Ever since performance venues shuttered in compliance with Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, it’s been an open question when — and in what form — dance would be back. But while they’ll look a little different than usual, fall dance performances are happening this year, spurred on by creativity in the face of financial losses and major shifts in the world of dance. Here are some of the ways a few of the local companies have adapted — and what to expect from them this fall.
At Pacific Northwest Ballet, ballet goes digital
“Dance Happens Everywhere” is the name of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s upcoming season, and for good reason: When COVID-19 forced major changes in the ballet world (everything from livestreamed classes to rehearsal pods), PNB acted accordingly, announcing a season that’s fully digital, but far from slight. An all-digital ballet season could be something sad. Instead, it’s an ambitious combination of archival productions and newly performed and recorded work — including premieres from Jessica Lang, Donald Byrd, Edwaard Liang and PNB corps member and choreographer Amanda Morgan.
Normally, you’d have to drop a significant sum of money to see all of these performances, but one of the unforeseen consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak has been an under-duress democratization of the ballet world. Subscriptions to PNB’s new season start at $190 (objectively a lot of money and also cheap for ballet), and October’s opening program is like a crash course in ballet appreciation, an expansive, expertly curated mix of essential classical and contemporary ballet, including Kent Stowell’s fairy tale-esque “Swan Lake,” George Balanchine’s abstract “Jewels,” and Ulysses Dove’s electric violin-scored “Red Angels.”
The rest of the season will combine newly recorded performances with archival video of ballets that wouldn’t be impossible to perform under the constraints of social distancing. One notable absence? There won’t be a live “Nutcracker” this year. Instead, subscribers will have the option of watching a recorded version, which, while some may see it as a Christmas-ruiner, may at least make it easier to catch the intricacy of Balanchine’s choreography.
Rep 1, the opening program, is scheduled for October. Single tickets will be available online; season subscriptions from $190, more information at pnb.org.
Spectrum Dance Theater embraces purpose, not fear
More than most dance companies, Spectrum Dance Theater typically has a political ear to the ground and a willingness to experiment fearlessly. See: Last summer’s “Strange Fruit,” from the company’s Wokeness Festival, a movement-based meditation on the horrific legacy of lynching and anti-Black violence in America. Some political art is didactic; Spectrum’s is just good. (You can watch “Strange Fruit” right now on the company’s website, and, well, you should.)
This season, the company will address race, climate change and social justice in their work, under new, unexpected limitations. But Artistic Director Donald Byrd is up to the task. “The Proposed Season has come about as a result of embracing the unknown, the uncertainty of this moment in history,” he wrote in a statement accompanying the new season (and drawing inspiration from writer and activist Rebecca Solnit). “My hope (and I do have hope) insists that we take actions — not fret — and see, if only for a moment, in a flash, that we might be able to influence outcomes.”
In practice, this will mean digital performances this fall, with the possibility of live outdoor performance later in the year. The season will open in October with “14 Solos,” with each company member performing their own individual piece examining themes of isolation and separation. The performances will be recorded and presented to audience members virtually.
A second performance, tentatively scheduled for November, “Scorched,” imagines a future where water is in short supply. It was originally intended to be performed by five dancers, but “will be reimagined for the entire company and tailored for a virtual platform,” according to Spectrum.
While it would be easy to mourn the loss of in-person performance, Byrd’s statement was utterly practical: “The outcome that The Company of Spectrum Dance Theater hopes for is to reengage with its constituents and create opportunities for communal experiences through contemporary dance that challenges expectations and calls forth strong emotions, deep feelings, and thoughtful responses. Exactly what that looks like we are not certain; but what we are certain of is that it will not look like the past,” he wrote. “And that has to be and is OK with me.”
“14 Solos” is scheduled for October, “Scorched” for November. Single tickets ($20) and season subscriptions ($120, includes workshop performance of “The Harlem Nutcracker“) are available, more information at spectrumdance.org.
Whim W’Him finds room to experiment under socially distant constraints
Whim W’Him, the lovingly curated contemporary company from former PNB principal dancer Olivier Wevers, has had some of the city’s most creative responses to the COVID-19 outbreak and resultant shutdown of live art. The company launched its own streaming platform, IN-with-WHIM, to put their material online, including forthcoming collaborations with choreographers who “have responded to the shift with incredible bravery and resilience and are creating experimental and innovative new dance films that are pushing the boundaries of what contemporary dance can be,” said Keri Kellerman, Whim W’Him executive director.
This includes dancing underwater, said Kellerman, who added that the company’s dancers had been “taking the lead in developing and implementing COVID-19 safety practices to ensure the health of all our artists throughout the rehearsal and filming process.” The company is looking to the future, and using this time as an opportunity to rethink the role of dance companies more broadly: “We’re also looking at how we can use the platform we have to meaningfully center and support Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) dance artists, starting with the application and selection process for next year’s Choreographic Shindig program, which we’ll be undertaking this fall,” said Kellerman.
IN-with-WHIM started streaming in August with filmed dance from Wevers and choreographer Penny Saunders, and will continue into September with Choreographic Shinding VI, which will spotlight choreography from Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Madison Olandt and Mike Tyus. More digital collaborations — with Joseph Hernandez and Robyn Mineko Williams — are expected this winter.
Whim W’Him has also opened up its archive to viewers, plus livestreamed rehearsals and technique classes. All are available on the company’s in-house streaming platform.
All Whim W’Him performances can be viewed through IN-with-WHIM, which is updated monthly with new performances. Memberships are available on an annual ($120) or monthly ($15) basis. Three-day passes are also available from $5-$50, more information at whimwhim.org/IamIN.