Dancing through the pandemic: Contemporary dance and the post-COVID stage

Dancenorth's Marlo Benjamin and Nelson Earl in 'RED'. Photo by Amber Haines.
Dancenorth's Marlo Benjamin and Nelson Earl in 'RED'. Photo by Amber Haines.

2022 hopefully marks the post-COVID world where we learn to live with the virus safely and the disruptions of the pandemic are limited.

During the second and third wave of the pandemic, professional dance companies faced several challenges, including: 

  • How to continue to rehearse, create works and how to stay engaged in their communities during the interruptions of lockdown. 
  • What did the widespread travel restrictions mean for companies that were so tightly interwoven into the global touring and festival circuit?
  • How does a company thrive and flourish in a world with heightened social and financial risk? 
  • What practices allow them to return to ‘normal’ and what changes need to be undertaken toward the new normal? 

Here, Dance Informa speaks to some of Australia’s foremost contemporary dance companies about their lockdown experience — what it was like and what steps they were undertaking to take on the challenge of dancing in the post-pandemic world. 

Kyle Page, artistic director, Dancenorth

“One thing that COVID has done is really highlight the value of community as many people around the world have experienced isolation, polarisation and a disconnect from one another. I really thought about how we could create the conditions and the space to reconnect with others — their own dancing body and environment. 

Dancenorth's Marlo Benjamin and Nelson Earl in 'RED'. Photo by Amber Haines.
Dancenorth’s Marlo Benjamin and Nelson Earl in ‘RED’. Photo by Amber Haines.

I definitely miss connecting with people face to face and feel a huge amount of loss in their energetic presence. The last 18 months was a real gift in relation to how we could connect with the community of North Queensland and create works that specifically spoke to this part of the world.

We were so blessed that we could integrate our daily practice within the environment. We could take class down beside the ocean, or we could move it to a bushland setting and provide an opportunity for us to reframe the creative lens, and incorporate our rich, natural ecosystems. 

The company has had such an extraordinary seven years now, in that we spend a huge amount of time touring, internationally and nationally on the demanding touring circuit. The gift of COVID was an opportunity to really nest and create a sense of foundation, a sense of belonging, a deep sense of knowing more about this place, and more about the people of this place.” 

Antony Hamilton, artistic director, Chunky Move

“The major lesson of COVID has been to look at what is going on, and not make strong value judgments about whether it’s good or bad but to look for the opportunities to create things from whatever the situation is. It forced us to create. 

I often remind myself that our leaders are making it up as they go along, just like the rest of us. And they’re trying the best that they can. That’s probably quite generous compared to the way most people hold people in power to account. The most surprising thing for me was that to get through the pandemic, everyone had a greater sense of generosity to their fellow citizens.

Our dance practice in our individual body is one thing, and that’s an important thing; there’s no doubt about that. But the other part of it that is really important is the exchange that occurs with the community that is built through studio practice and a shared space. And the relationships that are naturally occurring in these environments. When that’s gone, the isolation and insulation of your body struggles. 

Antony Hamilton. Photo by Simon Obarzanek.
Antony Hamilton. Photo by Simon Obarzanek.

In terms of ourselves, we know already that the culture of Chunky Move was shifting toward a vision for it to be a space of many, many creative voices, as we’ve expanded our commissioning opportunities, so that there’s quite a number more than there ever were in the past.

You have to kind of also invent new ways of doing things you’ve never done before. We partnered with some philanthropic partners, you know, to offer home-based creative residencies for dancers and other artists to have a creative laboratory at home. Some of those works that were seeded through these home residences were commissioned into full works for full screen based outcomes. 

COVID has imposed technology on our lives in a way that is sort of unprecedented. I think some people are more optimistic about it. I’m less inclined to think that way. I feel mixed about it, as it gives some great opportunities, but it’s also become a kind of prison. I think we’ve forgotten the importance of chance and accidents that happen in daily life. I find I want more accidents in my life…more serendipity. 

2022 fills me with hope as we’re all stepping toward the future, with a greater sense of mindfulness. I think we have become more reflective of others, especially those at risk and those who are vulnerable.” 

Raewyn Hill, artistic director, Co3

“During the pandemic, we attempted to adapt really quickly, not only dealing with shutting down the show, and the whole administration pressure, but the concern was around the mental and physical wellbeing of the people in our company, whether they were creative or administrative. 

When I’m in the studio, I have to be connected with other people physically, emotionally and psychologically. I really struggled with making choices I wouldn’t usually be making around the balance of managing social distancing outside the studio. That is changing how I’m interacting in the studio, and I can’t help but find that interesting.

In some ways, adapting to the challenge was actually really positive; we ended up having more time to really delve deeper into our work. We created this WhatsApp group, and then we would just feed in the tasks and share information, films and books, and we’d be taking photos. So, I think during our lockdown, we actually spent more time together. 

Raewyn Hill.
Raewyn Hill.

I think existing creatively through the pandemic forced us to think differently and interact differently. It also gave us permission to do and be different. My work is so deeply embedded in humanity and people with community and social responsibility. So I’ve had to find different ways to stay connected to our people and community. But actually, I think there’s a lot more generosity with people coming out of the pandemic. I felt like there was more accessibility to people because people wanted to feel needed, to be connected.

As a young company, we were right on the cusp of embedding technology as our strategy, and the pandemic has fast tracked some of those opportunities in the digital realm. For someone like myself, that wasn’t a natural part of my practice. Certainly, there were projects I had been really interested in exploring, but they hadn’t really been at the front of my mind. I think the pandemic allowed those conversations to happen a lot quicker. 

As a regional company, we have really focused on Western Australia and embedding ourselves in the community. Accessing the global festival and touring circuit is not really a priority for us, but even just trying to tour interstate was impossible with the rising costs because of the pandemic. I can also see that opportunities have closed down, especially in the teaching and artist residency, which was very much founded on a global sort of networking circuit. 

Being adaptive and agile was great, but it can be exhausting, and while we’re all really committed to finding ways forward. I guess we don’t spend too much time reflecting, as we had to adapt to these ever-changing circumstances.”

Daniel Riley, artistic director, Australian Dance Theatre

“The pandemic has been challenging because there were so many unknowns. I’ve gone through all the lockdowns here in Melbourne. We had projects delayed, postponed and then we were on again, and then we all went back into lockdown. 

It’s also been hard to see how far down the list of priorities the arts seem to be, in terms of getting back to work. Considering how hard artists work and try to contribute to their communities, it’s been a bit disappointing seeing how they have been treated and valued. 

But on a professional level for me, I’ve been really fortunate, as I’ve been working pretty much the entire time as a lecturer in contemporary dance at the Victorian College of the Arts. I’ve been teaching via Zoom pretty much for two years lecturing in contemporary dance, which has been really hard for the students. But they have turned up and showed up every day because they’re incredibly resilient, and I think as artists they’ll have come out of this period much stronger and more resilient to the ups and downs of an artistic life. 

Daniel Riley. Photo by Michael Jalaru Torres.
Daniel Riley. Photo by Michael Jalaru Torres.

I also found this period to be one of new and exciting beginnings, especially now I’m undertaking the artistic directorship at Australian Dance Theatre. So while I’m in the process of wrapping things up here in Melbourne, I also have to get ready to move, and everything is just all happening at the same time which is my own fault. 

But you know, through the pandemic I had a baby as well, another one. So it’s been a gift in some ways, because I’m at home. I’ve been there to support my wife and my other son who is pushing five. 

It’s interesting that there’s kind of two approaches to exiting the pandemic. It’s great to just get back to the normalcy of our everyday practice. But also we need to see if there is an opportunity to do things better. In my experience in the First Nations independent sector other than Bangarra, there is little support, and there was nothing to go back to for our First Nations community and our First Nations artists. I think we really need to reimagine what’s possible, better collaborations, pursuing equity and better support of our organisations and our artists so they can deliver what they need to be delivering, and they can’t continue to deliver big things on shoestring budgets.

What I’m really looking forward to is finding my feet at Australian Dance Theater but also allowing this new ADT to find its feet. I want to ground ADT in Kaurna country, and in Adelaide, and in South Australia. I want to use all these pillars of storytelling which can only be achieved by creating a space for collaborations with other brilliant artists.” 

By Elizabeth Ashley of Dance Informa. 

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