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An Open Letter to the Dance Community: Stay Strong—the Light Comes with the Dawn

These early days of the coronavirus pandemic feel like a dark veil being drawn over the world. Many are too young to fully remember 9/11 and the aftermath, the deserted streets, the eerie silence, the terrifying uncertainty that haunted us. Those of us who lived through it as adults have developed what is akin to emotional survival anti-bodies. After those traumatic events there was a virtual pause in life, a disturbing, yet reverent stillness that hung over the country.

It is the unknowns—how long it will last, how bad it will get—and the loss of physical freedom that is so terrifying. We are in an odd form of stasis. There is so much happening, and yet most of our lives are on pause. We are forced to hold our space, be still and wait.


Stillness for dancers is one of the most difficult things to master, the hardest thing to do on stage, and for most, highly uncomfortable. Extended periods of stillness can feel unproductive. Stillness is something that seems antithetical to our practice, and yet it is in spaces of stillness where some of our greatest learning happens. Dance is a physical discipline, if the body cannot be still, it cannot learn. The mind tells the body what to do, and if you cannot direct the body to be still, how can you hope to train it to master the layered complexity of dance? Stillness allows the body to record the information that you input.

Movement is the medium through which dancers expel energy and express emotion, our ability to move is a core component of our identity. We often don't feel fully alive if we are not in motion.

So now, as we do our civic duty, self-quarantining at home, often with limited space, we are like caged birds…if only we could sing (it takes far less space). The very concept of being cooped up for an extended period of time is spirit-crushing, but there is a beauty, and a profound peace to be found in stillness.

For dancers, nothing is more precious than time itself. For us, time passes like grains of sand through the narrow neck of an hourglass, and we are acutely aware that there are only so many grains. From the moment we enter this world of dance, we are battling the waning of youth, and the organic clock of our bodies. Careers are like shooting stars, burning bright and fleeting, every moment precious. To dance is to engage in two fruitless but valiant endeavors: the pursuit of perfection and the thwarting of physical maturation.

When asked to be still, all we see and feel is a loss of ground.

Money you can make back, but time you can never recoup. During this crisis, we will be able to calculate the loss of life and livelihood. However, the loss of opportunity and possibilities can never be measured. There are young dancers on the cusp of professional careers, auditioning for companies or having just signed contracts, who are now sequestered in at home watching the grains of sand in their hourglass fall at a steady pace. They watch as the momentum that they so painstakingly built up wanes.

This might be your first lesson in the unfortunate reality that, sometimes, life gets in the way of your dreams.

In 1980, the U.S. boycotted the Olympics in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. All of those athletes who had worked towards this one global event had their dreams deferred. We will never know the moments of greatness lost. For many, it would be their only opportunity to participate in such an event, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Know that you are not alone. You are not the first nor will you be the last to make personal sacrifices for the greater good. "Safety first." We all know that canceling tours, performances and training programs are the right thing, the only thing to do. It does not mean that we cannot grieve the losses. They are real and have impact.

But remember this: You are a dancer. You are adroit at shifting your weight, changing speed and direction. You know how to take corrections, make adjustments and you are all too familiar with discomfort and hard work. These are skills that you have learned in a dance studio and will serve you well in life at large. Right now, you don't know that you know how to do this, but you do. You will find your center.

Although you will not get this time back, you will make up the lost ground. You are still in the race, the course has just been altered. If you treat this period like recovering from an injury, with patience, compassion and making good use of the time, you can emerge smarter and stronger for having survived it.

I am sorry for the urgency that this field has manufactured that has resulted in the unbearable pressure to meet levels of expectations and timelines in order to dance professionally. Focus and dedication do not have to result in myopia. We have created a system that requires so much at such a young age that it narrows you both as an artist and as a human being. We have created a system that often has made you choose your art over your families, yet has not attended to your personal and emotional development. Take this time to discover, and develop other aspects of yourself; you will be a better artist for it when you get back to the studio.

The body needs down time for self-healing and recovery. Professional dancers and students alike are being pushed to, and beyond, their limits. Yes, the body is adaptable, but should we be asking, demanding that it be? Dancing in mild pain, on the edge of injury has become a dangerous norm, and too often in our culture it is used as a barometer for dedication.

Frankly a little downtime might do everyone some good—students, professionals and educators. While we are all forced to slow down, we might take this opportunity as a community to reflect on aspects of our culture that need to be reevaluated.

In the face of such grievous loss, it might seem shallow to mourn the performances that will never be. But those shows and tours that were canceled represent the lives of the artists and the people behind the scenes who spent hours upon hours poured into their preparation. To have it all vanish is like a tiny death. So much of what we do is ephemeral, and dissipates instantaneously. These cancellations call into question one's very existence, not to mention one's livelihood.

I would like to acknowledge all of the performers and choreographers who were set to make debuts in new works or roles, the performers for whom this was their first season, and more painful, those for whom this was their last. There will be no final bow of their careers.

Though they may pale in comparison to what is happening globally, these too are great personal losses that can in no way be gotten back or rescheduled. To all those unrequited performances, we grieve these moments that will never be, that were lost to you and to the world, but we celebrate you.

Though right now it seems of little consolation, know that the experiences of building those works, those careers, the effort that earned you that first contract or scholarship, they are in you whether they were brought to a culminating performance or not. They will forever inform you as a human being and artist moving forward, and we will move forward in time.

Theaters are just buildings. But when they go dark, the people who brought them to life, the artists and crews who created the magical worlds that allowed us to escape the harsh realities or banalities, and allowed us to suspend our disbelief, go dark with them. The thing that we can hold onto is the fact that once the dark hours are over, we, the artists, will be called on to do what we do: Make magic, create worlds, and to bring the light and with it the dawn.

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Luke Isley, Courtesy Ballet West

How Do Choreographers Bring Something Fresh to Music We've Heard Over and Over?

In 2007, Oregon Ballet Theatre asked Nicolo Fonte to choreograph a ballet to Maurice Ravel's Boléro. "I said, 'No way. I'm not going near it,' " recalls Fonte. "I don't want to compete with the Béjart version, ice skaters or the movie 10. No, no, no!"

But Fonte's husband encouraged him to "just listen and get a visceral reaction." He did. And Bolero turned into one of Fonte's most requested and successful ballets.

Not all dance renditions of similar warhorse scores have worked out so well. Yet the irresistible siren song of pieces like Stravinsky's The Firebird and The Rite of Spring, as well as the perennial Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, seem too magnetic for choreographers to ignore.

And there are reasons for their popularity. Some were commissioned specifically for dance: Rite and Firebird for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes; Boléro for dance diva Ida Rubinstein's post–Ballets Russes troupe. Hypnotic rhythms (Arvo Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel) and danceable melodies (Bizet's Carmen) make a case for physical eye candy. Audience familiarity can also help box office receipts. Still, many choreographers have been sabotaged by the formidable nature and Muzak-y overuse of these iconic compositions.

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