When Everything is Still, How Do We Continue Moving?
Updated: Jun 13, 2020
Cecly Placenti- June 12, 2020
Before COVID-19 struck and began what I like to think of as The Great Pause, my life as an artist in New York City was pretty standard. Wake up at 6:00am, get to my job at a charter high school in the Bronx by 8:00, teach five dance classes, and work on administrative tasks for my company, Six Degrees Dance, during my off periods. At 4:45, I’d either commute an hour into Manhattan to take a class, go to rehearsal, or review a live performance for The Dance Enthusiast or my own publication, Motion By Degrees. My evenings after 8pm were spent on various to-do lists for my company, and hopefully dinner. Saturdays found me commuting between my company rehearsals in Brooklyn and Catherine Gallant Dance’s rehearsals in Manhattan. In other words, my schedule was full. Actually, it was relentless.
Suddenly, on March 13, 2020, everything came to an abrupt halt. At noon, the CEO of my network sent an email saying all schools would be closing due to the outbreak and we would move into a period of remote learning. As if on cue, more emails began to come in from arts organizations, rehearsal studios, theaters, and one from Dixon Place, where myself and Michelle Ulerich had booked a split bill performance in early May, postponing our show indefinitely. By Monday March 16, I woke up in a much different space than I had ever been in before. Thankfully I was still working, but suddenly most of the time stretching before me was wide open. My two hour commute became the two minutes it took me to get out of bed and walk to my laptop. The obligations and deadlines that often weighed heavily on me were lifted. It felt magnificent, and also very disorienting.
Artists are not strangers to schedules packed tighter than a subway car at rush hour, with hardly a cushion for errors. We often juggle several jobs in order to fund our creative lives and keep the lights on. We tend to thrive in the balancing act between practicality and artistry, and possess a ‘whatever it takes’ attitude. With the outbreak of COVID, not only were there large expanses of time to fill, there was fear bubbling in the dance community. How will I pay rent? How will I engage with my artistry and be a “good artist?” How will the economic fallout of this pandemic affect the already burdensome cost of producing work in New York City? I was curious how dancers, social creatures by nature, would be emotionally affected by this isolation and uncertainty. How would our mental states, artistic practices, motivation, and feelings of self-worth hold up? As I wrestled with these issues in my own mind, my need for connection urged me to engage with my community. Perhaps through reflecting on and sharing our isolation, we could pull each other through and thereby make it part of our artistic practice.
I was fortunate to speak with several artists working in the NYC dance community and beyond. Active performers, educators, directors, producers, and choreographers, these seven women represent a portion of the dance community that I feel does not get enough attention. My inbox has been flooded with announcements from large and well-established organizations like Paul Taylor American Modern Dance and New York City Ballet. I have read articles about Broadway performers and well known contemporary artists. But what about the rest of the community? What about Those artists who work sometimes three or four jobs and also produce emotionally resonant, sophisticated, and beautiful work -- work that is not necessarily being seen by the larger audiences attending venues like New York City Center.
These artists are Rosie DeAngelo, Artistic Director of The Nash Conspiracy, based in NYC and Texas; Kristen Klein, Artistic Director of Inclined Dance Project based in Brooklyn; Caitlin Knowles, a NYC performing artist; Alexis Robbins, NYC director and choreographer working in the fusion of tap and contemporary dance; Teresa Fellion, Artistic Director of BodyStories in NYC who is currently directing a dance conservatory in Dubai, India; Leah Casper Artistic Director of LuneAseas based in Colorado, and Michelle Thompson Ulerich, NYC dancer, choreographer, director, and educator at SUNY Purchase College.
The CoronaCoaster- the ups and downs of isolation.
Periods of isolation can be tough on anyone, but dancers have a special relationship with space. We eat it up. Use it to move through, sculpt, and relate to the people around us. When physical space is taken away, we are pulled to relate to the space within ourselves more acutely.
“This gift of space has left me experiencing the paradox of choice” Rosie commented. “What's the ‘best,’ most productive way I can be ‘using’ this time? It's become really tempting to fill it with more and more things, but I also feel a need to face that tendency. I think for me it stems from a fear of not being enough, or being outdone in some capacity by another artist.”
For many, that paradox is both a blessing and a curse. Able to slow down and be in the moment, Leah discovered the negative side of “having to feel those emotions instead of being able to express them through mediums like dance and performance.” Caitlin felt, “As a dancer, there is a constant drive to excel and push yourself,” “It’s easy to ignore what your body and mind need. During this time, I’ve been able to build myself up instead of pushing myself to extremes.”
But if pushing oneself ahead at warp speed is one extreme, waking up to a fully unstructured day is another. As I sit here, absently petting my cat and drinking coffee, it dawns on me that it’s 2:00pm, and aside from brushing my teeth and staring out the window for thirty minutes, this is all I’ve done today. But how? Yesterday I took two online classes, cleaned out my closet, did a workout, and learned how to cook sea bass! My mind rings with conflicting admonitions: “Stop being lazy! Your coworker is baking bread from scratch right now!” (Thank you, Facebook, for providing that scrolling vacuum I just fell into for the third time today.) As I refill my mug, the war in my mind continues. “Relax, you deserve a break. Go binge some Walking Dead like you know you want to.” My cat yawns in agreement. “This is not a productivity contest” he seems to say. “But what am I accomplishing?” “I’m never going to get anywhere if I don’t DO something!”
This crazy train does nothing but give me emotional whiplash and an excuse to pour a glass of wine at 3:00. I also don’t know anyone that has not been dazed on this ride. “Some days I wake up and feel really good!” Kristen said. “I’m energized, motivated, inspired. Other days I can’t do anything except sit in front of the TV or lurk around my kitchen, snacking and standing around with my thoughts.”
Maybe artists always need a project, something to work towards. In this new normal, our raw materials are not an empty studio, an intriguing piece of music, or bodies in space, but rather the inner contortions of our own minds. “It’s like I am in a state of human gardening” said Teresa. “I am cultivating aspects of myself that haven’t been tended to in a long time and gathering the resources and rest that needed to be replenished.”
But Before I Can Create, I Have to Eat!
Even with its gifts, the coronavirus has hardly been a knight in shining armour. Its endowments have also come with burdens. In moving to online platforms, some studio teachers have experienced a reduction in their normal teaching schedule, and rather than the normal set rate for classes, online costs have been reduced. Some large NYC studios decided not to go the Zoom route at all, and entrepreneurial teachers began promoting their own donation-based classes from home. While Alexis has been fortunate to find new teaching opportunities, she worries about the return to normal. She wonders, “With people taking classes and watching performances online, will we be able to get them to come out to see our work in a theater?” In November of 2019, Michelle signed a two year contract as Artistic Director of Spark Movement Collective. “It seems insensitive to talk about future plans now” she said. “Dancers and audiences are struggling to survive and there is so much mourning. Loss of lives, income, stability, routine. I have been talking with our board about different scenarios for performance art- what does plan A look like? And also plan B, C, D, and E?”
Rosie also questions the future: “How will our field progress in the midst of a global economic crisis?” Admittedly, artists have always been good at thriving in times of hardship, like flowers growing between the cracks in a sidewalk. But even if they can learn to support themselves through entrepreneurial efforts, as many are now doing, will there be jobs to return to? “Will theaters and studios increase their pricing so much that only esteemed choreographers with impressive resumes and long-standing connections be able to produce work?” Rosie wonders. “How much will fall on the backs of the freelancers and the independent artists whose responsibilities are already stretched past their means? How many people who inspire me will simply give up and leave a void for someone else to fill?”
The Coronacoaster- Surviving the Ride
In my experience, artists do not give up easily. But how do we stay connected to our inner drive during this strange period? For me, striking an early balance between slothdom and compulsive frenzy is key. Virtual projects give me things to look forward to and deadlines to meet. Going back to Buddhism class, meditation, yoga, reading more , and catching up with old friends keeps me connected to myself and therefore linked to my artistry. It reminds me that artists are not only artists when they are engaging in the act of creation. Artistry is a way of living, of looking at and responding to the world. This quarantine has offered many of us new opportunities to engage with our art from different angles.
For starters, most of us are now able to take more classes and explore the movement of new choreographers and unfamiliar styles. “When I am working full time I still train, but I am not able to take classes five days a week” Teresa said. “I am taking classes now that I have been wanting to try for years but couldn’t fit into my schedule.” In addition to this opportunity, logging into an online class and seeing dancers from Europe and other parts of the U.S is a unifying experience. Even though we can’t see each other, we are aware of dancing in a larger community than we normally would be able to. Zoom classes taken in tiny spaces may not be ideal, but the patterning we are learning is making us smarter dancers. “The amount of focus it takes to learn and memorize combinations on Zoom is double” Teresa mused. “My brain feels so worked out because of all the direction changes. I didn’t realize how much I depend on visual reminders from stolen glances at my peers during a live class!” To avoid kicking our cats or slicing through the TV, we are forced to make split-second decisions in adapting movements to the dimensions of our particular space. This manner of brain activity is not available to us when we are moving in large, unobstructed studios.
Our rehearsals and performances may have been indefinitely canceled, but virtual projects allow us to continue to create and collaborate. Inclined Dance Project and Six Degrees Dance each created their own “movement telephone” in which movements were passed from one dancer to another and then connected into a complete phrase. Six Degrees held Zoom rehearsals and revisited material from their latest piece, taking turns leading warm-up exercises in order to experience moving together. Being forced onto online platforms, we are each in our own ways envisioning what dance can look like going forward. Rosie is working on a program that implements both in-person and online modules to assist artists in unlocking their creative potential and deepening their practices. Kristen and I developed a new virtual series called Affix that can be continued after quarantine, connecting dancers from all over the world and reshaping the way we produce material and engage with audiences.
Self-care, no longer something to be squeezed out by deadlines and obligations, has swung naturally into focus. Connecting to interests outside of dance has been rejuvenating. “I’ve been reading, taking handstand classes, looking at visual artwork and listening to poetry” shares Caitlin. “This has been a good opportunity to widen my focus as an artist.” Leah is learning to play the harmonica and ukulele, and has been able to attend church services every Sunday. Alexis is writing more in an effort to inspire her use of text in future dance-making, and allowing herself to wake up when her body naturally wants to without an alarm. As we fill our days with activities like hiking, bike riding, exercising and journaling, we come back to the sources of strength and wisdom within ourselves, and fill our creative wells.
After the Pause
We are living in tumultuous and unprecedented times. Social and political upheaval occupy our thoughts and our social media pages. Feelings of anxiety, confusion, pain, outrage, and injustice are rising in the communities outside our doors as we simultaneously attempt to flatten the coronavirus curve. When we go back into the studio with our peers, how will issues of racial inequality, police brutality, and the decline of democracy in America influence our art making and our teaching practices? If art imitates life, what will we bring with us into the days after quarantine, birthed out of this period of reflection? Many of the artists featured here have spent quite a bit of time in recent weeks contemplating the inequity this pandemic has brought to light- namely the buildup of violence against black people in the U.S. and the virus’ disproportionate effects on black and brown communities. For Teresa, this time to reflect on the power present in artistic voices has given her a “reinvigorated love of the arts”. As we digest and process our world at large, we do what artists do: use our medium to respond to the current social climate in unique ways. We are gathering tools during this time that will shape our next artistic endeavor.
Leah reflects that dance does not necessarily have to be at the forefront of what she does or how she identifies: “My art is a product of what I feel and what I experience. If that needs to take a back seat so I can work another job and provide for my family, that’s okay. It doesn’t make me any less of an artist, and the blessing of this pandemic has brought into clear focus that whatever I produce, big or small, can make a difference for someone.” Prevalent among all responses, myself included, is that we no longer feel pressure to be busy for the sake of being busy. This time has given us the perspective to realize what is important and where we want to direct our energies in order to be most impactful for ourselves and others. Whether that is being engaged with a newfound sense of authenticity for Rosie, or being more intentional and fulfilled in social interactions like Caitlin, this pause has prompted us to look inside and find the truth of what matters most for each of us. “I am reminded how precious time is in the dance world and that it’s okay to be doing work that isn’t perfect” Caitlin said. “I want to take with me the idea that process is the most valuable part of being an artist and it is okay to be wherever you are within that process.” Kristen is taking a bold and proactive step in her growth by reaching out to producers of festivals from which her work has been rejected in the past. “I am trying to collect constructive feedback from organizations whose programming I admire and aspire to be a part of” she explains. “As artists we all get rejected and most of the time adjudicators don’t have time to provide us with individual feedback. Maybe now they have more time and I can get constructive criticism that will help me examine my craft differently moving forward.”
Like all things, this Great Pause will end. Life will begin again and like a stone rolling down a hill, time and momentum will propel it forward with greater speed. We will be faced with choices that will shape the days, weeks, and months that make up our lives. Artists live in detail. Whether we are contemplating how to arrange a dozen bodies in space, or scrutinizing over the minute element of a flexed palm rather than straight fingers, we place great emphasis on directing small components into a cohesive whole. Mindfulness is paying attention. As we bring the mindfulness practices we have been engaging in for upwards of three months into our post-quarantine lives, we are strengthened in our ability to create schedules, routines, jobs, relationships, practices, and works of art that serve our spirits rather than burden them. We have listened to the needs of our bodies and while we may have natural propensities to fill our daily calendars back up to bursting, setting ourselves up for burnout, we can remember the gifts of the Great Pause, and mindfully arrange the details of our lives to create the masterpieces we envision, both on and off the stage.
Thank you Rosie, Kristen, Alexis, Caitlin, Leah, Teresa, and Michelle for your generous vulnerability.