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Jacob Jonas’ Creativity Soars Within Pandemic’s Restrictions

Thirty-five cars formed a circle around dancers in "Parked." | Matthew Brush
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Jacob Jonas is no stranger to concrete.

The choreographer and artistic director of Jacob Jonas The Company got his start breakdancing on the Venice Boardwalk. His collaborative “Instameet” photo series #CamerasandDancers frequently pairs the poses of elegant dancers with urban-industrial backdrops. His contemporary mashup of modern dance, acrobatics, breakdancing and ballet has the chameleon-like ability to look at home on a traditional stage or the street

So when COVID-19 canceled the annual “To the Sea” dance festival he curates at the Santa Monica Pier and the company’s upcoming engagements, Jonas embraced the familiar old material once again. On May 16, the company unveiled “Parked,” a socially distanced, drive-in dance performance on a stage of pavement at the Santa Monica Airport. 

As night fell, 35 cars (chosen by lottery) and as many passengers as could squeeze into their seats pulled into an empty parking lot on the airport's campus and circled up to create a one-night theater in the round. Their headlights illuminated an ensemble of 17 masked dancers. They sprinted across the lot and occasionally collapsed into their individual heaps for solos of convulsing limbs and contorted torsos — reminiscent of patients fighting an invisible and aggressive disease.

A dancer contorts on the ground in "Parked." | Matthew Brush
A dancer contorts on the ground in "Parked." | Matthew Brush

Jonas did not set out to create a dance about the pandemic, but the circumstances that shaped the production of “Parked” — now documented in a new four-minute short on the company’s website — are inextricably intertwined with the restrictions of the coronavirus and the consequent public health orders it imposed earlier this spring.

Shutdowns of theaters and studios meant no rehearsal or performance space, which inspired Jonas to take a page from the drive-in concerts and events happening in Europe. He rehearsed dancers outdoors in vacant parking spots spread out through the alleyway of his West L.A. apartment. Choreographing on concrete was not a problem, but a creative platform. 

“I grew up as a street performer, so the surface which I started dancing on was concrete for many years, and it was a surface that I was very comfortable working with,” says Jonas. “I think if I had made a work first, like in a studio with sprung floors and Marley [Dance Flooring], and then tried to make it happen on concrete, it would have been a very difficult experience, but because the creation took place on concrete, the dancers kind of built the muscle memory of how to adapt [to] that same kind of texture and surface.” 

What proved more difficult was finding a spot to hold the performance. Jonas reached out to local city governments and scouted over ten locations with his team, searching for either a private or public space that would host the group, but “nobody was really interested in art or artists,” says Jonas. “Nobody really wanted to open the conversation [about] a performance.”

Jonas ultimately decided to take a “Banksy-style approach" and hold a guerilla performance at the Santa Monica Airport under cover of darkness and in the midst of a then much-stricter county stay-at-home order.

Click through below to see more images from "Parked."

Dancers perform in "Parked." | Matthew Brush
1/7 Dancers perform in "Parked." | Matthew Brush
A dancer raises his face to the sky in "Parked." | Matthew Brush
2/7 A dancer raises his face to the sky in "Parked." | Matthew Brush
A dancer performs on the pavement of the Santa Monica Airport. | Matthew Brush
3/7 A dancer performs on the pavement of the Santa Monica Airport. | Matthew Brush
Dancers in "Parked" often froze en masse. | Matthew Brush
4/7 Dancers in "Parked" often froze en masse. | Matthew Brush
Thirty-five cars formed a circle around dancers in "Parked." | Matthew Brush
5/7 Thirty-five cars formed a circle around dancers in "Parked." | Matthew Brush
A dancer forms a bridge shape in "Parked." | Matthew Brush
6/7 A dancer forms a bridge shape in "Parked." | Matthew Brush
Thirty-five cars formed a circle around dancers in "Parked." | Matthew Brush
7/7 Dancers fell to the ground as if inflicted by a disease.  | Matthew Brush

"I guess that's the definition of an artist, right? Breaking rules?" says Jonas. "I think for any piece of art, there has to be some sort of rebelliousness to make it happen. I definitely acknowledge my rebellious nature, but I also feel like it was met with responsibility.”

I was one of the few who was witness to Jonas’ experiments in dance while in quarantine. Before the performance, dancers were tested for COVID-19, attendees were required to remain in their cars and wear masks throughout and the company sent out detailed instructions to audience members ahead of time via email to ensure a contactless experience — modeled after the safety protocols for L.A.’s drive-thru coronavirus testing centers.

From being greeted by masked dancers doubling as ushers to receiving an LED light to affix to the rearview mirror area of my vehicle in a sealed bag via trash grabber — the check-in process had a clinical air but did not detract from the emotional nature of the performance. 

Even though each of us was sealed in our car cocoons, faint trickles of electronic music seeped into the cracks of our vehicles. I could not help but feel a rush of exhilaration whenever a dancer slipped between our parked cars and entered the arena we had built for them with our metal and headlights. My mom and I even experimented with the radio dial to change the music for different aural and visual experiences.    

Dancers sprinted in circles like schools of fish, not only racing currents but gulping desperately for much-needed air. The circling corps would freeze en masse around an acrobatic soloist, who’d break out into a frenetic combination of headstands and twisty yogic poses. Every turn, spin, pop and pose was attacked with a sense of urgency that could crack concrete under superhuman conditions. And almost every contraction as it crumpled to the floor resembled a sucker-punch — as if the wind or some virulent disease had struck the dancer down. The swirling mass resumed for the next cycle.  

Watch "Parked" below.

PARKED from Ivan Cash on Vimeo.

Strains of the pandemic’s influence were impossible not to see in the dance pattern when the virus weighs so heavily upon public consciousness. Yet, the whole production — like the LED light glowing in drivers' cars (so a camera operator could capture audience reactions I later learned) — showed a hopeful light at the end of what could otherwise be a long tunnel without live performance (Broadway will remain dark through at least January 2021, and the Center Theatre Group does not expect to reopen its venues until April of next year).

It may be impossible for dance alone to crack concrete — let alone cure a virulent illness — but Jonas did break ground in showing a path forward for the performing arts in a pandemic-gripped world. Like a collective scream of joy, drivers jubilantly blared their car horns and flashed their headlights as the ensemble took multiple “curtain call” bows at the end of “Parked.” 

As I drove away, the sound of pavement crackling under my tires, a feeling of catharsis washed over me — my emotional batteries recharged after not having seen a live performance in over two months.  

"Our art was creative for the dancers, but it was also creative and important for the audience," says dancer Jill Wilson, co-founder of the Jacob Jonas company, a producer on "Parked" and Jonas' partner. "So many people contacted us after and said, 'Wow, you know, it was so amazing to get dressed up and get ready ... and have an outing.' So many people hadn't had an outing in the past 60 days. It was social to get together and create, but then it was also social to have an audience be able to watch what we created."

Jonas hopes to continue spreading creativity through a social media campaign of movement prompts hashtagged as #adigitaldance, which tasks participants to circle their hips, “smile and inhale,” or dance while trying to hold onto one foot and film their responses to share on Instagram. You could say it’s in the family of another Jonas quarantine creation, called “A Social Distance,” which Jonas co-directed with filmmaker Ivan Cash, and uses self-submitted videos to document the lockdown experiences of people from 30 different countries through artistic sequences of music and dance, personal confessionals and snippets of everyday life — from washing hands to opening the refrigerator door. #adigitaldance offers a similarly intimate window into the world of professional and amateur dancers as they express themselves in their bedrooms, living rooms — even their cars. 

“It’s been amazing,” says Jonas. “We’ve had people from all six continents around the world [participate]. It’s just been this beautiful platform for people to connect.” 

Jonas hopes to eventually be able to take “Parked” on tour to cities that lend themselves to road trip travel, but he credits Los Angeles’ unique car culture and the restrictions of the coronavirus for fostering the creation of this particular piece. 

“If this coronavirus never happened and this pandemic never happened, I would have never made this work,” says Jonas. “When you’re given a prompt or a task to try to do things with limitations or restrictions, it actually heightens your creativity.”

Top Image: Thirty-five cars formed a circle around dancers in "Parked." | Matthew Brush

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