This summer, in the open air of Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in Tivoli, NY, Leonardo Sandoval danced on a stage, in front of an audience—a socially distanced, masked audience. In any other year this might be just another gig for a dancer like Sandoval, a New York City-based tap dancer who runs his own company along with composer Gregory Richardson. But in 2020, it was a brief return to something that was starting to feel like a distant memory.
On March 12, Broadway Theaters went abruptly dark after Governor Cuomo banned gatherings of 500 or more people. On March 26 the New York City Ballet, one of the largest and most prolific ballet companies in the country, announced that it would be canceling its spring season entirely. Over the next few months, New York City went into strict lockdown and professional dancers across the city and across the world found their careers in an unprecedented state of uncertainty. Many were furloughed and everyone began to evaluate what it means to be a dancer when you’re confined to your tiny apartment. Ballet companies released fun edited videos of their dancers from their kitchens, American Ballet Theater principal Isabella Boylston taught ballet classes on Instagram Live, and all dancers resigned themselves to staying in shape through rigorous schedules of Zoom classes.
Now, about half a year into a global pandemic, the weather is starting to chill, the leaves have turned, and New Yorkers are starting to navigate a pathway back to normalcy. For many dancers, being in phase four of New York’s reopening plan means a return to the dance studio. But what does a return to the studio and to performing mean in the age of CDC guidelines and constant risk analysis?
The outdoor performances taking place in the Hudson Valley are just one of the many ways dancers are trying to navigate these new, and occasionally inconsistent safety rules and regulations. With fine arts schools given the go ahead to reopen, many young dance students are returning to classes. The School of American Ballet has been documenting their preparation to welcome back students by posting to Instagram: the distanced dots they’ve added to their hallways, the six-feet-apart tape they’ve set at the barre, and tape on the marley floors to section out distanced boxes. And most ballet schools are starting the year out with a hybrid method: classes are offered in person with the option to Zoom in, for those still quarantined or unable to travel.
Ballet companies are finding similar methods of getting their dancers back in the studio. Though a return to the theater may be far off, Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers have returned to rehearsals, masked and limited to four dancers in a studio at a time. Pennsylvania Ballet dancers, who had been rehearsing Swan Lake over Zoom during lockdown, have also returned to their studios for company classes. The Washington Ballet has placed several of their dancers in pods with choreographers who only work exclusively with each other. Antsy dancers are eager to get back to work and their respective companies are glad to make some steps towards earning back lost income—even without a clear way back to welcoming ticketed audiences.
Sandoval’s performances upstate this summer were the product of a collaboration between Kaatsbaan and Works and Process at the Guggenheim. When lockdown began, Works and Process began commissioning virtual works from dancers and musicians in order to keep up their commitment to cultivating new works from a wide range of artists. They also immediately got to work brainstorming how they could get performers back in front of an audience. While Tyler Perry and the NBA were announcing their plans to create quarantined camps in order to return to work, general manager Duke Dang and the rest of the Works and Process artistic administration were working on their own plans for a similar endeavor. They ended up creating “bubble residencies,” which began over the summer and are slated to continue through the fall.
Of course, this kind of residency requires a series of carefully thought out steps and precautions. The artists first must self-isolate starting seven days before arriving at the residency, then, four days out they are given a PCR rapid test for COVID, which has a 99 percent accuracy rate. Upon departure (they take a charter bus from the city to upstate) the artists take an antigen test, which has a 96.7 percent accuracy rate but provides results in 15 minutes. They’ve also begun testing the dancers upon their return to NYC.
Once the dancers arrive in the Hudson Valley at one of the three outdoor performing arts centers collaborating with Works and Process, they are each given their own room with their own bathroom. In the studio, however, the dancers are in a covid-free haven, finally able to create with each other once again. The process for ensuring everyone’s safety is thorough, though it certainly emphasizes the ominous shadow of coronavirus under which they are creating. But after months of dancing in cramped apartments for no one but a laptop camera, the experience is a welcome change. “We had been confined to not working for so long, not having human contact. Being able to hug and share the space together made the whole process really emotional,” Sandoval says.
And when the time finally came to perform, the rush of appearing in front of a live audience hit him before he could even reach the stage, “we were walking through the audience just to get to the stage and it finally clicked, oh my god, people are watching me.” It’s the feeling dancers rehearse so hard for, and a feeling you can’t get from a Zoom stream.
As everyone begins to live life differently, maybe a little safer, maybe a little cleaner, than they did just six months ago, we are all trying to find the small joys and semblances of a normal life that keep away the existential dread. Live dancing, now masked and distanced, may look different than it did in February, but the joy is beginning to return.