Thoughts on the COVID-19 crisis, dance, and where we might go from here.
Right now, dance studios and theatres are silent, with little comfort in the latest government announcements about when that might change. But while live performance might be on hold with artists confined to homes, there’s been a huge effort to keep audiences and dance lovers engaged. As archives are scoured, never has there been so much free streaming of complete performances. Other content too: workshops, talks and other podcasts, snippets of rehearsal; classes galore, for everyone from beginner to pro.
In many ways, it is great. English National Ballet aside, which now has its Wednesday Watch Parties, British ballet companies have streamed relatively little compared to many of their counterparts abroad, but what a joy it has been to catch up with work from companies we rarely, if ever, see here. Béjart Ballet Lausanne for one. Hamburg Ballet and the choreography of John Neumeier for another. And Christian Spuck’s ballets at Ballett Zurich for a third. I could go on.
The best programmes are those that have been formed into proper, curated seasons, with the best of the best being New York City Ballet’s Digital Spring Season, which combines talks, podcasts, performances, classes and workshops, all cleverly linked together into a coherent whole. It does sometimes feel like being hit by tidal wave, though, and I do wonder how long it can be sustained. Companies are pretty soon likely to start running out of films.
But, while performances may be only a click away right now, online is not the real deal. Just as Facebook or Zoom chats with friends are harder than face-to-face ones, so watching online is more difficult too; certainly more tiring. I rarely feel able to relax into a work as I would in a live setting. Dance loses a lot in 2-D, especially atmosphere and feeling. Having said that, if a work does grab you online, you know it’s a good one.
Dance is an art unlike any other
Movement needs flesh and space to exist
To reduce the space for a dancer
Is to deprive them of their body
An apartment can never be a stage
A wall can never be a partner
Jean-Christophe Maillot, artistic director, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo
Given the humanitarian crisis we are stuck in the middle of, with tens of thousands of lives lost, it might seem somewhat churlish to worry about dance and the arts. But while without doubt there are more important things to be concerned about, we can and should be thinking about the future. Where do we go from here? Where should we go from here?
We are told that social distancing and other restrictions must go on for a long time yet if COVID-19 is to be beaten. Many countries have already introduced measures that effectively close theatres until September, although some have moved forward and now indicated that gatherings below a certain size will be allowed.
In Britain, the government has given some vague hints about leisure and hospitality industries starting to open up from July if all goes well. However, I will be amazed if any theatres reopen before September and such seems to be the mood that it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if large venues stay shuttered until 2021.
Think about it. We keep hearing that it is likely that the 2020-21 professional football season will start with matches played behind closed doors. If football, played outdoors where risks are significantly lower, has to take that path, I see little prospect of indoor venues where people sit very close to each other being allowed to open.
Even when they do reopen, the world is going to simply reset to February 2020. I very much doubt audiences are suddenly going to stream through theatre doors in the way they used to, at least, not for quite a while. I would go, taking my own precautions if necessary, but a lot of people are going to be very wary about being in a confined indoor space, surrounded by others.
But, isn’t it time we started to think about how we can do things rather than looking for reasons why we can’t? Unless the world is going to buck history, we are going to have to learn to live the virus for a long time. Imposing ‘one-size fits all’ blunt rules, or rules that prohibit venues or spaces opening until risk is completely eliminated will wreck the arts for years; possible for ever. Other industries too. We need to get smart and we need to be realistic.
“A theatre without an audience, without artists to enliven the stage and orchestra pit, is nothing more than a dead shell. We cannot and must not allow our stages, our art to fall victim. It may well take some creative thinking, and no-one wants to create a second mountain to climb, but we do need a road map out of this.”
Nikolaus Bachler, Intendant of the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich
Thinking of audiences, while social distancing in theatres is far from easy, is it really the impossibility it’s made out to be? Yes, it means smaller audiences, spaced out, but if that’s what it takes, it is possible. Indeed, some major European opera houses have ditched their planned programmes and are considering just that as the look at how they can stage work in line with interim regulations.
It may also be that we have to wear face masks in theatres. They may not be 100% effective but they do undoubtedly reduce the risk of passing the disease on if you have it. That’s why it’s belatedly now advised on public transport.
I had personal experience of just such rules in Taiwan in March. One theatre and company deliberately spaced out the audience, reducing the capacity by around 40%, helped by the seats being individually moveable. There was about the equivalent of half an empty seat between people and more room between rows too. In the other, a roughly 300-seat venue that was almost full, it was seating as normal. Masks were compulsory (they are nowhere near as uncomfortable as you might think), as was a quick temperature check and having your hands sprayed with sanitizer on entry. You also had to give contact phone numbers and details of how you travelled to the theatre, so you could be traced if someone subsequently tested positive. It really was very little inconvenience, especially as people knew in advance what was required and showed up early. The shows went on and without a problem, before, during or afterwards.
But while social distancing of sorts may be possible in theatres short-term (although even I struggle to see how it works in some of our more cramped foyers), just like on public transport, it is quite simply not practicable in the medium or long run. And I do worry that, generally, we have talked ourselves into a position where any risk is unacceptable (or at least any risk from COVID-19; other risks it sometimes seems no longer matter).
That is quite simply being unrealistic. Remember, while others might not be prevalent, only one infectious disease that is directly transmitted human to human has ever been totally eradicated: smallpox. Remember too that there are countries who have managed this terrible disease very effectively without resorting to complete lockdowns.
If it’s necessary, it shouldn’t be beyond choreographers to make ‘COVID-safe’ work too, and I don’t mean online films with dancers performing at home, many of which look like the home movies they effectively are. In Germany, Stuttgart Ballet are back in the studio. Only three at a time but it’s a start. And they have started rehearsals (dancers 6 meters apart, no pas de deux) for a few new ballets which adhere to the coronavirus regulations for rehearsals. As I was told, ” Thank goodness we have at least five very creative choreographers in the company.”
But then Stuttgart Ballet is getting tremendous support from their state government and its Ministry of Research, Science and Arts. Indeed, many European countries have taken major steps to support the arts through this crisis, seeing them as an integral part of society. In Germany, which admittedly has things rather better under control and is further down the line than the UK, the Minister of State for Culture and the Media and the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the federal states have been specifically and publicly asked to draw up a strategy for theatres, opera houses, concert venues and cinemas.
In the UK, we have silence, and while the Arts Council of England may have announced a package for its big name clients, its £160 million is a drop in the ocean compared to the German government’s £43 billion creative and cultural industries package, with the various states topping that up. Look on the website of the Department of Digital, Media, Culture and Sport. You’ll find lots of guidance for the phased return of sport and to help top sportsmen and women return to training safely. But of the arts? Silence. Maybe, behind the scenes, people are fighting for the arts, but it would be nice to see someone fighting for the arts.
In Monaco, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo are back to work too. The admin staff went in first with lots of special measures including disinfection of places, provision of sanitizing gels, temperature taking and putting on a mask at the entrance of the building (the costume department has turned their hand to making them). A second step has seen the dancers back following the testing of all staff including dancers to verify the possible immunity of each.
There are undoubtedly going to be casualties in all this, however. Some dance companies, some theatres, will not survive, especially those not in receipt of major public funding. However, this period does afford us the opportunity to rethink arts structures and policies that perhaps have gone unquestioned.
I would like to think the present crisis is making artistic directors think about policies and programming. Companies are going to need to work at rebuilding relationships with audiences. They are likely to need to reach out like never before because, when it comes to performance, dance, indeed theatre as a whole, needs its live audience. I would like to think that being forced to think outside the box might lead to innovation, new ideas, new directions.
I do worry that, in a dash to get people back in those theatre seats, companies will start playing safe as they try to recoup some of the funds they have lost, however. There will always be a place for the classics and family-friendly stories but innovation and risk taking is essential too. We must not forget that.
We certainly did not want the world to be where it is now. But it is where it is and dance and dance companies must make use of the opportunities presented. They, we, also need to fight for the industry. There are lots of problems, lots of questions, and answers may not be easy, but I feel sure they are there. They must be there.