Choreography, typically, requires closeness. A connective art, forged between dancemakers and dancers, it typically takes place in a studio; a place providing room to move and freedom for physical connection.
So how, in a time of social distancing, do you make dances? Noelani Pantastico and James Yoichi Moore, founders and artistic directors of Seattle Dance Collective (and principal dancers at Pacific Northwest Ballet), faced that question earlier this spring. After a successful first season program at Vashon Center for the Arts last July, they were eager to build on that momentum, planning another summer program of contemporary choreography. And then, in March, the pandemic hit.
“We suddenly found ourselves at home, PNB had canceled our shows, and Noe and I were kind of just going back and forth — we don’t think live performance was going to be an option, even in the summer,” Moore said, in a recent Zoom call with Pantastico. The two initially thought they’d just cancel the Vashon performances and save the company’s money until next year. Sitting with that decision, it didn’t feel right.
“That’s not what we want — we want to be active,” Moore remembered. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic, the economy is down, and there’s this massive struggle for racial equity. Many people out there are really affected, deeply and personally, by these events. We can’t just sit idly by and not be activists in our organization.”
Making art, it seemed, was the way forward. “Art is something people can turn to, not only for comfort but to reestablish that human connection,” said Moore. “Anytime you come across a work of art, it represents an opportunity for self-reflection — it’ll ask you how you feel about it, what those feelings mean, what it says about you and your place in the world, and the opportunity to teach empathy.”
The company commissioned five new dances, to be captured by Seattle filmmaker Henry Wurtz and presented as a digital summer season, called “Continuum: Bridging the Distance.” (The dances will be posted on SDC’s website weekly throughout July, beginning Thursday, July 2.) Five choreographers — Amanda Morgan, Bruno Roque, Penny Saunders, SeaPertls and Beth Terwilleger — were approached, and given freedom to make whatever kind of dance they wanted. “We thought it was important to let their voices shine,” Pantastico said.
To keep everyone involved healthy and safe, the dances needed to be created distantly. Other than teaming up artists who were already sharing households — Pantastico and choreographer Bruno Roque; dancers Lucien Postlewaite and Stephan Bourgond; and dancers Elle Macy and Dylan Wald — connection during the rehearsal process took place solely on Zoom; final filming took place mostly outdoors, practicing social distance.
Rehearsing at home, without much room available, wasn’t always easy: Postlewaite and Bourgond, dancing side by side in their living room, said they struggled to avoid bumping into the radiator or the couch; Pantastico tried rehearsing in her driveway, to get more space, but dancing on concrete didn’t feel right.
But sometimes, the artists found that the limitations spoke to the work. Choreographer and PNB dancer Morgan’s “Musings,” created in collaboration with movement artist Nia-Amina Minor of Spectrum Dance Theater, was inspired by a class Morgan had taken on spatial injustice and racism. Watching Minor dancing in her home in rehearsal, stretching in her kitchen, Morgan said she was intrigued by the way bodies move differently according to the space they’re in.
“It was a tension that we realized,” said Minor, after a rehearsal last month — “me trying to be expansive indoors.” Though the two were never in a room together during the dance’s creation, they found a collaborative way to work together, conscious of the importance of making art that speaks to troubled times.
“Artists respond to these events historically in very creative ways,” Minor said. “What seemed more important than the product was the process.”
Other choreographers found their own ways to transcend the distance. Pantastico spoke of watching choreographer Penny Saunders, who created a work called “Home” on Macy and Wald, and noticing how “she hardly uses her body — it’s all through her words. She knows exactly what she wants and instead of relying on being physical to show something on the screen, she really tries to use her words.”
And filming outdoors brought its own challenges. “The Space Between Us,” choreographed by Roque and danced by Pantastico and Moore, was filmed on the rooftop of Mbar in South Lake Union — and on filming day, a typical Seattle problem occurred: heavy rain. Moore, dancing outdoors while Pantastico danced on the other side of a window, was a good sport about getting soaked. “It was actually really nice, and I think it’s very representative of Seattle,” he said.
With no indication of when audiences might gather for live performances, other choreographers are creating new work within these confines as well. The Seattle company Whim W’Him has announced that its all-digital 11th season, launching in August, will include new dance films with socially distant choreography, created by Saunders and artistic director Olivier Wevers. PNB dancer Kyle Davis created a new work for Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan, “Forthcoming,” and was part of choreographer Merica May Jensen’s new work “Remote Bodies,” which used dancers from around the country (also including PNB’s Wald). The latter two dances are available to watch on YouTube.
Moore and Pantastico say they don’t know what might be next for SDC — much depends on when PNB can reopen, as they have less time for their new company when busy with their day jobs. Pantastico said that SDC hopes to return to Vashon, maybe next year, and possibly branch out into live performance in Seattle as well. And they may do another digital program, but cost may be an issue.
“We’d love to do another one of these, but we’re putting this project online for free, and that was deliberate,” said Moore. “That’s not sustainable going forward. We wanted to put this out there and have as wide a reach as we could, so everyone has access to art during this time.”
“Continuum: Bridging the Distance,” Seattle Dance Collective, seattledancecollective.org. A new dance will be posted every Thursday in July (no charge to view), beginning July 2 with Penny Saunders’ “Home.”