Dance explodes onto the virtual stage

While our physical spaces may have become smaller, our virtual world has exploded – and dance companies everywhere are taking advantage of that fact.

Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters
Floor Eimers of the Dutch National Ballet practices in her home in Amsterdam on April 24, 2020. The company has resumed live performances with social distancing measures in place.

For me, there is nothing like the visceral thrill of a live dance performance, of movement unfolding in the moment. But as companies around the world grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, live productions are largely being canceled or postponed.  

The delicate silver lining to this situation is that while our physical spaces may have become smaller, our virtual world has exploded. A wonderland awaits those adventurous enough to dance down the rabbit hole of the internet. 

I’ve been charmed by ballerinas in bathtubs, gasped as dancers flipped down the sides of buildings, and laughed with delight as legendary performers riff on their early days. And time and again, I’ve been captivated by dancers gliding across their kitchens and bounding across rooftops, unfurling movement of stunning creativity and heartfelt power. 

A video of company members from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater moving together while being physically apart hit me hard when sheltering in place began in March. And I find myself returning to the official video of Israeli singer Asaf Avidan’s “Earth Odyssey,” gaining solace and inspiration from dancers on different continents somehow weaving together remarkable choreographic connections. 

Still, it’s the big dance companies that I was curious about. Many major American companies have canceled their fall seasons or, like the San Francisco Ballet, are moving right to scheduling 2021. Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle quickly to put together an online 2020-21 subscription season that is a hybrid of old and new. It features archival performances of two full-length story ballets as well as new work by contemporary choreographers at the top of their game. Miami City Ballet promises a “reimagined season of dance” that includes memorable past performances and new works made for the digital screen. I’m looking forward to the Boston Ballet’s virtual season, called “BB@yourhome,” with six programs that include world premieres of contemporary works.

Some companies are embracing new platforms and business models. One example is Louisville Ballet, which earlier this month offered memberships for $125 to its “Season of Illumination,” a series of dance art films that will be newly recorded at the company’s studios in Kentucky and released for limited, on-demand viewing. Artistic director Robert Curran sees the current environment as “a chance to truly innovate, to create amazing, meaningful work on a new ‘stage’ ... and invite new, diversified audiences,” according to the website.

While the shift to virtual dance has resulted in unprecedented free content, supporting dance has never been more important, when livelihoods and futures are at stake. The videos are not just a way to nurture artistry but also to connect with audiences who might not have bought a ticket to a live performance. 

With so much in flux, it’s good to know that great dance can be found on YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, and other platforms. New York’s Joyce Theater, a major dance presenter, has set up “Stream the Stage” to provide links to companies featuring virtual offerings, such as Ballet Hispánico and The Australian Ballet. For a sampler of global dance, you can’t beat Jacob’s Pillow, which each summer hosts a dance festival in Western Massachusetts. Its video library is vast and can be accessed online at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive. I’ve spent hours looking at the site. And in honor of Black Lives Matter, Jacob’s Pillow has intensified its focus on the rich history of Black dance in America.

The streaming platform Kanopy, which is free with a library account, has dance on film. If you’re looking for big-budget, full-length productions and documentaries, Marquee TV is the place to go, while Ovid specializes in independent films. On the Boards tends toward more experimental fare.

As I head down the rabbit hole, one discovery leads to another – across movement styles and decades, from music video choreographer Kyle Hanagami to fascinating archival footage from organizations like Merce Cunningham Trust and Martha Graham Dance Company.

One thing is certain: Dance as an art form will continue to adapt, and we’ll all be the richer for it. 

Still, I’m looking forward to returning to live performances, once it’s finally safe again. 

Karen Campbell is a nationally published dance critic and freelance writer. 

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