How Can We Radically Reimagine the Dance World Post-Coronavirus?

April 15, 2020

No one knows for sure when the coronavirus pandemic will end. What we do know: The dance world will be an entirely new one on the other side, reshaped by months of dancing in our homes and in digital spaces as well as catastrophic physical, emotional and financial tolls.

We will not come out of this unscathed. And it most likely will not be pretty.

But it could be a chance to reimagine the dance world as we know it.

In many ways, we’ll have to start from scratch. So why not learn from this moment and rebuild our community on a stronger foundation? Why not use this opportunity to enact the desires, the dreams, the radical changes that we haven’t been bold enough to voice before? Why not reevaluate the systems and structures we’ve long seen as immutable?

We talked to 10 leaders from across the field about how they’d radically reimagine the dance world.

Sydney Skybetter

Skybetter wears a white button down shirt and glasses in his headshot
Liza Voll, Courtesy Skybetter

“This is going to be a category five cluster f*** for a while. I’m deeply concerned for dance folks’ health and jobs. But perhaps this is also an opportunity for foundations, conservatories and institutional presenters to figure out and embrace where dancerly creativity has been sustainably growing for the last few decades. There has been a ton of exceptional choreographic work online, on TikTok, and in virtual and augmented reality. There are folks who have been paving the way, doing the research, writing the case studies. (I’m thinking of the great curator Ashley Ferro-Murray at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, Melissa Painter at MAP Design Lab, Christy Bolingbroke at the National Center for Choreography, Chris Barr and the Knight Foundation, and the choreographers Michelle Ellsworth, Jaamil Olawale Kosoko and Marjani Forté-Saunders.) At a time when everything seems broken, this is a perfect moment to check out the work of folks who have been imagining other possible dance worlds for a while.”

Sydney Skybetter is a choreographer, lecturer and public humanities fellow at Brown University.

Alice Sheppard

Sheppard sits in her wheelchair, chin resting on her hand and looking directly at the camera. She wears patent-leather boots and a bright yellow shirt.
Jayme Thornton

“I don’t know if there should be a return to normal. I have tried to not think about ‘going back’ or’ returning’ or ‘normal.’ I believe that we can’t go back.

“Right now, the world is all about disability, even if you don’t name it as such. People from the disability justice community have been thinking for years about ways in which access to care is rationed. Will that learning continue when we go back? Will that learning extend into funding practices? I can’t count the number of times I have asked to attend a meeting remotely and have been assured that online attendance is not possible. Will that continue? Or will it be a question of, Oh, that was just the pandemic and it only affected this narrow slice of life and it’s over now.

“I believe that we will emerge differently. Some of us will have our bodies reconfigured by exposure to the virus. Many of us will have our hearts, bodies and minds reconfigured by the trauma of living through this. My question is, how will there be space for disability going forward? Because people will not be the same.”

Alice Sheppard is a Bessie-winning choreographer and dancer.

Wendy Whelan

Whelan wears a bright yellow shirt and leans back, laughing, her blonde hair falling down her back.
Jayme Thornton

“It feels a bit like a hibernation, or a caterpillar. Once we’re allowed to open up, I think things will be different emotionally and I believe there will be a renewed physicality. The discipline that the dancers are having to experience right now, working at home with an unknown ending. They are putting in this extra homework. It’s a power source that is gonna pay off, this kind of sharing and learning new ways of strengthening and being present with your body on your own in your own home. Making it an even more natural state of being. Teachers used to be like, frappés need to be like brushing your teeth. And now we actually have to do that. We actually have to do our ballet at home right after we brush our teeth. It is our home now. We’re developing a new level of discipline, and it’s also very personal. It’s kinda meditative, an exploration of you and your body in a new space.”

Wendy Whelan is the associate artistic director of New York City Ballet.

Miguel Gutierrez

Gutierrez, in performance, wears a pink lace long-sleeved leotard, and looks shocked, with his arms crossed at his chest.
Paula Lobo, Courtesy Gutierrez

“I think we can bring more attention to the incredible precarity that freelance dancer artists are always living with. During these cancellations, people aren’t even mentioning money in their initial email. There needs to be an awareness that this isn’t just the loss of income of this one-off I was going to do. This is how we earn our living. I know that these institutions are also experiencing their own precarity, so that’s the way it ripples outward. We allow this incredibly flimsy economy to be the way we all live.

“Right away, you see artists creating emergency funds. I get these emails asking me to donate to emergency funds for me to fundraise for myself. I get it, we can’t rely on the government. But it’s this entrepreneurial American thinking and it’s like, no, we should have a better social safety net.

“I really hope that performing artists will be more politically active. We’re really removed from the political process. We don’t talk about cultural strikes; we don’t talk about shutting things down. I would hope that people demand more accountability from our representatives.

“We shouldn’t be thinking of ourselves as distinguished. We should be thinking about how we are aligned with other cultural workers and certainly other poor people. The problem is this hyper-specialization of thinking. It’s a very effective way for us to stay apart from each other. That happens at the educational level; the dance program is in some random building on the other side of campus. The dance field is siloed so often. We have to be ready to collaborate and align with other people.”

Miguel Gutierrez is a choreographer, performer, writer and educator.

Jodie Gates

Gates talks to a few students in a dance studio, gesturing with her hands.
Carolyn DiLoreto, Courtesy USC Kaufman

“The only way I see dance surviving is if we all work together in supporting national dance companies, because we’re training these young dancers to join these companies.

“I think it wise for presenters to think about presenting local companies. For example, I present dance companies once a year at the Laguna Dance Festival; maybe I dedicate the next two years to West Coast artists. They’re near, they’re struggling, they don’t need visas. It doesn’t mean excluding international companies, but I do think we need to celebrate American dance. We’ve got to keep our companies going; we’ve got to keep dancers employed. I want my students to have a company to work with.”

Jodie Gates is the vice dean and artistic director of the University of Southern California’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, and the founder and artistic director of the Laguna Dance Festival.

Jon Arpino

Arpino wears jeans and a light blue button down shirt in his headshot, smiling at the camera.
Gal-A Photography, Courtesy Arpino

“Everyone has been forced to realize that there are great supplemental tools and programs out there and that students are resilient in terms of loving in-person classes and still loving the online learning. I think both things will stick: the openness and the willingness to embrace technology.

“I think people will be more prepared for this type of occasion happening in the future. There’s a financial management aspect of preparing for these kinds of events. It’s not an industry where you can keep money squirreled away. But it is tough to keep customers’ and parents’ money when people are filing for unemployment. Like with the financial crisis in 2008, you saw a lot of companies change their practices. Hopefully that happens in the industry as a whole.

“More unification will come of this. Other groups have really big lobbying efforts in Washington, or have more collective sway. Dance is a big industry in the U.S., but it doesn’t have an equal say.”

Jon Arpino is the founder and CEO of CLI Studios.

Emily Johnson

Johnson wears a black shirt and geometric earrings in her headshot, looking seriously at the camera, her brown hair falling down her shoulders.
Tracy Rector and Melissa Ponder, Courtesy Johnson

“I see so much possibility in this shifted moment, and I get really down when I see reformulations of things going as they were. For example, some emergency funds were created very quickly, and that’s great. There was one open to women artists over 40, and it was meant to be open for applications for two days but it closed down in five hours. Yes, we need the emergency funds but if we look at it deeper, it’s just reinforcing an old model that we knew didn’t work and was not healthy. It pushes the individuals to have to scratch over one another.

“What’s a way that we can move into the future in which artists can have more say? Why do we in the arts world reflect hierarchies that we try to dismantle in our work? That was so clearly evident when all those cancellations were coming through without any real consideration of where the financial impact would be. The trickle down funding—the funding goes to the institution, and it trickles down to the artist—why don’t we flip that? Maybe there are ways that model is completely changed so we are not valuing the institutions to dominate ideas or to determine what our cultural values are. If artists are determining what our cultural values are, we might have more diversity, we might have a deeper level of engagement, we might be able to create that deeper consciousness shift.

“In the work that I do with decolonizing and indigenizing institutions, we talk about this word equity. We don’t know what equity is, none of us have ever experienced equity. So maybe this is the moment to figure out what that is. That’s a big upheaval. Transformation is not nice. I’m not calling for any more pain or grief, but to move through pain and grief in a way that is transformative is part of the process.”

Emily Johnson is Bessie-winning choreographer and performer.

Rhee Gold

Gold wears a leather jacket and glasses, and looks straight into the camera.
Courtesy Gold

“Our value system is going to change. In the community I’m involved with, what the advanced students want more than anything now is to hang out with their friends. They used to win awards together; now they are supporting each other. I’ve seen women who didn’t have as much confidence in themselves as business owners—because our world was focused on, to be good you have to win, or to be good you have to have the largest school—but the community they were building is now what they need in a time of crisis.

“This is a long-haul journey. I think everything about our year could change. That teacher who runs a recital in October for the first time may always run their recital in October. One woman said, I’m going to rent a big tent, and I’m going to do one class at a time. When I listen to her, it’s like, thank you for not trying to hang on to the way it was. I see a complete overhaul.

“Who do you want to be when you make your grand entrance into the new world? As a business owner, I knew where my business was going for the next two or three years. Three weeks ago, that plan was over, so I have to look at this and say, What is my place in this new world? Everyone can do whatever they want at this moment. You don’t have to have an excuse. You just have to do what your instinct is telling you to do.”

Rhee Gold is the founder of the DanceLife Teacher Conference and
the International Dance Entrepreneurs Association, and the former publisher of
Dance Studio Life magazine.

Indira Goodwine

Goodwine wears a bright yellow dress and has one hand on her hip, looking at the camera. Her hair is in a swoop on her forehead and she wears green earrings.
Ra-Re Valverde, Courtesy Goodwine

“As COVID-19 continues to intensify, the impacts have shined another bright light on the inequities that exist and the work that must be done now and post-pandemic. I’m hopeful that this shared learning that’s currently happening in virtual spaces will serve as a catalyst to revolutionize our practices and remind us of the contributions of our field. The arts as a whole have stepped up, and I think we should take that with us as we revitalize our communities and ourselves.

“I’ve been hearing the words ‘rebuild’ and ‘new normal’ a lot. I’m personally not interested in rebuilding things that were already broken, or establishing a new normal, because that reestablishes complacency around hierarchy. We need to create new spaces that give artists the opportunity to thrive on their own terms and have agency, and not have to conform to a system.

“People are in survival mode, and these emergency relief funds are supporting the humanity of the artist. Sometimes artists can be seen as just these content-producing individuals and people forget that they have livelihoods and things they rely on that extend beyond their art. It’s important that while we are serving those needs now, that we also have the discussion about what the future looks like. I would not want to see all of the funds funneled into this emergency relief space, and then we get post-pandemic and folks are looking to create—we still want to be able to support those artists in doing that. Because at the end of the day, artists are going to create. This does not stop.”

Indira Goodwine is the dance program director at the New England Foundation for the Arts.

Christy Bolingbroke

Bolingbroke, from the neck up, smiles at the camera, wearing a grey jacket.
Neil Sapienza, Courtesy Bolingbroke

“As we look to bounce back—and we will—let us redefine the terms of success. Can we all agree that the dance world was not perfect before the pandemic? What will this mean for presenting venues that relied on selling their houses, if the first performance back they’re required to limit their convening for health reasons? Remember: The previous dance ecosystem was developed over 70-plus years. So the next iteration will take time—to experiment, to fail and to finesse–as well.

“I would love to see some artists who only make work online moving forward. Often the dance field has relegated online content to be only for marketing purposes. Digital dancemaking can be an artistic genre within itself. Some artists could excel in creating for the screen more so than they have been able to gain traction offline. Live performances will happen again, but this moment highlights other creative opportunities and needs across the field to reinforce a system of support for making and distributing digital dances, too.”

Christy Bolingbroke is the executive and artistic director of the National Center for Choreography at the University of Akron.