News from Motionhouse and Ballet Cymru as the shutdown bites

David Mead

We all know that Covid-19 is having a devastating effect on the arts. Statements from two important touring companies that show just how parlous the situation is.

While both Motionhouse and Ballet Cymru have streamed a few works and been active in teaching and putting participation resources online, apart from work to figure out what it might be possible to deliver and when, most other activity has stopped.

At Motionhouse, all the summer festivals and events the company was scheduled to appear at have been cancelled. The company may have a large repertory of outdoor, small-scale shows but despite the government’s announcement last Thursday that some outdoor performances can now go ahead, the tap cannot simply be turned on.

As executive director Louise Richards and chair Simon Wales explain, all the dancers have been on furlough since April. To perform, they need to regain their performance fitness (someone from English National Ballet at a recent meeting I was at reckoned that would take 12 weeks minimum). Time would also be needed for rehearsals to prepare productions for the high standard of performance that audiences expect. “Several weeks of preparation will be required in order to respond to any opportunities that may arise.” Good news is that many of the company’s festival partners have rebooked outdoor shows for summer 2021.

With many theatres not opening again until 2021, Motionhouse’s tour of the new Nobody, originally scheduled to start at the end of August, is now set to begin in February 2021. The company says that almost all the tour has now been rescheduled, and that dates will be announced as soon as they are able.

Right now, Motionhouse’s offices remain closed too with just a small team working from home, a situation that will continue at least to the end of October.

Richards and Wales make no secret of the fact that the financial impact of Covid-19 has been devastating. “The loss of all earnings since March due to the closure of theatres and the cancellation of public gatherings has equated to more than half of our annual turnover. Despite making deep cuts across all areas of expenditure, we have been forced to face our worst-case scenario and will sadly be losing several of our brilliant team. This is deeply upsetting as the people are what make Motionhouse the company that it is. We want to thank those team members who are affected for their understanding as we have gone through this difficult process.”

Ballet Cymru in the recently streamed A Child's Christmas in WalesPhoto Sian Trenberth
Ballet Cymru in the recently streamed
A Child’s Christmas in Wales
Photo Sian Trenberth

Thanks to support from their funders, Ballet Cymru has not furloughed any of its five full-time staff. When the lockdown hit, the company’s nine professional dancers were in Newport ready to begin rehearsals for Darius James and Amy Doughty’s new Giselle. Instead, they switched to help deliver the company’s online digital platform.

But the situation was not sustainable. A message from the company says, “We now find ourselves in the position where our whole sector is severely under threat. Our theatres and freelancers especially. With a heavy heart we have now cancelled all of our performances until May 2021. Of course, this is a huge loss for Ballet Cymru, not only in the incredible loss of income this results in but also in the realization that as of the end of June we could no longer offer contracts to five of our freelance dancers. This has caused Amy and Darius great sadness. Our priority needs to be on the survival of Ballet Cymru so that we can hopefully, beyond Covid19, help rebuild our sector and support more freelance dancers, choreographers, musicians, lighting designers, costume makers, dance practitioners/teachers and creatives.”

From this month, Ballet Cymru will retain four professional dancers to help deliver education activities throughout the Summer and Autumn, and the Wales Summer Dance courses and Wales International Ballet Summer School online. But, “When it is safe for us to return to our partner schools, we will be there like a shot!”

They explain that company is aiming for a research and development period in November, when work on Giselle will begin. “Of course, this may need to be achieved through social distancing and we are observing government recommendations closely. But to have an opportunity to be creative in the studio feels vital – we need to flex those creative muscles!”

Both Motionhouse and Ballet Cymru are determined to survive and rebuild. Both wait to see if some help might come from the recently announced government rescue package for arts and culture, of which there are still no details (why am I not surprised?). I wish them and every other company, dancer and freelancer out there well. Past crises have shown that the arts do have a remarkable resilience. Creativity can and often does thrive in such situations. But if those support package details don’t come very soon, and as the furlough scheme starts to demand more of employers, I fear it will be too late for some.