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How ballet can bring us joy in troubling times

Tim Podesta teaching. Photo courtesy of Podesta.
Tim Podesta teaching. Photo courtesy of Podesta.

May you live in interesting times

Whether this is a Chinese curse or a Western imagining of such is largely academic. The elephant is evidently in the room, and the times they are clearly a changin’. I will not bore you with further metaphors, misquotes or musings, except to say that here in the dance/arts bubble, the pandemic has had a hugely disruptive effect. Indeed, even in the virtual world of Dance Informa (with its principally freelance diaspora), the viral zeitgeist is unavoidable. 

Tempted though I may be to use the privilege of this megaphone to insert my own perspective, this stage is not mine to dominate. The editors asked me to seek the thoughts of several dance and ballet insiders here in Australia. Some were too busy to respond, and we get that, but we were fortunate to connect with a diverse trio of creators and educators in the industry. 

Joel Burke.
Joel Burke.

Our goal was not simply to catalogue misfortune and foretell doom but to try and extract a positive from the situation; for it may well be that the function of art making and storytelling in human societies will be laid bare over the next few months. If the arts have lately been captured by commerce and side-lined politically, 2020 may prove to be a turning point for us. (I guess we shall find out.)

Thus, with out further ado, a small sample of thoughts from the field, presented with as little intervention as I could manage. 

On the importance of dance and the arts as we go forward

Maxine Kohler, principal, McDonald College, Sydney.                   

“At times of war and social unrest, it is the arts that people turn to and need to distract them from the upheaval of daily life. What a wonderful time we live in in 2020; performances will go on and grow in importance if we allow creativity to flow unimpeded or stifled by what we already know.”

Tim Podesta, dancer/choreographer, founder of Projection Dance Company, Melbourne and Albury/Wodonga.

“This question has me in two minds: art is beauty, art is escapism, and the beauty of ballet and its traditions have stood the test of time. In times of hardship, ballet and its collaborators in music and design have for hundreds of years transported audiences to a place of safety and, if through making these performances available online, we can continue this, then we will have maintained a tradition as important as the art itself. Hopefully, it will also translate to more ticket sales when we return to normal.” 

Tim Podesta. Photo by Jason Ashwood.
Tim Podesta. Photo by Jason Ashwood.

Joel Burke, dancer/model, Brisbane.

“Throughout history, it’s been the arts industries that have brought communities together, as we’ve seen most recently with the entertainment world putting on shows to raise money for those affected by the Australian bushfires. This time it will be no different, besides the fact that companies are going to have to be more creative and innovative. Hopefully, with all our creatives forced to stay still, great things will come about.”

On the importance of dance practise during the shutdown

Burke

“Now, as always, a dancer should remain fit and focused on their technique and craft, using this time to work on personal things they may not have had the chance to when in groups. This time will come to an end, and when it does, the dancers who use this time wisely will benefit a lot more than those who don’t.”

Podesta

“As we know, when we exercise, our body releases endorphins. These endorphins interact with the receptors of the brain that reduce our perception of pain and trigger a positive feeling in us. The added benefit of dance is that with the body’s response to the physicality, we can also use it as an instrument to be expressive, allowing for a deep emotional response, a tool for expression that can be very therapeutic. Dance, and art in general, also offers directives in problem solving, prompting and enabling mechanisms that can help offer solutions when we’re trying to cope with anxiety and times of uncertainty. These skills are transferable to real life experiences such as we are experiencing now, and I firmly believe this is why the arts have continued through war, depression, plague. History tells us that art is always there.”

McDonald College remote class using Zoom. Photo courtesy of McDonald College.
McDonald College remote class using Zoom. Photo courtesy of McDonald College.

On how people in your circle are dealing with the distance

Kohler

“One academic teacher reported today saying, ‘I feel like I got through just as much, if not more, work than normal.’ Our dance teachers are pleased they are interacting with students in virtual individuality. They talk to the students each day in class, and the students can also see and collaborate with one another as they would in class.”

Podesta

“The feeling with the students and professionals I work with is still very positive. I think, as artists, we are instinctively resilient and always searching for positives in what we do. Even though we start our day in class with many other dancers, I think it’s fair to say that a dancer’s brain always functions as if in isolation. Our self focus is intense, as we manage our body through pain, fatigue, joy — a roller coaster of physical and emotional experiences that insist on compartmentalisation. As a choreographer, I’m making the most of having more time than usual to chat with my collaborators. Usually, my schedule requires me to finish meetings at an exact time to get in to the studio or another meeting, but now I have some flexibility, and it’s made me realise how often my thoughts were perhaps looking to my next task, instead of being in that moment without distractions. I believe this time has forced a lot of artists to look at their work habits and productivity, which will in the long term help us navigate through this tricky period ahead.”

On possible silver linings

Kohler

“We are hoping to be creative regarding performances. Although these won’t be in the form we all know, we will create other and ever-evolving performance opportunities. Our students live for performance.”

Joel Burke.
Joel Burke.

Podesta

“People forget that art is a constant; clothing, advertising, radio, streaming, it’s everywhere, and until it’s not there, we won’t understand its importance. This also puts me in two minds over the sharing of performances on such a large scale during this time. Perhaps the general public and governments need reminding what a life without art really means?”

Now we have been jolted from our business as usual mindset, we have an opportunity for re-evaluation. Recalibration, reformation, revitalisation. As artists and arts educators, we may well have been presented with a wonderful challenge, to use our creativity for something greater than our own self-aggrandisement. To heal ourselves and others. With beauty. And invention. Good luck going forward. We know you will return with flowers. 

May we live in inspiring times.

Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.

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