What the Rush to Go Virtual Revealed About the Dance World

February 23, 2021

Competitive and optimistic—at times to a fault—dance artists and organizations rushed to the internet last spring as COVID-19 spread. For some, this meant uploading footage to YouTube; others experimented with interactive webcasts on Zoom. Festivals and presenters convened panel discussions with speakers and viewers from numerous countries. By the end of April, anyone familiar with social media could easily spend 40 hours a week consuming local, regional, national and international dance.

This rapid response initially appeared to put the nonprofit dance sector’s best foot forward. Companies demonstrated ingenuity and resourcefulness. Global dialogues supported knowledge-sharing and fostered multicultural competence, just as violent policing in the U.S. reignited a national movement for racial justice. Dance lovers gained access to a wide world of performances, no doubt helping some of them cope with isolation and anxiety. Among those hit hardest by the shutdowns, with the longest wait for recovery, dance artists met the moment—but at what cost?

“What concerned me from the very beginning was that everything was free to consume,” says Indira Goodwine, program director for dance at the New England Foundation for the Arts. “People undervalue this art form already. There was a desire to show support through viewership, but also a feeling the work was being taken for granted.”

For instance, The Joffrey Ballet published 50 uploads to its YouTube channel by the end of May, serialized as dancer profiles, home workouts, in-depth inter­views and performance excerpts. But it leveraged just one video in all of 2020 toward income: a behind-the-scenes look at its Nutcracker by Christopher Wheeldon.

Rising case counts dimmed the light at the end of the tunnel, forcing many organizations to cancel their 2020–21 fall and winter seasons entirely. Besides class fees, nearly all earned-revenue streams dried up, while competition for donations turned every day into Giving Tuesday. “They wanted to stay in touch with their audiences and not disappear from people’s minds,” says Joan Finkelstein, executive director of the Harkness Foundation for Dance. “Now they’re struggling to monetize anything at all.”

Who exactly does all this online content serve? Dance artist Joanna Furnans is also co-founder of Per­formance Response Journal, a four-year-old website where choreographers, artistic directors and others review and respond to each other’s work. “I used to see a ton of shows every weekend but have hardly watched anything on video. I’m grateful I know so many talented people going for it now, using the technology at their disposal to make work,” she says.

But she admits she has trouble staying engaged the way she easily was at live venues. “I’ll see something and think, What a great oppor­tunity to catch this work I’ve never seen. But I can’t usually watch for more than 10 minutes.” In a crisis, the need to express something can appear more important to artists than what the viewer experiences, adds Furnans. “I see what people post and think, This must be the way they’re processing what’s happening. But I don’t really want to watch it.”

Several dancers are moving on stage, while dressed in all-white costumes. The five most downstage have their left arms and legs stretched in front and behind them. They are supported by their right leg which is slight bent. Projected behind them on the backdrop is a partially used cigarette.

David Roussève/REALITY perform Halfway to Dawn at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival.

Photo by Ian Douglas

Not everyone leapt online the same way. David Roussève avoids sharing his choreography onscreen, even though his creative process includes video shoots for the projections in his shows by his touring company David Roussève/REALITY. Yet he does pressure himself to make regular appearances during virtual conferences and participate in online discussions.

Halfway to Dawn
, a multiyear REALITY project, had just finished touring when stages went dark, “so I was already about to go low profile to develop a new piece,” he explains. “I usually question how long that can last before I’m forgotten by the field, and now it feels like there’s extra pressure, even though I haven’t been able to move anything forward. I don’t want to start a new process remotely, but I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to wait.”

Finkelstein and Furnans agree that, more than anything else, peer pressure is what led so many companies to produce so much content so early—setting a pace difficult to sustain as the pandemic wore on. “Some organi­zations are better suited to explore the possibilities of that medium and innovate,” says Finkelstein, “and I do think it’s the case that others tried to ‘keep up with the Joneses.’ There’s a cost to creating virtual content not every organization is able to shoulder. That’s one more systemic inequity that filters into this and every other situation we’ve been faced with.”

Emil Kang, program director for arts and culture at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, points out that the idea of “choosing” to go virtual circles back to equity also. “There are organizations that feel more beholden to making their stakeholders or board members happy. They will do what they think they are supposed to do,” he says. “This lack of choice disproportionately affects organizations of color, who’ve long been undercapitalized with limited access to resources.” The Mellon Foundation is “eager to understand how organizations are responding to the pandemic,” Kang says, “but we’re not dictating how they ought to be responding, except as it relates to the fact that we’re looking at all of our grantmaking through the lens of social justice.”

Esther Grisham Grimm, executive director of 3Arts, an organization that funds women artists, artists of color and artists with disabilities in Chicago, sees no evidence the theatergoing public expects performing artists to webcast creative content on a regular basis, with the excep­tion of remote classes and programs for kids. “Some have firmly said, ‘Nope—this is not who we are or what we do,’ ” she says. “I have not heard anyone express anything that would feel to an artist like pressure to perform.”

With audiences and funders generally letting dancers decide what (and how much) to produce while distancing requirements are in place, the incentive to go virtual appears almost wholly self-imposed. Furnans adds: “I’ve also been wondering if, the longer this goes on, the value of live performance goes down, or whether we’ll learn that its absence made the heart grow fonder. What I do know is that it’s a practice. Dancers and audiences both will have to exercise that muscle to get it back.”