Three weeks ago, I performed—for both a live and a livestreamed audience—in a dance concert at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I'm a graduate student. A big part of me feels grateful: I know I'll be able to live off that experience for several months, as the pandemic rages on and live performance becomes even more difficult to pull off. An even bigger part of me still can't believe it happened.
That's probably because UIUC's November Dance concert was a herculean effort that required the coordination and commitment of many departments, people and protocols: twice-weekly rapid COVID tests; a UIUC-specific app to provide contact tracing in the event of a positive test result; trained Wellness Safety Associates at the door of every studio to screen entrants; socially distant rehearsals; stringent cleaning and sanitization measures; live audience members seated six feet away from each other and an entire floor away from the performers—just to name a few.
For Jan Erkert, head of the dance department, preparing for the concert felt much like aiming at a moving target. "For everything, we had to have a Plan B, plus a Plan C and D, because we didn't know what would work in any given moment," she says. "It felt like I was creating and tearing up a new plan every day."
Erkert's approach to successfully getting a concert off the ground had several parts: address the necessary safety measures; find a way to deliver the concert to as many people as possible; and encourage the choreographers and dancers to still access creativity, despite so many limitations.
When it came to COVID-related policies, Erkert relied on both the Champaign County health department's regulations and the protocols set forth by the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts production staff (who used the American Guild of Musical Artists' and Dance/USA's current policies as a guide). That took care of issues like how to hold a socially distant costume-fitting for the cast (over two or three hours, with each dancer's costume possibilities kept in their own plastic box and washed between fittings); how to make sure the air in the theater during tech week was circulating enough (by taking 15-minute breaks every 45 minutes and having everyone exit the theater); and how to house the necessary dancers, crew, designers, stage managers, choreographers and audience members during a performance (by giving the audience the balcony, the designers and stage managers the house level, and the dancers and crew the stage and backstage area).
It was also important to Erkert that dancers—and choreographers and teachers—always had the option to rehearse (or take class) online. "If a performer said 'I only want to be online,' they were only online—we videoed them and incorporated that video into the performance," she says. "If choreographers didn't feel safe attending rehearsal in person, the department had set up technology stations in each studio so the students could still rehearse. Our responsibility was to offer as many safety precautions as we could, and then still give everyone the choice of how to participate."
The author (top) at a rehearsal for UIUC's November Dance concert. Photo courtesy UIUC
Livestreaming the concert required everyone involved to learn new skills. "We have an incredible dance video crew of students who know how to archive the work, but videotaping and then editing after the fact is very different from livestreaming, where you have to make a decision in the moment," says Erkert. Luckily, one Krannert staff member had experience with live television and offered guidance.
The livestream presented a challenge for choreographers, too, who had to take into account not just what their dance would look like from the live audience's bird's-eye view but also what it would look like on a computer screen, for those watching at home. For choreographer and grad student Bevara Anderson, who created and rehearsed her dance, Stages Of, almost entirely on Zoom—up until two weeks before the show, she was in Maryland—the shift from an in-person to a digital perspective wasn't so difficult. She'd already spent much of her rehearsal period focused on drawing out an energetic performance quality from her first-year dancers, hoping to combat the flatness that often comes with watching dance on a screen. "Because I'd already tried to layer in the energetic quality that I wanted, I wasn't worried how the dance would look through a computer," she says.
Erkert's last concern, that so many restrictions might inhibit the choreographers' ideas, proved unfounded. "When everything is broken, there's a window to creep inside and reinvent all the things you never could before," she says. For instance, the set-design team fashioned three moveable platforms (easy to disinfect and offering more space between dancers) that each of the choreographers could configure as they wished. "Normally, production elements come in last," says Erkert. "But we asked the set designers to build something for all of us to respond to, and I think they loved being front and center."
To mitigate the number of people who would occupy the space each night of the concert, each dance had its own night of performances: a 7 pm show, followed by a 15-minute moderated talk-back with the choreographers, and then a second performance and talk-back at 9 pm. "We never would've thought of that before," says Erkert. "Audiences loved it! That's something we'll do again."
With only a few weeks' hindsight, postconcert, Erkert is cautiously optimistic, and profoundly grateful. "With the extraordinary protections of the university and the many layers that the dance department also practiced, we created a safety net in which we could operate," she says. "One of the most poignant things a student said was that not knowing whether we'd actually get to perform these works—that was in the back of everyone's minds, all the time—meant they had to give their all at every moment. The students are really wrestling with the ephemeral nature of not just dance but life. I think that's a huge learning curve, and a good one."