programs?” Rosenwasser wonders. “We’re aware how tenuous this is.”

Festival presenters, like hip-hop impresario Micaya, find themselves in an equally tenuous position.  Micaya organizes the annual SF International Hip-Hop DanceFest, which normally takes place in November. She worries that if dance companies cannot gather to rehearse, create and film their submissions, she won't have enough material to choose from. Visa and travel restrictions may also affect dance crews coming from overseas and from around the country. If she has to cancel, she must trust that all the grants she has in place for this year’s festival will roll through to 2021.

Micaya teaching a hip-hop class online. (Photo courtesy Micaya)

The San Francisco International Arts Festival, in which dance features prominently, has already been struck from the calendar for May. Ever since the Trump administration took a hostile stance to outsiders, festival director Andrew Wood has done battle for international artists on the visa front; this year, he says, the visa situation was “a chaotic mess.”

The festival's 40 local artists, including Kiandanda Dance Theater, inkBoat, and Eth-Noh-Tec, are taking the biggest economic hit—collectively, over $200,000. They had all been making new work, mostly funded by grants that were contingent on the performances taking place, and that took into account anticipated income from ticket sales. “It is in that critical time leading up to a premiere when the costs tend to skyrocket and most of the financial investment is made,” Wood explains. “Therefore, this is the time that if something goes unexpectedly wrong—such as the wholesale shutdown of society—that artists are at their most vulnerable and the finances are at their most precarious.” They must now go back to the foundations which have supported them and either ask for extended terms or apply for relief funding.

Touring is also off the calendar for AXIS Dance Company, a pioneering company that integrates dancers with and without physical disabilities. The cancellation of a high-profile, first-ever tour to Switzerland was particularly calamitous.

Artistic director and acclaimed international choreographer Marc Brew says, "We are trying to adapt… Even though every day changes, we need structure, we need a routine. The fact that we started on our (virtual) company class has helped to bring that regularity—it’s important for our bodies and minds.” He envisions a best-case scenario coming out of the shelter in place that would allow theaters to reopen with a limited number of people in the theater, while others would buy tickets to watch performances online.

Among the programs that AXIS is now working to salvage in electronic form are its school assemblies, which culminate in the popular, highly interactive ‘Dance Access Day’ at the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, and its Choreo-Lab project in which four choreographers from around the country are to be mentored and given a cast of 20 dancers on which to make work.

When I ask Brew about his own creative process, “That part of my being is definitely on hold,” he reflects. “I am meant to be creating a work for our home season but I’m not in the headspace to delve into that yet… I do think about belonging, what does home mean to you. I’ve never felt that before,” says Brew, who grew up in Australia, lived and worked for many years in the U.K. before moving to Oakland four years ago. “Where do I belong? Suddenly we’re at home a lot. Is home where you sleep at night?”

Home is what Dance Mission Theater provides to many community dance programs. It has moved a number of its classes online, like the free dance and meditation class it presents in partnership with the domestic worker-run collective, La Colectiva de Mujeres, taught in both Spanish and English. “Art is how people digest and comprehend the world around them, it is how we celebrate and how we mourn,” says Dance Mission’s managing director Stella Adelman. Even with the flood of dance offerings coming online, she worries, not everyone they serve has access.

Susana Arenas Pedroso teaching Salsa Suelta (salsa without a partner) for Dance Mission Theater. (Photo: Diana Aburto Vega)

Dance Mission is also rethinking upcoming events, like Comhar, which was scheduled to coincide with the 30th annual International HIV/AIDS conference at the end of June. This assembly of artists, healers, scientists and community tackles issues of health inequities and trauma around HIV/AIDS. But given the many parallels to the COVID-19 crisis, parts of the festival will be accelerated and hosted online in coming weeks.

Dance Mission funds itself 75% from earned income, 25% from foundation support. “People say ‘fantastic, that makes you self-sustaining,’” Adelman comments, “but now there’s zero earned income.” She appreciates that “Mission District nonprofits are in constant communication these days, often making collective asks instead of individual asks.”

Another community mainstay, Oakland Ballet, is wrestling with the loss of its spring season, including the highly anticipated Dancing Through The Ceiling, a program anchored by women choreographers, composers and designers. Collaborations with East Bay musicians, including the Oakland Symphony, and local jazz and visual artists and hip-hop crews have entrenched the company in the cultural life of the city, as have its outreach programs in the Oakland schools. Today, it's working to deliver these programs electronically, though many students lack access to laptops and wi-fi at home.

The support of institutional funders and individual donors has enabled Zaccho Dance Theatre to continue paying administrative staff and teaching artists through the crisis. Zaccho celebrates its 40th anniversary this year in Bayview Hunters Point, where it's used dance, notably aerial dance at historic sites, to illuminate subjects of cultural and political significance, particularly to the African American community. The city shutdown has forced Zaccho to cancel August’s San Francisco Aerial Arts Festival. And artistic director Joanna Haigood says they are faced with a challenge in bringing their youth program online, given that the work involves aerial equipment, and their students have less or inconsistent access to technology.

It's a challenge Haigood is up to tackling.

“I continue to be inspired by the ingenuity and the generosity that the entire creative community has brought to this extremely difficult situation," says Haigood. "We are so strong and resilient and I am confident that we will come through this more determined and tenacious than ever. It is the work of the artists that will help this country come to terms with this crisis and heal.”

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Parts II and III of this series will run on Wednesday and Thursday.