Yet performing careers are brief, and no dancer can afford to lose time — or money. The recently interrupted tours, canceled premieres, locked studios and social distancing requirements have hit the financially fragile, socially enmeshed dance world hard. When your life revolves around lifting, leaping, catching, jumping and otherwise spending time (often literally joined at the hip) with your dance partners, how do you deal with solitary confinement?
Courtney Celeste Spears, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company member
Spears had sublet her New York apartment while she was on a national tour with Ailey; when much of the tour was canceled, she moved in with her parents in Tampa. The company hopes to resume touring in early May, so Spears needs to keep herself in top performance shape.
“The thing about dancers is, we are so creative and so versatile, you throw us a curve, and we will improvise. I’m trying to keep myself on some kind of regimen. I’m up early every morning, since I’m used to going to company class, so I’m giving myself a ballet barre workout in my garage.
“With a ramen spoon, a tennis ball and a yoga mat, I can spend two hours in a workout that is strengthening, aligning and releasing. I do this Monday, Wednesday and Friday: I give myself an entire floor barre workout, lying on my back and side and trying to align myself the way I would when I stand. Then I use the tennis ball to release my psoas [core muscles] and hip flexors, underneath my shoulder and up by my traps, and I roll out my calves. With the bowl of the spoon, I dig into the spaces more deeply, in between my toes and metatarsals and shoulder girdle. Then I do planks. Tuesday and Thursday, I do heavy cardio. I bike, walk and do jumping jacks.
“We’re not going to jump back onstage like nothing ever happened, but we want to narrow that gap, so it doesn’t feel foreign. Then you just need a couple of good rehearsals to get back into it. And I feel like when we come back together, in some weird, alien sense, we’ll be stronger.
“Right now is a really scary and unsure time; it’s easy to slip into an unhealthy mental state. Mr. Ailey was so big on dance being a vessel to spread love. It’s an extremely important principle of our company. So we made this Instagram video of company members doing parts of “Revelations” in our homes and balconies and with our dogs.
“It’s continuing this thread of love, life and positivity. And sending prayers to those who are not feeling well.”
Momar K. Ndiaye, choreographer and dramaturge
Ndiaye, from Senegal, lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he will join Ohio State University’s faculty in the fall. He also works at Whole Foods, a source of choreographic inspiration. A work for which he served as dramaturge was to premiere in New York on March 18; it was canceled.
“I’m working at Whole Foods because, aside from the money factor, I like to be in places where I can understand people more. It serves me in my choreographic research. I see people stuff their carts, big carts, with something like $1,000 worth of food. This is a hysterical reaction. It’s anxiety: ‘I have to take this stuff and run back home before I catch this virus!’
“As a choreographer, I see all this activity, and there is a natural and organic choreography. The way space operates there, the negative space, my space vs. your space. When you push your cart and I push mine, how do we operate in that space? That’s natural choreography. People don’t think about it. How close do we want to be? How is it translated in an environment like that?
“The choreography there is different now than before the virus. The rush, the hurry, the sense of emergency. In dance language, I’m seeing 100 different solos that are all frenetically moving inside a place at the same time. That’s interesting. Before, it was really rare to see that kind of operation. It was mostly people coming in relaxed, kids running around happy — basically, activity that brings joy and happiness. Which is completely gone now.
“By running away from this disease, we may be catching another one, more difficult to handle, which is the psychological problem.”
Elisa Clark, dancer and teacher
Clark, a former member of the Mark Morris Dance Group and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, lives in the Bronx. She has been performing with Monica Bill Barnes & Company and teaching at the University of the Arts and Fordham University.
“I was supposed to set a piece at Juilliard in April and May, but now performances are canceled, so I lost that job. I have a teaching engagement at Princeton in April, but what if they say, ‘We don’t need you anymore?’ My next performances with Monica Bill Barnes are in June, but we don’t know if that’s going to happen.
“As far as teaching online, the biggest challenge is that not all our students have unlimited access to the Internet. Everyone is eager to film themselves teaching class in their apartment so students can follow along at home, but that is not available for everybody.
“For me, moving my furniture aside and trying to dance at home just doesn’t feel like the right thing to do. Nobody in New York City wants their upstairs neighbor jumping around. So today I did a 45-minute yoga class I found on YouTube. I have more physical therapy exercises than I ever have time to do. I live across the street from a park, and I never walk there, so I walked around for a few laps.
“I’m also feeling protective of the tradition of the art form. I’m pretty old-school. If people want to take a class in their kitchen on their tile floor in their socks, then absolutely do it. But if you’re not inclined to do that, that’s healthy, too. It’s not as safe to do it in your apartment.
“Maybe the younger generation can handle the social distancing better because of TikTok and social media. They hang out with their friends more like that. They’re used to a digital way of learning; maybe it’s not so hard on them, in a way. But while Broadway performers can do a group chat and sing together and feel uplifted, you can’t do a dance routine together [via chat]. And I can’t set a piece from my apartment in the Bronx for my students. There is nothing that can replace what we do as dancers, being in the flesh and in the company of one another.”
Charles Scheland, college student and company apprentice
Scheland is a senior dance and economics double major at Fordham University and an apprentice with Rioult Dance NY. He lives in New York.
“We had a month-long tour planned in France and Switzerland. We were in the Detroit airport waiting for our connecting flight to Paris when the president gave his address with unclear travel restrictions. So we went on to France. Then France said all gatherings were canceled, so we flew back to the U.S. It was a crazy weekend.
“We’re unclear about when we can go back to rehearsal. Our ideal scenario is to rehearse again in April. But Fordham is sending all resident students home, so I’m in limbo. As of now, I’ll be going home to Alexandria, then coming back to New York.
“I’d been thinking about the freelance model vs. the company model, and this cemented how much I appreciate being in a company with a full-time company schedule. A dance company really does operate as a family. I really feel supported by everyone. Assuming we can go back to work and start a full season in September, I’d like to dance with them again. That’s still my dream.”
Abby Zbikowski, choreographer and professor
Zbikowski directs the company Abby Z and the New Utility, and teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is staying with her mother in Cherry Hill, N.J.
“I would be in New York if everything was how it was before all this. We were premiering a work I’d been working on since 2017, titled ‘Radioactive Practice,’ with 10 dancers and a lot of collaborators. It was supposed to go up March 18 at New York Live Arts, where I’m an artist in residence, but it was canceled. Then we were scheduled to tour immediately, in Chicago, Princeton and in June at Dance Place. We’re crossing our fingers that Dance Place will still be on.
“The work is rhythmic and driving, and it’s about resilience and carrying on no matter what. So the work and my life are kind of symbiotic right now. I wanted to have this conversation in the work because I come from unexpected dance spaces. My training is in African diasporic forms and sports; I have a working-class and punk ethos. It’s about grittiness and embracing the mess.
“But what’s difficult for me now is that dance is my main source of interacting with the world. And I am starting to get itchy. My work depends on a community and a lot of energy. I’ll be going on a lot of runs to keep my endorphins up. I’m left in this space with the switch stuck on, without any kind of resolution.”