We’re having a tough year. The pandemic has turned our old reality on its head, and we are all dealing with the repercussions of that to some degree. But few sectors have been forced to as grinding a halt or been shrouded with more uncertainty than the performing arts.
“I kind of had this identity crisis, because acrobatics and arts are all I have known,” says Lauren Joy Herley, a rope artist and circus performer.
Before March 2020, Herley was at the height of a successful career performing with Cirque du Soleil. When the arts sector partially reopened this summer, she was able to resume her work with some outdoor shows, but now that the temperature is dropping, the outdoor shows have come to an end for this year.
In the initial months of lockdown, Andrea Peña, artistic director and choreographer at Andrea Peña & Artists, says some of her dancers considered quitting. “They’re professional, they’re 33, 34, which means they’re at a peak in their careers — very strong, very mature interpreters — and I had one of them say ‘Andrea, I’m really considering my retirement.’”
In August came the reopening of studios and AP&A was pleased to finally be able to work together again, even with the new restrictions: a two-metre distance, no contact unless they wear a mask and goggles.
Staying apart in an art form that so relies on touch has been a challenge. “We’ve realized after a month of working how good they are at keeping the two metres because they’re very spacially aware, but how difficult it was on the emotional and artistic side to have to be so distanced from their peers and not have that contact.”
Dance companies were hit hard, and many lost funding or residencies, meaning lost space to rehearse. Freelance dancers, without the support of a company, struggle to find space.
Catherine Wilson, a freelancer, says she’s lucky her apartment has enough room to do some basic training, and in the spring she started practising outside. “I’ve really had to change my mindset of what it means to move, and learn that I don’t need to have a studio.” Her first time back in the studio in August to attend a class was emotional. “I had an out of body experience — I wanted to cry.”
Rental studios can only be booked for three-hour timeslots to allow for cleaning, meaning only two timeslots are available per day. And for freelancers, who used to book the odd times between company rentals at a discount, that option doesn’t exist anymore.
With the difficulty of putting on live performances, digital shows are common, and some artists branched out into other mediums. Wilson had been working for two years on a production called ELLES, choreographed by Peña, with four other dancers, and they were set to perform it during this year’s Festival Quartier Danses in September before the festival decided to go virtual. They didn’t think their project translated as well into a video format, and so instead they created soundscapes that their audience could tune in to by phone.
Peña calls the experience of finding a way to carry the intention of a project into another medium an empowering one, but she says that performers have struggled with the need to go digital or branch out. “I’m also an industrial designer, so I’m comfortable diving into other media and stepping outside of the box,” she says. “Not everybody has another practice.”
Some performers are also exploring new careers. Herley says that though this red zone confinement is less strict, it is just as heavy for her because she is realizing how long we might be stuck dealing with the virus.
“I have spent my whole life mastering this art form — circus, acrobatics — and I was really hungry to learn something new and kind of take advantage of this unfortunate situation.” She started a postgraduate program in medical administration in October.
She says that it has been rewarding getting another degree, and it has made her more disciplined in finding time to train. “I’ll always be an artist and I want to fight for our industry, but right now I just really needed a way to work towards my future.”
Peña and her company have been able to keep busy enough as they explore new methods to perform. They headed to Ottawa for a live stream of a solo, Untitled I, performed by François Richard and put on by the National Arts Centre as part of their #DanceForth series. It will take place on Nov. 5 at 7 p.m., and it’s free to tune in.
Peña also has a choreography on tour in Quebec, outside of red zones where congregating is still permitted. La question des fleurs is a duet performance showcasing the work of four choreographers, and tickets are on sale for performances in November and December.
But above all, performers are in a period of rethinking.
Herley says that in her practice, since she no longer does several shows a week and can’t recreate the impact that that schedule has on her body, she has become more mindful about using details to convey meaning. “I used to kind of be a bit more of a show-off and do all these big tricks,” she says. “I’ve become stronger at creating images and creating sequences that are captivating regardless of the acrobatic skill that’s going into it.”
Wilson is working with other dancers on creating training for people like her who don’t have the support of a company when they can no longer rely on drop-in classes. Zoom classes are helpful, but Wilson believes that passively relying on others to offer training won’t cut it if the pandemic lasts. “I’m trying to figure out with other dancers how we can train ourselves. I’m trying to make sure we are not dependent,” she says.
She’s also interested in revolutionizing the concept of performance, away from the old model of an audience sitting in front of a stage, towards a more participative model that allows the viewer to move through space, keeping their distance, and be able to watch a performance from different angles.
“We’re talking warehouses, we’re talking about the old-school post-communism era in Berlin, like how can you re-use and reappropriate spaces, especially because there’s a lot of these spaces that are emptying.”
At AP&A, these conversations about rethinking performance are ongoing. Peña says that though there is an interest in livestream shows, she doesn’t believe our old notions of performance translate well to digital. There might be a better way to use that medium, instead of performing a finished piece.
“I feel like we’re in a place where we’re going to start performing research, performing trial and error, performing a creative process rather than a final idea. I think in performing the creative process, there’s space for dialogue.” ■
“The future of dance and performing arts in Montreal” originally appeared in the November issue of Cult MTL.
For more on the Montreal arts scene, please visit the Arts section.