photo detail from Dustin Yellin’s Psychogeography Series, an installation for New York City Ballet, 2015
Broadway went dark, companies canceled seasons, studios shut down operations, theaters closed. For an artist, the need to create is as essential as eating or sleeping. But what happens when an artist loses their medium of expression?
During this period of quarantine, a painter can still paint, a writer can still write, but a dancer has lost the ability to share their craft in the traditional way. Without the space to move or partners to dance with or an audience to perform for, what does Covid-19 mean for the dance community?
At first glance, it means widespread cancellations and a void of live performance. Syracuse City Ballet had to cancel its first-ever full length ballet performance. The Joyce Theater canceled performances of The Scottish Ballet, Malpaso Dance Company, and Limón Dance Company, among others. LA Dance Project cancelled its live premiere of ‘BRECHT,’ instead releasing an excerpt via livestream, and New York City Ballet has canceled its entire spring season.
The empty performance calendars seem to highlight the bleakness of our current situation. But, as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and dancers are nothing if not resilient. Many have continued moving and sharing via social media. American Ballet Theatre has been streaming classes every morning, and the Company’s Principal dancers Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside have also been conducting their own classes from Boylston’s kitchen, serving their audiences a realness that we can all relate to. Dancers are used to routine. George Balanchine has been said to compare class to brushing your teeth. It’s just something you do. But it is also something that is rarely shared with the audience. Dancers endure grueling training and rehearsal schedules in order to present the polished performances we see on-stage. While they may not be living the same twelve hour days that begin with class and end with thunderous applause from an audience, these streams are a way to maintain a modicum of normalcy at the moment.
So what is a live medium without an audience? It adapts. It feels as if every dance company with an Instagram is now going live online in lieu of performing live in-person. There are videos circulating of dancers moving in parking lots, open fields, or navigating around chairs and tables in their living rooms. As Rudolf Nureyev once said, “you live because you dance, you live as long as you dance.” And dancers will continue to find ways to connect with their bodies and with others because it gives them life.
In March, Sara Means, a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, shared an emotional post on Instagram, saying “this is my home, my everything.” While she acknowledged the uncertainty of the moment, the message was filled with hope. “I have this feeling,” Mearns writes, “that when this time is over, the energy and art we create because of this time away will be something so unbelievably special and beautiful.” That is something we can all hope for.
Emilie Murphy is a freelance writer based in New York City. Emilie writes about arts and culture for various publications and is the creator of the blog, Art for Real People. She graduated from the College of William & Mary with degrees in art history & French and received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Kent. Before freelancing full-time, Emilie worked at New York City Ballet for four years.