When COVID-19 cancelled the Seattle Dance Collective's dreamy-looking second season of summer performances on Vashon Island, artistic directors Noelani Pantastico and James Yoichi Moore thought they might just pack it in and try again next summer.
"But then we thought we were being ridiculous because live performance might not even be a thing next summer," Moore said during a video conference call in his home's makeshift training room.
"People need art right now, and part of our job is providing that," Pantastico added, as her partner's cat, Pina, meowed in the background in another Zoom window.
The two had just finished a rehearsal of The Space Between Us, a new dance film choreographed by Bruno Roque that explores the nonverbal cues we use to communicate with others during our daily interactions, a particularly resonant subject in an era when the courteous response to seeing someone else in public is bolting in the opposite direction.
The piece, which will premiere July 30, is the last installment of a video project called Continuum: Bridging the Distance, a monthlong rollout of five gorgeous, intimate, and occasionally funny dance films that touched me deeply during this time when touching feels so forbidden.
SDC started releasing the films at the beginning of of July for free, which is also pretty touching.
To create the films, Pantastico and Moore tapped talent from Pacific Northwest Ballet, Spectrum Dance Theater, choreographers from all over the country, and Seattle filmmaker Henry Wurtz.
Given the thousand financial, personal, and artistic anxieties that attended industrywide layoffs this spring, SDC's collaborators embraced the opportunity to present digital expressions of dance.
"I think a lot of the contemporary work is better in a closer setting, because there’s a lot that’s missed from far away in a massive theater. Video opens the possibility of seeing details you normally miss," Pantastico said.
"It seems like dance is headed that direction anyway," Moore added. "This is kind of forcing us to experiment with it, and to get used to it, and hopefully we can do more of these projects even after COVID."
So far, SDC has released three of the videos. In the latest piece, Beth Terwilleger's A Headlamp or Two, which premiered last Thursday, Stephan Bourgond and PNB principal dancer Lucien Postlewaite perform an over-the-top grieving ritual to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. The two look like fabulous, depressed prisoners fruitlessly attempting to escape an open space hemmed in a little by the boundaries of a skate park's bowl. A runner occasionally jogs across the frame, highlighting the contrast between people who have adapted to quarantine well and those who absolutely have not.
The phrase "JUMPS CLOSED," which is spray-painted across a cement block in the background of the scene, is particularly sad when you learn that the pandemic-induced furloughs at ballet companies prevent dancers from practicing their signature jumps. "Even before COVID I'd do a lot of bar at home, but I can’t jump. We're reliant on sprung floors, so I can’t really do my grand allegros across the room," Moore said.
PNB corps members Leah Terada and Miles Pertl, who now sports a pretty righteous COVID beard, capture the romance and turbulence of young love in The Only Thing You See Now, which was created by SeaPertls and released earlier in the month. The piece was shot just as the sun began to rise on a boat launch jutting out into Elliott Bay. Longtime busker Jason Webley (and his trusty squeezebox) makes a surprise appearance atop one of the pilings.
Penny Saunders choreographs HOME, a bucolic piece featuring PNB stars Elle Macy and Dylan Wald. As the dancers gently and happily frolic in an unmown park, a recording of the two interviewing one another shortly after learning they’d be furloughed plays in the background.
“Now we’re just exploring our 600-foot apartment,” Wald begins to say. “And our brainspace,” Macy adds, finishing his sentence.
Their movements mirror each other, though the two rarely touch, embodying the isolated and yet shared experiences of quarantined populations. They also pivot around a single point a lot—one leg or arm will extend out into the world briefly, only to be reeled back home again, which feels suggestive of the starts and stops and rollbacks of a maddening “reopening” process driven by greed.
A couple months ago I crashed a rehearsal of Musings, a collaboration from PNB corps member Amanda Morgan and Nia-Amina Minor, who is in her fourth season at Spectrum Dance Theater. The two have known each other through the dance world for the last couple years, but this project brought them together artistically for the first time.
In a conference call, Morgan said she was eager to explore with another black woman dancer themes of spatial injustice, seeing dancers in intimate spaces, and the tension between witnessing and observing. Morgan and Minor saw some similarities in the way the pandemic restricts movement and the way the dance industry and the white supremacist patriarchy in general restricts the advancement of black women. "We can't just move in spaces freely if we want to," Morgan said.
When I last checked in, the two had been working on improvisational movement studies toward a three-part piece. In one scene, we see Minor in her home kitchen from the perspective of an open door. Floral red lace draped over lens gives the scene a voyeuristic feel as we watch Minor stretch and feel the open space around her. Suddenly she becomes more energetic, almost defiant—lurching at an unseen observer. Then she closes the door. The following scenes move into smaller and smaller spaces, with Minor thrashing around as the space around her becomes more confined. Morgan said she'll overlay a mix of music and interviews about spatial injustice that the two dancers conducted with other women in their lives, providing a meditative and thoughtful soundtrack to Minor's movements.
Some of that may have changed since May, but we'll all get to see the results when Musings premieres this Thursday, July 23 at 6:00 p.m.
Be sure to tune in, and to donate to SDC so they can keep creating this incredible, thought-provoking new work.