Dance companies take lockdown in their stride
Jill Sykes, SMH 16 April 2020
Over these past few weeks dance in Sydney would have been hitting it peak. Sydney Dance Company was due to present a triple bill from March 21, the Australian Ballet from April 3, a collection of independents in a series of shows under the umbrella of March Dance and several more groups outside it.
Of all the artforms, dance must be the most physical, and the virus-driven halt in the performers' working lives was heart-stoppingly sudden. How are the dancers doing? What are they doing? Can we still see them? The answers are surprisingly affirming – though it hasn't all been easy.
SDC artistic director Rafael Bonachela was devastated when one of his brothers, aged 44, was hospitalised in an intensive care unit in Spain. Happily, he has recovered and is now back with his wife and children, none of whom have contracted the virus.
Bonachela heard the bad news from Spain shortly before the SDC season was scheduled to open. The prospect of the program going ahead was already receding as the government tightened numbers of people allowed to gather in one place.
Then Bonachela was told an SDC dance student had COVID-19 symptoms – since diagnosed as something else – and he sent the dancers home. Determined to hold on to the slimmest opportunity, he went through the process of lighting the show to a recording of the music but no dancers. Although his thoughts were divided between Sydney and Spain, he says it helped to keep working.
Bonachela speaks passionately about the company's 17 dancers and his determination to keep them employed with a future to look forward to. While there is no money coming from ticket sales, SDC has regular public dance classes and these are not only continuing online, their numbers have taken off.
Could it be that shy people are taking advantage of seeing without being seen? Turning their home camera off while doing the class and watching others?
Company members are among those doing the teaching and they have their own twice-daily classes available, all coming from a virtual studio in what was their artistic director's office. "We are all there for each other", says Bonachela.
He has also extended the repertoire memory sessions, usually held every couple of months to go through works the dancers know, to take in his latest work that they have not yet publicly performed. With the music playing and each performer connected on screen through their digital platforms, they have worked through the choreography, imagining a partner and an ensemble, to keep it in their heads.
Ironically, the work is called Impermanence. Bonachela is looking forward to the time we can see the work, hoping it will underline "the need to look after people and embrace one another".
Charmene Yap, a leading SDC dancer for 10 years and currently rehearsal associate, is equally positive about the state of the company and its dancers. She has seized the digital opportunities and is leading the charge in the change of platform: "The whole idea of dance is that it is physical. This is a very different way of thinking about it."
Class is adjusted to suit smaller spaces and designed to offer participants options; they choose what is appropriate and safe. "Most dancers want to stay connected," says Yap. A group of company dancers also gets together to work on movement ideas "so there is a sense we are still progressing".
At the Australian Ballet, artistic director David McAllister is also optimistic and animated, even though he is surveying all the plans for his last year of 20 in the role, in pieces.
"It's sort of weird because it is so all-encompassing," he says. "There is still a lot to do."
The company's 77 dancers, plus four educational performers, all on salary, have been embracing digital platforms with zeal. Not only are company classes going online every morning, but there are free classes available to the public through the company's website.
And they are showing seasons of AB productions they have recorded over the years, just as they would do in a theatre, except that digital has the advantage of a much longer reach – and the shows are free.
"We are trying to do business as usual with a different delivery model," says McAllister. You can find At Home with Ballet TV through the AB website.
The dancers are taking care of this themselves, communicating online, with some forming groups such as the one that does the quiz from the morning paper with principal dancer Adam Bull. They have also created home dance studios: "It's extraordinary how creative they are. They have pieces of parquet flooring chopped up and they have gone to Bunnings to get material to make barres – they have shown great ingenuity."
Queensland Ballet's artistic director, Li Cunxin, is characteristically inspirational as he maps out the plans he has put in place for his 60 dancers, who would have been celebrating the company's 60th anniversary with a gala last month and are now hoping to do so in October. He has shaped programs that will keep them not only physically fit but mentally sharp – fully focused for the time they can go back on stage.
Each morning the dancers are sent a day's schedule and a recorded class to do at home (interactive classes are being tested). The company has sent out 60 barres to the dancers at their homes, made out of old barres and other materials resized to fit.
Li is determined any personal extra time he might be granted in this situation will be "a time to make self-discoveries, exploring ways you can be a stronger individual", and he is keen his dancers should do the same.
Just as QB offers its dancers a range of classes in yoga, pilates and weight training as well as ballet and contemporary dance, Li is suggesting they take this opportunity to read widely and look at "inspirational" documentaries – to be mentally as well as physically active.
IMAGE: Sydney Dance Company's Charmene Yap makes the best of the available space at her home in Newtown.
CREDIT: LOUISE KENNERLEY