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Learning to Dance Again in the Time of COVID-19

A Heidi Duckler Dance Northwest dancer puts his head back as he dances in a promotional photo for Duckler's Upcoming "Body is Home" performance in Portland. | Courtesy Heidi Duckler Dance
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Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect the change in plans for Heidi Duckler Dance/Northwest's "Body is Home" event.

Performing live may seem like a far off fantasy for most dance companies right now, but Invertigo Dance Theatre’s Laura Karlin is already dreaming of the company’s first IRL performance. 

Titled “The Dream Eaters,” the pipe-dream work is based on the Baku, a mythological Japanese creature that consumes nightmares and sometimes hopes and dreams. While Karlin is not of Japanese descent, the figure became a kind of talisman for her growing up.   

“When I was 16, I experienced some pretty significant trauma,” recalls Karlin, whose mother was a docent at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “I started having night terrors, and my mother gave me a cutout of this Baku from a LACMA catalog. I kept him by my bed … and later she found a small carved figurine of a Baku while she was traveling in Japan.

“Ultimately, it was not having the Baku on my bed. It was therapy,” says Karlin, “that actually got the night terrors to stop. But you know, it took 16 years, and in the meantime, Baku was a very faithful friend throughout that for me, and a talisman.” 

With the input of the Japanese American community in Los Angeles and great sensitivity to the cultural tradition of the Baku, Karlin hopes to create a multigenerational and “multifaceted project that exists in the physical world” with a “stage performance component” when the company begins performing and touring once again in 2022 (hopefully).   

In the meantime, like so many SoCal dance artists, Karlin is pivoting (and in some cases literally pirouetting) into a new world of virtual dance performance.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Los Angeles in mid-March, traditionally concert dance-based companies of all genres and sizes have been experimenting with online platforms to showcase their work and connect with their students and audiences online.

In March, social media savvy L.A. choreographer Jacob Jonas launched #adigitaldance challenge to spark creativity and connection across borders. In May, Los Angeles Dance Project, led by “Black Swan” choreographer Benjamin Millepied, launched an entire app packed with instructional videos and dance classes. Earlier this summer, the Los Angeles Dance Festival and the BIPOC-dedicated BlakTinx Dance Festival both converted to online formats. And that’s not counting the many TikTok dance crazes that have flooded our feeds since the beginning of lockdown.  

Thor Steingraber, executive director of The Soraya at California State University, Northridge, has observed three digital performance types to come out of quarantine.

There are the archival pieces that companies pull out of their collections for the sake of “nostalgia” or in hopes of raising funds, the “quaint,” literally homespun showcases of artists performing in their living rooms and a “third version” of art pieces “that somehow are of today … and don’t ignore that we’re all stuck at home, but also aren’t limited by the fact that we’re all stuck at home.”   

He points to The Soraya’s commissioning of dance films conceived for the web by companies such as the Martha Graham Dance Company and L.A.’s DIAVOLO | Architecture in Motion as two examples. He hopes that as long as live performance is on pause, digital performance will push in that third direction.

“I’m not being critical at all,” says Steingraber, “but I think we’ve all seen enough of a singer-songwriter doing their one piece in their living room.”   

Jumping into Film with Both Feet

So if we’re all stuck in our living rooms for another six months or a year, where does dance performance go from here? The leap to film seems natural and likely, especially in Los Angeles — a hub not only for film but also commercial dance.  

Ever since the Thomas Alva Edison Company first captured the Denishawn dance company on film in 1913, the camera has been drawn to dance. The films of Busby Berkeley and Fred Astaire also show dance and film as natural partners. But COVID may just be pushing live dancer-makers toward the medium more urgently.   

For Jacques Heim, artistic director of DIAVOLO, the transition from live performance to film has been entirely "organic" for his company — known for its death-defying moves off of giant rocking or rolling set pieces —  but not without its challenges. 

“I know nothing about editing. I know nothing in terms of the whole technical aspect of cinematography, but I realized that the work of DIAVOLO is very cinematic, and I actually direct and choreograph like a film," says Heim, speaking of the group's latest work, "This is Me: Letters from the Front Lines.” The short dance film, which premiered on The Soraya’s Facebook page at the end of July, illustrates the personal narratives of military veterans and medical first responders through the superhuman maneuvers of DIAVOLO dancers jumping, spinning and vaulting off metal set pieces.     

THIS IS ME: Letters from the Front Lines

"This Is Me- Letters From the Front Lines" by DIAVOLO and The Soraya.

"It felt natural," continues Heim of the filming process. "After a while, it felt like, 'Okay, we are creating a piece, like the way we create for live stage, but this time it’s a recording.’” 

The cast and crew took every precaution during filming — social distancing, wearing masks, and frequently sanitizing set pieces. The dancers even quarantined together during the length of the shoot.

“We spent more time cleaning than actually shooting the movie,” says Heim. 

Despite the inconvenience of keeping a spotless set, Heim absolutely sees film as the future of his company, which he doesn’t anticipate performing live until 2022. 

“To reinvent ourselves is to really work with the film medium,” says Heim. “The new mission of our company, DIAVOLO, is to actually create social impact film.” 

Issues of Support

Unlike Heim, longtime L.A. dance veteran Deborah Brockus, the founder of the nonprofit Brockus Project Dance Company based out of The Brewery arts complex, sees the transition to film as difficult, especially for underfunded dance groups without the means for high-quality film equipment or a camera-ready studio. 

“None of our videos are really as good as [they] should be for broadcast unless you've gotten lucky or successful,” says Brockus. “So we feel awful about that in the sense that we don't have like four camera shots, well-lit in a performance setting.” 

Additionally, putting dance pieces choreographed for the stage on film is not a simple one-to-one translation. 

“Pivoting a dance piece that was designed for a theater is incredibly difficult because it's designed for the ambiance of that space and their collective distance of where people are sitting and the perspective. It's designed to be theater,” she says, “designed to be something that permeates the air in an enclosed dark room with other breathing bodies.” 

Despite these challenges, one thing that Brockus knows the Los Angeles dance scene will easily adapt to is working outside — if given the chance.   

“L.A. dance has led the nation in site-specific and alternative site art for the last 10 years,” says Brockus, in part because dance in the region has historically not had the same access to theater and performance spaces as other art forms. “We lead America in outside dance performances, just like the New York subway leads the world in music in the subway.

 “A lot of L.A. artists and myself [included] have been going out and just doing kind of guerrilla outdoor videos,” she says, adding that dance artists have been doing “a lot of experimenting” with “amazing” cameras on smartphones. 

Yet Brockus sees two obstacles to this move toward the outdoors: city permits and funding. 

“There’s lots of amazing huge parking lots of spaces. We could do drive-up amphitheater, car-amphitheater type things,” says Brockus. “I have a few different big ideas, but the problem is funding.”  

Stepping Back and Moving Forward 

On top of aesthetic and financial concerns, the reawakening of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s death has added another layer of complexity to the challenges dance companies face.

“This uprising and kind of the awareness that people finally have about racism is disheartening and encouraging at the same time because there just seems to be the belief that this just started, when it’s 400 years in the making,” says choreographer Chris Emile, a founder of No)one. Art House, whose pre-pandemic multimedia exhibition “Amend” at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture in West Hollywood exploring “the fragility of the Black family” and erasure of Black men from the home, was cut short in March. There are plans to revive the exhibition with a performance component in September.

“I’m glad that people finally are awake to the reality that Black people experience on a daily basis,” continues Emile. “But you’re dealing with that and then dealing with the pandemic. It’s been a bit hard to be creative.” 

Tamica Washington-Miller, heir apparent to Lula Washington Dance Theatre in Crenshaw, felt a similar need to step back from creative work after the one-two punch of COVID-19, then the death of George Floyd.   

“There was a lot of mourning that we were personally going through,” says Washington-Miller. “That was a heavy, and continues to be a heavy, heavy time.”

But eventually, Washington-Miller and her mother Lula felt drawn back to the studio to create videos to help their community heal from the inside out. Called “Say Something,” the series of recordings by Lula Washington dancers are highly personal meditations on current events and invitations for the organization’s dance makers to express themselves.

“So really, it’s just an expression not using pre-recorded music,” says Washington-Miller. “This statement can be a dance. It can be a poem. It can be a rap. It can be just you looking. It could be whatever you want to do to express yourself about what’s going on in the world.” 

Washington-Miller plans to release these videos on the company’s social media channels but is currently holding the project close to her chest. 

Watch "Lift Every Voice" by Lula Washington Dance Company.
"Lift Every Voice" by Lula Washington Dance Company

“We hope to open it to a broader public,” says Washington-Miller. “But we also knew we needed to just get it out of our own selves .… We wanted to start inside.” 

Meanwhile, nonprofit hip-hop dance troupe Versa-Style is seeking ways to help the youth they serve — predominantly from BIPOC communities — not only learn the art and history of hip-hop but also directly engage with civics. In addition to online dance classes and tutorials, the group is currently working on a series of YouTube videos to educate youth about voting, politics and financial literacy.  

“We’re trying to fill in the gaps in the areas where public schools didn’t quite really teach young Black and Brown youth,” says Versa-Style co-founder Jackie Lopez, who sees this new foray into civic engagement as directly linked to the company’s 15-year mission to educate and empower BIPOC youth. “I have always said that dance is just a tool for life.” 

While Versa-Style has faced similar challenges as other companies transitioning online — from financial to technical — they do believe that as hip-hop artists, they’re uniquely equipped to perform in outdoor settings if the performance world pivots in that direction. 

“We’re innovative,” says Lopez, “It’s just a matter of presenters and theaters and other organizations that do the work to be open in that way.” 

Reimagining Dance for the Senses

For Filipino-American choreographer Jay Carlon, his next performance could very well be in a vegetable garden. Since COVID-induced cancellations and the death of George Floyd, Carlon has been meditating on ways to “decolonize” his contemporary dance-based practice(contemporary dance has traditionally been based on Western and Eurocentric dance forms) and merge the mission of his company with newfound interests in sustainability and gardening.  

“I would hate for it to be like a dance in a garden, where I'm juggling apples or something,” he says. “[But] how do I merge my sustainability practice and my foodways with my art practice? … Maybe it means I partner with a soup kitchen. And then the dancers and performers create this recipe and partner with local gardens, and then we have a performance, like a dinner theater.” 

Invertigo Dance Theatre dancers take the stage and dance with their legs in the air at the their Formulae & Fairy Tales show at the Broad in September 2019. | George Simian
Invertigo Dance Theatre dancers take the stage and dance with their legs in the air at the their Formulae & Fairy Tales show at the Broad in September 2019. | George Simian

Invertigo’s Laura Karlin is similarly experimenting with ways that food and dance can be a point of experimentation. Her incubating “Kitchen Table Project” exists “entirely for now … in the online virtual world.” For this piece, Karlin envisions using the kitchen table as a performance site, where audiences not only watch dance but also participate in its creation. 

“It is a privilege to have a kitchen table, but for the most part, a kitchen table is one platform we all still have .… How can we as artists, approach the kitchen table in a site-responsive way or site-specific way? Just as we would go into a museum or a park or a house and be site-specific about it, how can we be site-specific around the kitchen table? And how can it be an actual stage and actual platform?” Karlin muses. “It is a symbol for gathering and family and togetherness. And how do we maintain that when we're apart?

She has a few ideas. Perhaps an envelope with a prompt or a poem is sent with the package to the spectactor who then becomes a participant in the live Zoom or little bottles of essential oils are dispatched for a more sensory experience.  

“I want there to be a certain ticket level where you are delivered a box for the day of the performance, and that at a certain point in the performance everyone, for example, like breaks open a bread roll and puts jam on bread or maybe we send mochi balls, but that everyone tears something at the same time and assembles something very simple together and tastes something at the same time,” says Karlin. “I think that there's a way to use the fun elements of immersive work online so that you are giving people a chance to experience something in a way that parallels but does not try to replicate in a false way, that feeling of truly being together in a theater or on a site. 

“There is that sensation of breathing together, of hearts beating together, of blood rushing together when we're all in a theater together. There's something really special about that, and my interest is not to pine for it … but to think of ways that we can spark elements of that.”

Another way Karlin is experimenting with bringing the community aspect of theater into the home is through digital dance care packages, which her team came up with to creatively connect dance lovers with each other during this difficult time and keep the company active. 

Invertigo's Dance Care Packages Trailer.

“I was thinking about what do I want to do when somebody I know is sad or sick or scared, and I can't physically show up for them. I want to send them a care package, and it would not be on-brand for Invertigo to send like, you know, packages of soup and hand sanitizer,” says Karlin. So the group created curated digital dispatches filled with galleries of beautiful dance photography, filmed excerpts from Invertigo’s repertoire, a personalized card and a custom-made solo performed and choreographed by an Invertigo dancer “that exists only in the world because this other person's thought of you and gave us these three words or these three ideas to interpret,” says Karlin.

The prompts have ranged from wishing “Happy Mother’s Day!” to meshing “Shakespeare, wizards and sushi” to conveying a heartfelt sentiment about Black Lives Matter from a Black mother to her son.

Click right and left to see some images from Dance Care Packages:

A young man in a red shirt performing a dance on Black Lives Matter, one of Invertigo's Dance Care Package performances | Courtesy of Invertigo
A young man in a red shirt performing a dance on Black Lives Matter, one of Invertigo's Dance Care Package performances | Courtesy of Invertigo
1/4 A young man in a red shirt performing a dance on Black Lives Matter, one of Invertigo's Dance Care Package performances | Courtesy of Invertigo
A woman lays on a field of California poppies for one of Invertigo's Dance Care Package performances | Courtesy of Invertigo
A woman lays on a field of California poppies for one of Invertigo's Dance Care Package performances | Courtesy of Invertigo
2/4 A woman lays on a field of California poppies for one of Invertigo's Dance Care Package performances | Courtesy of Invertigo
A young woman dances with a desert backdrop for one of Invertigo's Dance Care Package performances | Courtesy of Invertigo
A young woman dances with a desert backdrop for one of Invertigo's Dance Care Package performances | Courtesy of Invertigo
3/4 A young woman dances with a desert backdrop for one of Invertigo's Dance Care Package performances | Courtesy of Invertigo
A young African American woman with a turban dances for one of Invertigo's Dance Care Package performances | Courtesy of Invertigo
A young African American woman with a turban dances for one of Invertigo's Dance Care Package performances | Courtesy of Invertigo
4/4 A young African American woman with a turban dances as a birthday greeting for one of Invertigo's Dance Care Package performances | Courtesy of Invertigo

“People have responded in a very emotionally strong way to it because it feels like such a gift to have a dancer embody something that reflects elements of yourself back to you,” says Karlin. She sees these solos and packages as not only “little pieces of artistry” that can connect dance lovers together during this time, but also as a promising income generator for the company and its dancers going forward. The suggested donation for a package is an accessible $30 (though Karlin observes that pleased gift givers tend to give more) and the spirit of the packages fits in with a new zeitgeist in gift-giving.  

“I feel like there's this movement to gift experiences, more time, instead of stuff, right? And this is an extension of that,” says Karlin. “It's a way of showing that you value artistry, and that you know that this person is somebody who values artistry and artists and supporting artists .… It's a very personal way to say ‘I see you and I'm thinking of you.’”

American Contemporary Ballet dancers Sarah Bukowski and Josh Brown dance together. | Pierre Michel-Estival
American Contemporary Ballet dancers Sarah Bukowski and Josh Brown dance together. | Pierre Michel-Estival

Meanwhile, Lincoln Jones, artistic director of L.A.-based chamber ballet company American Contemporary Ballet, has chosen to connect to his community of ballet lovers and curious novices through their ears. In April, Jones, with co-host and ACB dancer Elise Filo, launched the podcast “Outsiders,” named for the fact that Jones did not start studying ballet until the age of 20. 

Described as “light yet erudite” by one reviewer, the series not only muses on the finer points of ballet (such as its origins in the 15th century) but also breaks down the basics of the art form, unabashedly asking seemingly “dumb” questions from the hosts and listeners like “how do you define ballet?,” “how do you interpret moves in a ballet?” and “how do ballerinas not get dizzy after spinning around?” with candor, expertise and earnest curiosity. One of the hour-long episodes even cheekily calls ballet “A Dumb Art Form” (as in silent, not stupid). 

Check out the "Outsiders" podcast below.

While a podcast may seem like a counterintuitive medium for such a visual performance genre, Jones has found it to be the perfect platform for diving into deep, burning and earnest questions that people have about ballet in an intelligent way.

“I think that that's the beauty of longform podcasting because it's not, you know, like a 10-minute radio interview or something where you have to sort of gloss over things,” says Jones. “You can really ask open-ended questions and not even get to an answer, but have an interesting conversation about it. So I think that it's a really wonderful intellectual square.” 

Jones had already been toying with the idea of producing a ballet podcast during the company's off-season long before the coronavirus pandemic hit Los Angeles, but the COVID-induced shutdown and subsequent hiatus on live performance meant that he had the time and headspace to work on the project.

“COVID has brought the future a lot faster,” says Jones, who sees the podcast as a natural evolution of pre and post-show conversations he used to host at his company’s live performances. He hopes to use the podcast as vehicle for demystifying ballet and making it as accessible a cultural talking point as film. 

“Think about L.A. and how much everybody here knows about film, and how much it's part of our conversations. People can detect the various elements of film. They can be critical of the screenwriting versus the cinematography versus the acting,” says Jones. “I wanted people to be able to be conversant with this art in the way that they are with other arts .… I really wanted to make something that was immediately relevant to people today, not just something that had some beauty in it, [that] was kind of encased in this historical sheen that you had to get through to enjoy.”

And while he doesn’t think that COVID-19 will kill live performance for good or dance itself, he does th