Do we still believe dance matters when it is sometimes altered beyond recognition, devoid of touch, and fractured into hybrid amalgamations? What do we do with this desire to connect with one another? Now, almost one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, I am altering my durational work that was created during those uncertain months, Volution, into Volution (reprised) for a hybrid livestreamed and live performance. This paper explores the process of creating Volution and how the reprisal not only conjures up the memory of that place, space, and time, but questions how we as a society can continue navigating the distance of being apart.
Volution (re)Volution (e)Volution
I am reflecting back on the summer of 2020. It was a summer of jilted engagements, cancelled performances, lost lives, racial injustice, and political unrest. I am falling short on the adequate words to describe that fumbling, buzzing need I felt to create community in spite of it all. Now, almost one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, I am altering my durational work that was created during those uncertain months, Volution, into Volution (reprised) for a hybrid livestreamed and live performance. The reprisal conjures up the memory of that place, space, and time, and questions how we as a society can continue navigating the distance of being apart. Do I still believe dance matters when it is sometimes altered beyond recognition, devoid of touch, and fractured into hybrid amalgamations? What do we do with this desire to connect with one another?
Originally, I choreographed Volution as part of an outdoor, socially distanced dance series I co-produced called Dance in the Time of Coronavirus. The series brought audiences together for safe, durational, outdoor dance works at the height of the summer lockdown and was featured in Dance Magazine as one of the few “live” performances taking place in the southeast. Through this series, I rediscovered something that had been lying dormant for months – a genuine want and need to gather community, in all three dimensions, and move together.
The initial idea for the Dance in the Time of Coronavirus series was a kind of lightning strike. I was working with dance students who were faced with a non-existent job market, as well as many community dancers whose companies were either on hold or caught in limbo as performances were suspended, then cancelled. While keen to enter this vacuum, I was cautious given the fluctuating COVID-positive numbers—each new graph was a visual and emotional rollercoaster. For my choreographed triptych in the series, Volution, (re)Volution, and (e)Volution, I was settling into a different kind of concentric rhythm. I was moved by the works and processes of vanguard postmodern dancer and community artist Anna Halprin and her book, Making Dances That Matter: Resources for Community Creativity. Halprin states that, “it’s through our relationship to the sun above us and the earth under our feet that we come to know where we are in the pattern of life1 .” The moment we were living in at the time felt like a pattern interrupted and re-directed, so I chose to honor what it meant to cycle through it, again and again.
The summer of 2020 was also a moment in time that called for planetary motion, vacillation, and continual reflection based on new information; all of which led me to Halprin’s “Planetary Dance” and “Earth Run” improvisational scores. The “Planetary Dance” originated as a ritual to facilitate community healing after the murders of six women on Mt. Tamalpais in San Francisco. Halprin’s movement ritual on the site was recognized by the community as purifying the mountain, and coincidentally the killer was caught a few days after the ritual finished. As the ritual reoccurred every five years, it was renamed “Circle the Earth” and spread worldwide. Inside of that movement score was the “Earth Run,” which invites people to commit to creating peace on the planet through movement. It calls upon an ancient dance phenomenon, the circle, which is used to channel the power of the group’s collective energies to renew, inspire, teach, create, and heal.
Volution spaced dancers 20 feet apart for a masked, hour-long performance along a bike path dotted with trees and encircled by a bay. I extrapolated the circularity from Halprin’s Earth Run, as well her task to the dancers to voice their intentions—who or what they were dancing for—in that moment. For one of the dancers in Volution, she stated that her intention was to let the movement bring peace and serve as a reminder for why she chose to continue dancing each day, in spite of the spatial restrictions imposed by the shutdown—“there were no restrictions on what I could perform2 .” In the second iteration of this triptych, (re)Volution, playwright and spoken word performer, Mykai Eastman, shared:
“Before the shutdown, my plan was to move to New York, where I would have begun my offered position at a prominent theatre company. However, once the shutdown continued into the summer, I made the decision with my fiancé to stay in Tampa for one more year…my intention to speak out stemmed from a heightened awareness of hiring inequities in many of our country’s theatres. After a time to ponder on that, I began to research ways of rectifying that in my circle. Writing the poem Transcend, I could not help but consider the broader concerns of my external stimuli from the world. Everything going on around me inspired me to attempt a figurative transcendence above the negativity.”
He goes on to describe one of the most memorable moments from the performance, when a family of four—a mother and her three daughters—stopped to watch the poem and circling. After a few loops, the daughters were learning and miming the dance phrases with jubilant, sincere feeling. Eastman continues:
“I think the idea of zoom performances have overstayed their welcome, and there will always be something off and lackluster about that to me. There is a disconnect of emotion, a delay and limitation in action, and it always seems to live in the uncanny valley.”
While Volution required an attention to its internal choreographed elements and questions, and even though establishing the dancers’ roles and routes during rehearsals was part of the familiar drum of art-making, a major challenge for my cast and me was understanding the audience’s part in all this. How would we keep onlookers distant? What measures would we be able to advise and enforce?
The pandemic might have thrown out the old rulebook on how proscenium-based dance operates, but I admittedly did that a while back. Nina Simon’s book, The Art of Relevance, puts it best as she describes “insiders” and “outsiders” in participatory experiences and how we share content in the arts. Simon says the insiders are already in the proverbial theater. They might be dancers, scholars, theatergoers, or related to someone onstage, but they know where to find the door and how to let themselves in. Outsiders, on the other hand, don’t even know the door exists3 . As the world became confined indoors, we became both outsiders and innovators to this new world order where theaters were no longer a part of the equation. Part of my artistic challenge has always been to make viewers comfortable engaging and interacting with dance. In the case of this series, I found an unexpected choreographic partner in Google Maps. It was the answer to how to stage these works, completely distanced and without jeopardizing the dancers’ health in any way. I created a map with drop pins for each work, titling these pins and giving the dancers an order and spatial structure. I turned on the Google Maps satellite image to find trees which acted as anchor points for the dancers to orbit. Once dancers were given their location, they never had to congregate or meet me at a checkpoint. They would go right to their “stage” spaces for the start of the performance.
By making every work durational and setting the audience in motion, I was able to combat the possibility of the audience members congregating in large groups. The audience did not take the typical form of a seated mass either—instead, they were on wheels, in cars, on two feet. They could walk, ride, or drive through these experiences at a safe distance, masked, and with signage to follow. The audiences circulated the dancers in the light and heat of the sweltering summer sun.
When re-assembling Volution with a fraction of the original twenty dancers, I chose to step into the quartet that would perform its reprisal. We discussed what expectations we had held for summer 2020 versus the harsh and truer realities. We abstracted solos from these moments by re-calling choreography from cancelled performances and unearthing gestures that illustrated the quarantine routines that followed. The vacillating circle remained an important artifact and orbit around these solos—fragmenting the choreography and relying on one other to physically reassemble the work. As a choreographer, I stayed away from referencing past footage of the triptych, and instead re-built from bodily memories, leaving in the blank spaces and stillness. In the reprisal, we were masked and performed for a camera. Ten months later and we still could not touch, but we could feel each other’s breath more closely and relied on a kinesthetic awareness that, thankfully, had not disappeared during a year that reduced dance to two-dimensional boxes on a screen.
After the performance, pink-faced, breathless, and dizzy from our running and circling, we discovered something akin to the same closure Halprin and her movers must have found after the first “Circle the Earth.” One cycle ended, so another could begin. As I reflect back on a year that required so much care and imagination, I still feel that spinning, buzzing need to create in spite of it all. To cycle. To circle. I also firmly believe that no matter the space or time that we live in, there will always be a genuine want and need to gather community, in all three dimensions, so that we can move forward together.