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Melbourne’s dance scene emerges from lockdown

Victorian State Ballet in 'Little Mermaid'. Photo by En Pointe Productions.
Victorian State Ballet in 'Little Mermaid'. Photo by En Pointe Productions.

As Victoria emerges from one of the world’s most stringent lockdown periods, a new normal begins. For Melbourne’s dance industry, the hope is that dancers can return to the studio and the stage, albeit in a COVID-safe manner, and start to rebuild. Dance Informa spoke with some of Melbourne’s most prominent dance companies – Benjamin Curé of Lion Heart Dance Company, Michelle and Martin Sierra of the Victorian State Ballet and Donnie Dimase of Tenacity Entertainment– on life during lockdown and the excitement of returning to dance.

Lion Heart Dance Company in 'Still Frame'. Photo by John E Photography.
Lion Heart Dance Company in ‘Still Frame’.
Photo by John E Photography.

It’s no secret that this has been a dark time for professional dancers. Yet, it is a testament to the resilience of performers all over the world that so many have rallied and made the best of things in the face of the pandemic. 

Tenacity’s Creative Director Donnie Dimase shares, “Prior to the pandemic, Tenacity Entertainment had planned a new show for July 2020, as well as various night-club performances and corporate events throughout the year, working on brand new pieces that will never see the light of day. When it comes to rehearsals or even just workshop classes, our environment, joy and passion is a large scope of what we do. Having not only to mentor through a screen but also to pull these factors have been extremely difficult. I believe that this pandemic bought us the opportunity to think, work on ourselves, find our individual movement and reignite our passion to a whole new level. All the mental oscillation through this time has just proved why we do what we do.”

Tenacity Entertainment at
Victorian Dance Festival 2019.
Photo by Jayde Justin.

Dimase sees this strange time as a return to the simplicity of his childhood. “As a kid, all I would do is recreate routines from my Honey DVD and freestyle with my iPod shuffle on the cold cement in the garage – just me in my own safe space away from the world. It’s funny how the life takes us full circle – we’ve been doing the same thing on Zoom a decade later!” 

Founder and Director of Lion Heart Dance Company Benjamin Curé notes the mental strength of his performers amidst cancelled performances and the challenges of staying focused online.

Lion Heart Dance Company in class
Lion Heart Dance Company in class.

“When the lockdown was announced, we were one week away from opening our newest season of performances,” he explains. “For the first time in our short five-year history, we had to cancel shows and refund tickets. It was surreal. We were quick to adapt to online classes with our company artists to maintain their training, but we had to dramatically shift our focus and practice to be considerate of the constraints of at-home training. I’m proud to say our artists took to this with patience and grace, and we’ve been able to return to the studio in a fairly strong position given the impact of six months away from studio-based practice. Many of the company artists have remarked that even when they were experiencing peak Zoom fatigue from all their teaching and taking classes, they still loved company class and the sense of community it helped them maintain during the heaviest stages of lockdown.”

Michelle Sierra.
Michelle Sierra.

Victorian State Ballet’s Directors Michelle and Martin Sierra relied on their own hopeful outlook to keep their dancers motivated. “The pandemic hit us very hard,” Michelle Sierra shares. “Two days before flying out on our international tour of Beauty and the Beast, just after our March performance of Giselle, we were told our tour was going to be cancelled. This was of course devastating news to all of us after putting so much work into the tour. Season by season was cancelled – approximately 80 performances ­– and we found ourselves locked down together with the rest of the world with a significant portion of our income lost. Without hesitation, we jumped into survival mode and immediately started classes on Zoom for our company dancers and a re-modelled program for our Pre-Professional Program. Martin and I have a strong faith, and we believe good comes out of everything, even though it was very difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel during Melbourne’s hard lockdowns.” 

Victorian State Ballet
Victorian State Ballet in
‘Little Mermaid’.
Photo by En Pointe Productions.

She adds, “We continued to have hope and encourage our dancers to hang in there, knowing that the entire dance world was going through this together. When restrictions eased on 22 June, we recommenced in the studios and started working on a livestream performance of the Little Mermaid. This was an incredible experience and gave us all such renewed gratitude for live audiences as we performed to a camera in the empty theatre. The livestream reached aged-care facilities, families and the general public nation-wide and internationally – a huge success. We found ourselves back on Zoom during the stage four lockdown, but since restrictions have finally eased, we are finally back in the studio again.”

Dimase has also been working on new projects, determined not to let the pandemic get in the way of his creative passion. “Despite the number of Victorian restrictions, there was no way of holding me back from developing new projects,” he affirms. “The fact that our community was diminishing so quickly only inspired me to take more initiative. Our new production, Facade, was presented via livestream in collaboration with Melbourne Fringe in November – a 10-woman commercial burlesque experience with a 180-degree view of the Melbourne CBD. It’s been a creative process that I never thought would happen. From workers permits and COVID-safe plans to Zoom rehearsals, it’s been quite the experience. Working on the upcoming Cultivate Dance Expo with the YMCA and Jack May has been incredible, too. We’ve formatted a safe, inclusive space for the Melbourne dance scene to train and up-skill on a big scale. Learning to create these platforms has been quite difficult, but heading into 2021, I believe the industry will continue to change and adapt.”

Tenacity Entertainment
at Victorian Dance Festival.
Photo by Jayde Justin.

Certainly, every dance business has had to modify their operations significantly to survive. Curé describes the back-to-basics approach Lion Heart Dance Company has implemented since lockdown has eased. “In the lead up to our return to the studio, we started pushing the dancers with additional conditioning and stamina training over Zoom. A lot of time, sweat and energy has gone in to ensuring our dancers are safe and ready to be back in the studio after so long. Our training hours have been slightly reduced for the first few weeks to ensure we’re training well and not pushing too far while fatigued – that’s when injuries are more likely to occur. We have slowed down and spent a lot of time working our foundations again; this type of training protects our artists’ bodies but also alleviates some of the anxiety associated with returning to something you used to feel so comfortable with. By keeping the training simple and familiar, we’re allowing the dancers to focus on reconnecting with their bodies and the space and ensuring they don’t get frustrated or discouraged. It’s only natural that there would be a decline in capacity after six months of not being able to train certain skills. We want to use the tail end of 2020 to create a safe and strategic training space for our artists to prepare for our 2021 seasons.”

Photo courtesy of Victorian State Ballet.
Photo courtesy of Victorian State Ballet.

Returning to a regular schedule of seasonal productions is of course the aim for all dance companies in Melbourne and across Australia. “Our hope is to return to producing seasons of work in 2021, as there just isn’t any replacement for the thrill and wonder of live dance,” Curé says. “In the meantime, we are working hard on creating digital performances with our media sponsors, Pride Productions. We are also very excited that our Youth Intensive will be returning in January 2021. This was an incredible program that we had great success with but was scrapped for the rest of 2020 due to restrictions.”

Victorian State Ballet are equally determined to make next year a resounding success. “We are very excited about 2021,” Sierra agrees. “We are excited to perform at new venues, complete a major 10-day NSW tour, perform Beauty and the Beast at QPAC – which is selling extremely well –and seeing our wonderful audiences again. We have new dancers in the company next year, plus 20 new pre-professional artists joining us. It is promising to be our best year yet!”

Benjamin Curé.
Benjamin Curé.

Yet, despite the positivity of these industry leaders and their commitment to providing opportunities for dancers to continue to work, the pandemic has made it abundantly clear that the government needs to do more. Curé recently commissioned an in-depth investigation into the industry after the backlash from the unpaid casting call for the AFL Grand Final. Unsurprisingly, the study affirms the fact that ‘talent within the dance industry has increased, whilst support for the arts, both financial and with regards to attitudes, has substantially decreased.’ The study ultimately calls for ‘additional financial support for the arts industry by either the government or private industries in order to ensure the continuity of the industry in Australia.’ (Source: Melbourne Dance Industry Reset Report)

“I think most dancers in Melbourne have become acutely aware of the lack of structure, regulation and support our industry has,” Curé notes. “Moving forward, we are in desperate need of greater education for performers on their rights and responsibilities, greater oversight for how business operate and far greater financial support and initiatives from local and federal government.”

Lion Heart Dance Company in 'Still Frame'. Photo by John E Photography.
Lion Heart Dance Company
in ‘Still Frame’.
Photo by John E Photography.

Sierra also believes more needs to be done. “We definitely need much more government support to companies and venues so badly affected by the pandemic. We were the first to be shut down and the last to open. I think more education is needed to understand how capable we are, how ballet companies operate and how well dancers and staff can adapt to be extremely safe and manage these situations. We are grateful to the Australian Government for the jobkeeper stimulus and the incredible job our leaders have done to accomplish low cases and prioritise the public health safety of everyone. We hope that more financial support can be given to ballet companies in order to restart and have stability when the stimulus phases out in 2021.”

It seems that positivity prevails. “Although our industry had been hit hard, a massive light has been shone on the issues revolving around the arts sector which we have needed to look at for a long time now,” Dimase says. “The pandemic has given the opportunity for so many to reignite their passion for dance. It’s also shown the importance of community and the significance of our creative and cultural industries.”

“COVID has definitely opened people’s eyes to the ability to connect on an international level thanks to the advances in technology,” Curé agrees. “The number of shows from international contemporary companies I’ve been able to see from the comfort of my own home that I would never have been able to make it to in person has really blown me away. The fact that companies like Nederlands Dans Theater are now selling tickets to livestreamed shows around the world means we’re able to connect with a company that we’d only ever see once every few years here in Melbourne. I think we’re on the verge of a very exciting time for dance if individuals and companies are willing to continue taking bold risks and experimenting, rather than just returning to how things used to be.”

He continues, “This year has decimated all of our plans. But surprisingly, that experience of watching everything be torn down has provided an opportunity to survey the landscape of our industry and find a new foundation to build upon. It has not been easy, but we are hopeful that we can boldly step into the future and continue creating art that moves the heart.”

To learn more about each of these companies, check out www.lionheartdancecompany.com,www.instagram.com/tenacity_entertainment and www.victorianstateballet.org.au.

By Emily Newton-Smith of Dance Informa. 

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