Dance Artists Take Creative Steps to Reconnect

Gathering in COVID-safe "bubble" residencies allows dancers, choreographers, and their collaborators to once again create and perform together, safely.

dancers on stageCamille A. Brown (left, foreground) and company perform in ​Brown's "ink" at the Joyce The​ater in New York, 2019. Photo by Christopher Duggan.

At the beginning of 2020, prolific choreographer and dancer Camille A. Brown had ambitious plans for her critically acclaimed New York-based company. And like so many artists, the Tony Awardnominated Brown was forced to pivot to digital when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. She held classes and mentoring sessions over Zoom and launched a virtual school for social dance focused on uplifting African and African American cultural contributions in American history. “I’ve been able to create opportunities to keep people together,” Brown explains. But as an art form, dance relies on the interplay of bodies in space and its practitioners thrive among their peers. Unable to work together for so long, says Brown, has been “traumatic” for this tight-knit community.  

Which is why Brown was delighted this past fall when, during conversations, Mellon Foundation staff shared information about a new series of urgent-response grants to support “bubble residencies”—opportunities for creative cohorts to gather, make work, and quarantine safely in isolation. With support from Mellon, Brown and her company will begin a five-week bubble residency in mid-February at the Performance Space for the 21st Century (PS21) in Chatham, New York. 

Lasting anywhere from a few weeks to several months, the pandemic-response collaborative model has been put into action by professional basketball players, film and television production crews, and increasingly, dance companies. The basic bubbles protocol is not industry specific: extensive testing before, during, and after the sessions, which are typically held in venues such as performing arts centers and athletic complexes with spacious, well-ventilated structures surrounded by open space.

Last summer, both Duke Dang, general manager of Works & Process performance series, and Anna Glass, executive director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, advocated early on to develop protocols around piloting bubble residencies at sites outside New York City. Glass and Dang individually shared what they learned with Mellon Foundation staff. “Immediately,” says Emil Kang, Program Director for Arts and Culture at Mellon, “we knew this was an ideal philanthropic intervention and could be a way forward for dance.”  

As the COVID-19 crisis escalated last March, Kang and his colleagues in Mellon’s Arts and Culture program began reaching out to arts leaders and individual artists. The field was reeling from the impact of cancelled performances, lost revenue, and an uncertain future. “In those early discussions, we didn’t realize everything would be canceled for so long,” says Kang, who recalls the conversations as very emotional.

In the intervening months, even as organizations worked hard to stay connected through digital means, the continued shutdown of the performing arts industry was taking its toll. Many in the dance field were starting to ask, “When theaters reopen, who will be ready to perform?” It became clear to Kang that dancers’ need for in-person collaboration would require special support and consideration to enable a path back to work. 

dancers performing on conference room tableLadies of Hip-Hop filming at New York Public Library for the Performing Arts an the last day of their Works & Process Bubble Residency, 2021.

That insight was recently confirmed. According to a report from the National Endowment for the Arts, more than 54 percent of the nation’s dancers and choreographers were unemployed as of the third quarter of 2020 (for the same period in 2019, the figure was 10.7 percent), making dance the arts sector hardest hit by COVID-19. 

Moreover, unlike the trajectory of a musician or an actor, a dancer’s opportunity “to pursue a career is incredibly short,” says Emily Waters, Program Associate for Arts and Culture at Mellon and a former professional dancer. “The urgency to keep dancing while you can is critical because of the pull on the body with age and time,” she continues. “That is a real threat to dancers and their livelihoods.” 

dancers outside in desert with videographerAlonzo King LINES Ballet performs in the Arizona desert during their dance bubble residency, 2020. Photo courtesy of Alonzo King LINES Ballet.

As of early February, the Mellon Foundation has committed more than $4 million to a dozen dance organizations, including Alonzo King LINES Ballet, Dorrance Dance, Kinetic Light, and Company Nora Chipaumire. “Nearly all are led by people of color,” says Kang, and “all uphold the ideals of equity and justice in all of their work,” aligned with the Foundation’s strategic direction.

At its heart though, the initiative is about the dancers. For her part, Camille Brown is eager to return to collaboration during her company’s upcoming bubble residency at PS21. Brown will use the time for two projects—a reimagining of her 2008 work Matchstick, set at a unique moment halfway between the American Civil War and the civil rights movement; and to develop Queens, a new work inspired in part by musical artists from the diverse, eponymous New York City borough where Brown was born and raised. “To be in a rehearsal room and do the art that I love, I can’t wait for that,” says Brown. “To reconnect, not only movement-wise but also spiritually.” Plus, she adds, “We’re going to jam.”

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