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The pandemic was the final blow for some dance companies. How do the survivors stay nimble?

Dancers Sloan Pearson and Charles Scheland, photographed at Washington Square Park in Manhattan, both lost their jobs with dance companies during the pandemic. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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Sloan Pearson was expecting good news from the Zoom call with her director and fellow members of Taylor 2, the dance troupe she’d performed with for four years. With only six dancers, the group was an intimate, highly mobile offshoot of the celebrated Paul Taylor Dance Company, designed to bring Taylor’s beautifully made works to colleges and small towns.

“Maybe they’ll take us into the main company,” Pearson, 27, remembers thinking before that call, in the spring of 2020.

Instead, as she and her colleagues stared in shocked disbelief at their computer screens, they were notified that Taylor 2 was closing. Permanently.

Suddenly, these elite dancers were out of work, at a time when no one was hiring.

“It was brutal,” Pearson says. “Everyone was instantly in mourning. This dream job, which was an amazing experience, an amazing company — that was it.”

They weren’t alone. Last year, as the pandemic forced the world to cancel in-person activities, the premise of dance was essentially outlawed. Income that depended on performances, teaching and touring vanished overnight.

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Now, as the dance companies that managed to survive are returning to the stage, the ghosts of those that no longer exist haunt the field. Their dancers, directors and choreographers are scarred. Observers worry the closures portend more difficulties ahead.

“It’s been difficult to witness,” says Alejandra Duque Cifuentes, executive director of the service organization Dance/NYC. “Covid put into question the fiscal and business model of dance companies. Part of what drove these closures is that with all their creativity in diversifying revenue, the pandemic was literally testing every single of one of them.”

As a result, Duque Cifuentes says, Dance/NYC surveys show a migration of the dance workforce out of New York City, as well as a migration out of the industry. As of late 2020, 5 percent of the dance workforce had relocated permanently and 17 percent were considering permanent relocation. In addition, 43 percent were considering long-term career options outside of dance.

At this point, no one knows exactly how many dance companies have collapsed across the country due to pandemic-related stresses. Among the most notable shutdowns, in addition to Taylor 2, are Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, a 25-year-old company with a dual-city base; the internationally traveled Rioult Dance NY, founded in 1994 by former Martha Graham dancer Pascal Rioult; and the all-male companies 10 Hairy Legs, of Highland Park, N.J., and Madboots Dance, based in New York.

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At first glance, the number of lost dance jobs may not seem particularly large. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, one of the biggest to close, employed 11 dancers. Rioult had 10. But salaried jobs like these, with consistent weeks of work and some measure of benefits, are difficult to come by. And in an industry that literally depends on close personal contact, many dance artists deeply value company life, being part of a tightknit group of like-minded people who spend their careers training, traveling and creating art together.

“That model of a stable company that allows you to develop a language with people you’ve trained — I feel very strong about this,” says Rioult, who has been freelance choreographing since losing his company. “A sense of community. Which you don’t get when you’re going right and left, like I’m doing now.”

These subtler qualities of the dancer’s life are what seem to be in decline, according to experts. Dance advocates see the vanished organizations as troubling signs that the art form, routinely under financial stress, may be shrinking and its structures drastically changing.

“The traditional model of the dance company is completely in question right now,” says Duque Cifuentes. “Now the question is, ‘How do we stay nimble so the overhead doesn’t destroy us in a crisis, and doesn’t require such effort to maintain?’ ”

The traditional model in contemporary dance is the single-choreographer company, a more-or-less stable ensemble led by a director-choreographer who creates the repertoire and keeps dancers on salary year to year. Mark Morris Dance Group and the Paul Taylor Dance Company are the most prominent examples, though since Taylor’s death in 2018 the entity he founded has commissioned works by others. These groups tour widely, perform annually in New York and operate their own headquarters, with schools attached, so they have rehearsal space as well as income from classes and studio rentals. In other words, they had diversified revenue, long seen as a strategic benefit.

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Their relative stability has been the envy of many. But the shutdown of Taylor 2, the small, budget-friendly troupe that Taylor established in 1993 to bring his works to places that couldn’t host his main company, proves that being one of the leading lights of the American dance tradition was no protection against the pandemic’s assaults.

“All the ways companies have tried to strengthen their revenue streams started to falter [at the onset of covid],” says Duque Cifuentes. “And folks were left to figure things out on their own.”

Classes and performances, gone. Many studios proved too expensive to keep open. In New York City, according to Duque Cifuentes, nearly two dozen spaces for the performing arts closed permanently because of pandemic-related financial losses. Among these are EXPG NY, a hip-hop and commercial dance studio and school, and Shetler Studios, a 30-year fixture in the theater district for tryouts and showcases.

Even the most established dance organizations were tested, and across the country, dancers and company staff faced pay cuts and furloughs — at large institutions such as New York City Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet, and across the board.

Michael Novak, artistic director of the Paul Taylor Dance Foundation, says the decision to close Taylor 2 “arose from a very intense conversation about what we had to do to sustain our company through this pandemic.” The foundation included the main company, whose beginnings date to 1954; Taylor 2; and the Taylor School. Closing Taylor 2 “in no way reflects the work that Taylor 2 did,” Novak says. “It was looking at the hard reality of what the pandemic did and looking at the realities of the income models.”

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He says he sought to do “what is most strategic, to keep reaching audiences and students, so we can get out of this, and when we do get out of this, the company is strong and in shape and the repertory is in good shape. . . . We had to do cutbacks to proceed.”

“It wasn’t easy to make that call,” he adds. “Our focus had to be on sustaining the company.”

Organizations with a building have been especially vulnerable to the stresses of the pandemic, because regardless of whether it’s filled with people or not, a building has fixed costs — rent, utilities, maintenance. In a cruel twist of fate, these were precisely the costs that sunk Rioult Dance NY, known for theatrical and deeply emotional works, just as it was preparing for greater renown.

Rioult’s dancers had health insurance and full-time salaries, toured nationally and internationally, and had annual seasons in New York. But the building that Rioult had leased for his company, intending to protect its future and help catapult it to national stature, became a devastating trap.

In October 2018, Rioult, who drew inspiration from his mentor, Martha Graham, opened a state-of-the-art dance center in Queens. It included a dance school, and enrollment quickly grew to 250 students. His company finally had its own home, and the center also provided much-needed rental studios for other artists.

“It was just wonderful,” says Rioult, 67, speaking by phone from his apartment in Manhattan, where he’d established his company 27 years ago.

“Except the business plan told us we needed three years before we could start breaking even, and covid hit after we were open for a year-and-a-half.”

As income dried up, Rioult couldn’t pay the rent. Debts mounted. His board was tapped out by the capital campaign to fund the building’s $3.5 million in renovations. They couldn’t find partners to move in and share costs; everyone was strapped.

“So here’s the clincher,” the director-choreographer says with a rueful laugh. “The dance company and the center had become one big organization, and as the dance center had to close, that included the company, too. . . . We never thought anything like this would ever happen, so we never thought of splitting the dance company from the center.

“At the time it was a good business decision,” Rioult adds. “Once you get a building, and a school, you become something else. We were going from a medium-size company to become an institution.”

Rioult is not wrong about that. To move ahead, into the big leagues with Taylor and Morris, his company needed greater revenue sources, to create bigger productions, hire more dancers and attract major presenters.

An income-producing dance center was the logical next step.

Until the pandemic.

“It was a perfect storm,” Rioult says.

He hopes to restart, from scratch, in another couple of years. But his dancers have moved on.

Michael Spencer Phillips, 43, spent his entire 20-year dance career with Rioult. He planned to stave off retirement for a few more seasons, he says, and then it happened anyway, painfully, without a farewell performance or any kind of closure. He has shifted to making outdoor films, using dancers to document climate change. He plans to submit his films to festivals.

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“Pretty much every fallback plan was off the table,” Phillips says, when he found out that Rioult was shutting down in November 2020. No teaching, no choreographing. “That forced me to think outside the box. It led me outside the studio, and reignited this passion for the outdoors.”

Charles Scheland, 23, is one of the lucky ones, though the closing of Rioult crushed him. “I spent a whole day on my bed when we were told,” he says. “Dancers are pretty active people who like to make things happen for themselves, but this wasn’t like I had been fired or told there was something I needed to work on. It was just, ‘There’s no revenue for the company.’ ”

He was hired this summer by Carolyn Dorfman Dance, a long-standing group based in Union, N.J., which has performances planned in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere for the fall and spring.

Scheland sees a shift in the field away from full-time company jobs toward projects and gig-based work, where a choreographer hires a group of dancers only for a limited set of shows.

“A lot of my friends have found that more attractive,” he says. “Being able to explore other interests that are dance-adjacent.”

That’s what Pearson, the former Taylor 2 dancer, is doing. She has been working with project-based choreographer Peter Chu and his group, Chuthis. The part-time work, she says, has allowed her to “get back to a number of things I’m passionate about,” including modeling for Revlon and other brands.

“Honestly, it’s been refreshing,” Pearson says. “I can’t say it’s been without difficulty. But I’m my own manager, and that’s been liberating. I’m living on my own terms.”

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