The AXIS Dance company is one of many dance organizations in the Bay Area struggling with the current coronavirus crisis. (David DeSilva)
Note: This is the second in a three-part series about the effect of the coronavirus crisis on Bay Area dance companies. Find part one here.
To get a full snapshot of Bay Area dance during the coronavirus pandemic, one has to look at a wide variety of organizations—from small, project-based, pick-up companies to one of the largest ballet companies in America. But the true measure of impact goes beyond dance companies, to the individual level. One theme emerges: in what suddenly feels like an existential time for dance, organizational survival is inextricably tied to dancer well-being.
As Brenda Way, founder and artistic director of ODC, says, “We have to work to keep young people from being terribly depressed. Speaking for myself, we’ve been through a lot of hard stuff in our time, so we kind of know how to handle it, but young people don’t.”
The organization operates as a “mother ship” for emerging and mid-size dance companies, with 10 dancers of its own, 28 full-time employees, 132 teachers and 40 accompanists. It supports a school, theater, dance company, clinic, café and Pilates center on a budget of about $7.6 million, which is roughly 50% earned and 50% contributed. That budget is now unstable: “It’s a perfect storm, in that our loyal supporters, including foundations, are seeing the value of their assets fall in the markets,” says Way.
Robert Dekkers runs his own small company, Post:Ballet, in addition to the community and pre-professional programs at Berkeley Ballet Theater. This is “a precarious moment” for BBT, he says, with the closure of the school and transition to a reduced online curriculum. But he says that as it marks its 40th anniversary, there is a strong sense of community, and he is confident of support for the school.
He likens Post:Ballet to “a speedboat, which can shift quickly from live performances to video.” With eight dancers at the core, it operates on a budget of $100–$130k, one-third each coming from ticket sales, foundations and individuals. (“No government!” he says.) Dekkers recently directed a short film as part of a larger project, titled Lyra, that interprets the Orpheus and Eurydice myth for modern times. He now aims to produce a few more film sketches and delay the live dance production, hoping that film will increase access to the work of Post:Ballet beyond the Bay Area.
Yet he’s always mindful of his dancers and students, who are desperate to get into the studio. “They have such a narrow window to perform," he says. "A year of missed opportunities when you’re at your prime is so hard.”
Piecing it Together
Of the dancers who perform professionally in the Bay Area, the majority work short gigs. Robert Moses notes, “If you’re a gig worker dancer, you work for maybe three dance companies for a certain number of hours, and the rest you’re driving Uber. All of that is gone. Maybe some of that won’t come back, because attitudes about live performance—which is its own particular wonderful thing—may change, may not be valued the same way. That’s my concern. All that time you take building an audience of people interested in the experience of being in a room with other people, sharing reactions to something that moves them, touches them.”
Sonsherée Giles, who dances with AXIS, Jo Kreiter’s Flyaway Productions and Nancy Karp & Dancers, says the impact of the shutdown has been “phenomenal, emotionally draining, surreal. You start to learn of [those around you] getting sick. The degrees of separation are shrinking on everybody.”
Giles tries to stay healthy by teaching and taking classes online. “I resisted at first. I’m not a computer person, now I’m excited to be in front of the computer… a new low in my life!” Meetings and teaching for AXIS helps to structure her day: “Some people are in a bathroom, some in a kitchen, improvising in small spaces. A lot of breathing and meditating and stretching, finding ways to strengthen and still warm up.”
“I thought I was going to have all this time. But I think I’m grieving,” she said. She and her partner are mostly living on savings. “I know a lot of people not paying rent to save money for food. I did pay April rent. But I’m using my credit card to buy food.”
Independent choreographer Kristin Damrow says “dancers are used to the hustle, but when you can’t hustle… “
Yet now that reliance on the internet (“a platform that many people have a love/hate relationship with in this community”) as the new home for dance has peaked, she welcomes the chance to win a wider national and global audience for Bay Area dance. She hosts a meet-up called ‘Choreographers & Coffee’ which has gone virtual and expanded from the Bay Area to Berlin, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Hawaii, and Switzerland. The series has sparked conversations on “how we have shifted our own creative process, how we are continuing to engage our audiences, challenges we have felt in funding, dreaming up what the perfect dance community might look like, and changes we can make to get there.”
A lot of Damrow's audience is younger, she says, and some work in the tech world. “This could also be an opportunity for resurgence in live performance, when the younger generation sees the value in experiencing art and supporting dance. When it’s suddenly gone.” Her new work, called Acclimate, about human adaptation to environmental change, had been set to premiere at YBCA in April.
At San Francisco Ballet, 'Creating a Playbook as We Go'
Largely protected from the gig economy, a minority of dancers are attached to single companies, working under contracts that run no more than 44 weeks per year. These include the dancers of San Francisco Ballet, the second largest ballet company in the country, and the oldest. For these dancers, the opening night of A Midsummer Night’s Dream turned out to be closing night of the entire season with the abrupt closure of the War Memorial Opera House on March 7, ahead of nearly every other venue for dance in the country.
For principal dancer Wei Wang, who was to have danced the role of Oberon later in the run, the shutdown feels particularly isolating—not just because he misses the contact with his peers in the studio, but because his family was in lockdown in China, and he had no chance of seeking refuge with them. As the company started to stream content, Wang teamed up with San Francisco Ballet Orchestra violist Caroline Lee to create a video that conveys both desolation and hopefulness.
Ballet master Tina LeBlanc has also parachuted into the void, teaching a virtual company class accompanied by pianist Mongo Buriad, both sheltering in place in their homes. Wang tries to take class every day: “It’s a good way to start the day, helps on some level to keep from driving myself crazy.”
Like many, LeBlanc is wrestling for the first time with the technology and the logistics of teaching a technique that requires close physical fine-tuning, and that feeds off the energy of a roomful of bodies bounding in unison across the acreage of a dance studio.
Without that kind of space at home, or a sprung floor with the matte covering needed to support jumping and turning, virtual training in isolation is at best a way to maintain human connection—but not the rigorous training needed for this team activity. So much in dance involves precision movement, the fine-tuning of spacing and partnering mechanics that can only be achieved by many hours of working together in a studio under the guidance of a choreographer or ballet master.
Prolonged isolation poses a unique threat, too. Dancers’ bodies are instruments which swiftly deteriorate without a regimen of daily class and rehearsals. And their careers are so short that a lost season is the equivalent of a lost decade for other artists.
Governor Newsom has indicated that a phased return to normalcy will likely delay large gatherings. San Francisco Ballet, says executive director Kelly Tweeddale, is now focusing on “how to get dancers back into the studios. We’re creating a playbook as we go. Because their own training, athleticism, ability to perform at the level that they need, will take four to six weeks before even thinking about performances.”
In the meantime, the company is releasing a new ballet from its archives every Friday that will be available for streaming for a week:
With 78 dancers and a monthly payroll of $2.5–$3 million, the company launched a fundraising campaign that has so far raised over $700K with gifts from nearly 850 donors, plus a $500K gift from the Hearst Foundation. The company's also fortunate to have been approved for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding under the Federal CARES Act. This, Tweeddale says, will allow them to fund payroll through the end of June.
“Yet we’re mindful," Tweeddale adds, "of the many organizations in our community who are still in the queue, and for whom additional funding may be required through the CARES Act.”
Part III of this series will run on Thursday.
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