Whim W'Him in an outdoor rehearsal

Stefano Altamura, Courtesy Whim W'Him

Companies Are Rethinking Live Performance—and Coming Up With Many Creative Solutions

The desire to be back dancing in the flesh appears to be at a tipping point. The dance community took a hot minute to take to the digital airwaves. But returning to live performance requires more time as we need to consider the safety of the performers, the crew and the audience.

We all know it's safer to be outside and socially distanced, but that doesn't mean we are confined to an outdoor stage with chairs placed six feet apart.

Dance Linkages founder Andee Scott and Poetica artistic director Amanda Sieradzki have moved way beyond the traditional dance al fresco with "Dance in the Time of Coronavirus," a six-episode outdoor series in Florida's St. Petersburg and Tampa area, where the audience does the moving.

A series of dancers in white all move, spaced apart along a sidewalk


Tom Kramer, Courtesy Dance Linkages

EPISODE #1: REVERBERATION, choreographed by Scott, for an audience of bicyclists and pedestrians, sprawled out over three blocks on a balmy June 13 Florida morning with 24 dancers spaced 20 feet apart on the shaded sidewalks of an artsy St. Petersburg neighborhood.

Scott created a three-minute spiralic movement phrase with a contemplative texture, which the dancers performed in canon, repeating 25 times over the course of the hour. Because Scott is an associate professor of dance at University of South Florida and Sieradzki is an adjunct professor at University of Tampa, their Zoom teaching skills made an in-person dress rehearsal unnecessary. "We created a Google map with a pin for each dancer so they knew where to show up," says Sieradzki.

"The idea is that the performance is stretched out in space," says Scott. "We had the dancers positioned to be facing the bikers so that the actual choreography worked like a flip book, and took place through the perception of the audience."

Scott felt confident that the idea would work in practice, but did not witness the effect until the audience did as well. She adds, "Honestly, I have never done anything like this before, I didn't know if it was going to work." But it did, quite wonderfully, with some bikers doing double rounds.

"We don't have to remain in our Brady Bunch squares," says Sieradzki. "It was great to walk by and see the dancers sweating and breathing. We still do that."

With a motto, "Be kind and keep moving," Scott and Sieradzk prevented any congregating between audience members. "We are all choreographers now," Scott says. "People are starting to think more spatially."

After the dancers repeat a nighttime version of the first episode with the audience in cars, they will head to Tampa's Davis Island for Sieradzki's Volution, where the bikers and walkers can wind through an open field to find dancers in circular formations. "I am motivated by Anna Halprin's intention of healing a global community," adds Sieradzki.

Scott and Sieradzki are in talks with Lynn Lane and Jennifer Mabus, of Houston's Transitory Sound and Movement Collective about replicating the project on the Houston streets. Lane and Mabus loved the stretching out over space idea because they are working on a late summer performance that stretches out over time.

In August, TSMC takes over the airy Live Oak Friends Meeting House, the home of one of James Turrell's iconic skyspaces, for a 12-hour performance involving a rotating group of solos and duets (performed by quarantining couples) with five to ten people entering and exiting at a specific time. With the windows and skyspace open, the sprawling interior space will give the audience a chance to socially distance easily. They will also livestream for those not yet comfortable with inside performances.

As much as Mabus and Lane have been creating steadily compelling digital shows, they feel the need to move forward. "I miss being in the room together," says Lane. Mabus echoes the idea, "We are used to having body-to-body contact and love creating that way." They see this piece as the first step in rebuilding a live creating community.

Jacquelyne Boe and Danielle Garza in Lydia Hance's METROdances

Jonathon Hance, Courtesy Frame Dance

TSMC is one of many Houston groups to offer live performance events. Lydia Hance, the city's reigning guru of dance in public places, plans an October 10-year celebration of her organization Frame Dance in the roomy McGovern Gardens, where the dancers will don deep blue gowns with six foot trains that will pop amidst the lush green tones of the garden.

Known for her METROdances and dancing in Houston's elaborate tunnel system, Hance is a master of making dances in concert with a specific environment to both an invited and random audience. "The audience will be entering through the trees, and thus walking through dancers as they progress really slowly, almost like trees themselves," she says, "I see it as a social experiment of sorts, observing the observers."

A close-up behind a dancer in a grass field leaning to the side with hands splayed

Whim W'Him rehearsal

Stefano Altamura, Courtesy Whim W'Him

Whim W'Him artistic director Olivier Wevers launches his company's season 11 with a new all-digital membership program, IN-with-WHIM which includes three films by Quinn Wharton, a New York-based movement photographer and filmmaker. The company is also taking advantage of the sunny Seattle summer weather and available wide open spaces for a series of pop up performances .

As ambitious as the digital season is, Wevers feels that live performance is vital to the pulse of the company. "We need to keep a presence in the community, to say that we are still here, to give back and help with the healing," says Wevers. "This is also for the mental health of my dancers, they need to feel that adrenaline."

For his first pop up, Wevers is repurposing some of the material from his film to be performed around Greenlake, which features a generous path around the lake. "The idea is that we will be continually moving around the lake with the audience anywhere on the loop, and they will be able to see the dancers from across the loop, so there will be multiple points of viewing," says Wevers.

Subsequent pop ups will take place in urban and park settings that provide a safe environment for audiences and performers. Wevers is being especially diligent on taking temperatures, asking questions and even researching a more breathable mask for dancing.

A dancer with a big piece of white fabric stands on a large rock in between trees

An earlier Pilobolus performance

Emily Kent, Courtesy Pilobolus

Pilobolus co-artistic director Renee Jaworski is also thinking about reconnecting to their community with the Five Senses Festival, now in its third season. "We don't have a theater here in Connecticut, but we do have so many fans in this area, so it's time to bring our work home," says Jaworski.

The performance unfolds at a series of stations gently spaced throughout Spring Hill Vineyards, a historic farm dating to the 18th century along the banks of the Shepaug River. Six cars at a time will be guided to a station with viewers having the choice to remain in their cars or get out and remain socially distant.

"We have created an art safari experience along a road that winds through the site," she says. "We have found natural stage-like areas in the landscape where short solos or small groups can perform."

Now for the tricky part: to keep the performers safe. "Climbing all over each other is our physical language, so we can't really do what we do," she says. "The challenge is to maintain our language in a safe way. We want the experience to be safe but not compromising." Jaworski is considering all of her options, from using artists who are already quarantining together for duets to doing a pre-show quarantine.

They are also considering a music score to be broadcast through the car radio. Jaworski adds, "It will be like a circus, but a poignant one."

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021