Is Coronavirus the Death of Concert Dance? We Must Start Envisioning the Future Now

 In Critical Drafts, Dd Response

WORDS BY Courtney Colón and Mindy Rawlinson

As the act of social distancing settles across the United States, the dance community has already experienced the catastrophic international impact of the Coronavirus. Beginning mid-February through early April, professional dance companies and cultural institutions had no choice but to cancel or postpone the remainder of their tours and season performances until further notice. American Ballet Theatre has cancelled the entirety of their Spring season, resulting in losses of over $18 million in earnings. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago has seen the closure of their famed Lou Conte Dance Studio, an integral part of the Chicago dance community for 46 years. And coast to coast, prominent organizations such as San Francisco Ballet, and New York Live Arts have been among the many incomprehensible victims of the current social recession. Following the announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stating that events of 10 + people should be cancelled or held virtually, the art world witnessed an unprecedented and daunting shift as dance studios, theaters, galleries and museums were emptied. Seemingly overnight, organizations and individual artists sought refuge via social media platforms. 

Over the past month, live video feeds have seen an explosion of movement artists eager to hold onto spectacle. Dancers are pressured to “perform” on their instagram; taking class daily, posting choreography, and pushing their own classes for personal gain. This digital outpouring has brought a semblance of comfort during these uncertain and chaotic times: artists will never stop creating art. While these efforts have exposed a new type of virtual community, a key question arises: Is Coronavirus the death of concert dance? 

Within the abrupt and radical shift from public space to digitized media, the dance artist is now physically isolated and grieving the loss of ephemeral opportunities and visceral embodiment with a live audience. Social media in the age of quarantine has changed the dance world’s value system-deserted seats and absent spectators result in an abandonment of kinesthetic empathy. This affects not only performances in the proscenium, but the immersive and intimate live art experience. In its place, a new type of dance witness emerges: the netizen. This new frontier of a hyper-expanded digital dance world could be the death knell for traditional platforms of performance. The unknown reveals the question: Will the dance audience return to public art spaces or remain confined to free and readily available streaming? Given our current global circumstance and the massive losses of revenue, it is not unreasonable to claim that concert dance is dying; pandemic has pushed it over the edge.  

The current remodeling complicates and blurs the boundaries of performance and the genre of screendance. This phenomenon destabilizes current financial models, enabling free artistic consumption. This new avenue is free of cost or donation based, weakening the financial support necessary for the continuation of this profession. Expecting that art will flourish while so much remains unknown is creatively and financially suffocating for the working dance artist. This new expectation of free digital labor is placing a veil over the hardship of financial and physical support that all performing artists and institutions will face. The projection that great art will come from crisis can only happen if the lone artist has the support and resources they need to endure. 

In art, change is inevitable, and the age of social distancing has forever altered the fabric of the dance community. Let the outcome of forced isolation lead to an abundance of financial support for the singular dance artist. Let us honor their lived experiences, movement research, and future performativity. Might this be a final push to break through traditional and hierarchical repertoires that have imposed and promoted racist and misogynist agendas? We as a community have a responsibility to reimagine the boundaries of dance and allow space for new and radicalized individual artists to come to the forefront. No matter how we react, this pandemic has already forever altered the fabric of the dance community and is propelling the field forward, into a new becoming. While the death of concert dance gives way to the necessities of the digital interface, the individual dance artist stands to survive, and perhaps even thrive. 

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Molly Heller and two other dancers leap and move on a grassy hill.