When the dancing stopped, these directors banded together

Last summer Jonathan Stafford, artistic director of the New York City Ballet, felt isolated and anxious. It was a few months after the ...


Last summer Jonathan Stafford, artistic director of the New York City Ballet, felt isolated and anxious. It was a few months after the start of the pandemic, and the strangeness of the lockdown and the turmoil and urgency of Black Lives Matter events were on his mind.

City Ballet’s performances, programs and plans had come to a screeching halt, as they had been for performing arts organizations across the country. No one knew when or how the cinemas would reopen. Many dancers had fled to their family or friends outside the city; most did not have enough space to maintain the intense physical training needed to stay in shape for performance.

The artistic director of a dance company accompanies dancers, designs and plans seasons and tours, and stays in close contact with every department, from fundraising and marketing to costume making. What was the role of an artistic director now?

Stafford called Robert Battle, artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, to chat. “It’s awesome,” Battle said after speaking for a while. “I would like us to talk to other art directors. “

Battle called Eduardo Vilaro, from Hispanic ballet. Stafford and Wendy Whelan, Associate Director of the City Ballet, called Virginia Johnson, of Harlem Dance Theater, and Kevin McKenzie, of American ballet theater. On August 7 last year, the six directors of some of New York’s biggest dance troupes had their first online meeting, and they have continued to meet almost every Friday since.

New colleagues and close friends, they shared ideas, problems, strategies and solutions and will present for the first time a series of performances together – the BAAND Ensemble Dance Festival, free shows starting Tuesday on the Lincoln Center outdoor stage in Damrosch Park.

“It was a light at the end of our tunnel,” Johnson said in a recent video interview with the other directors. “This is not a marketing initiative. It’s something real that comes from the time we spent together and wanting to give back to the city.

In a wide-ranging discussion, punctuated with laughter and teasing, the directors opened up about their concerns about the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, and how they think the world of dance has changed. Here are edited snippets from the conversation and follow-up emails.

When you first started meeting online, a lot was still unknown about Covid-19. What were your concerns then?

KEVIN MCKENZIE Initially, we were just trying to take the pulse: is it as bad as I think it is? Each of us had plans that came to a screeching halt, and we were all in a state of triage. We asked ourselves: how do you manage your artists? With guidelines from the Center for Disease Control? By reinventing the way we perform?

JONATHAN STAFFORD Eduardo kept us organized; he created agendas and gave us homework. We realized early on that the purpose of speaking was to generate action. We asked ourselves what is our goal for this group? How can we use our collective strength to create real change in the field of dance as a whole?

What were some of the strategies or approaches that emerged from the meetings? How did they help you?

WENDY WHELAN Learn about how to create bubbles so that a group of dancers can work together in isolation and then perform. Kevin was doing a lot of that, because he’s Mr. Kaatsbaan [McKenzie was a founder of the Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in upstate New York, in 1990], and we had no experience of it.

EFFECTIVE It kicked our butt a bit and we thought, OK, we’ve got to get there. We also talked a lot about testing and vaccinations. City Ballet imposes vaccinations for our employees and this has helped to have the support of other dance companies and to know that we were not an exception. There won’t be a unified policy here, but it has been very helpful to share.

EDUARDO VILARO One specific thing is that we have decided to regroup around the election. We wrote a post about the importance of voting and what the election meant to our community. It was the first time that the five organizations organized anything together, and we refrained from using the word “participation”!

VIRGINIE JOHNSON Of course, the biggest concrete result is the BAAND Together festival. It was so much fun programming with other art directors; you are usually on an island with this task!

THE BATTLE OF ROBERT As much as the specific outcomes, like election politics or these performances, I feel like the meetings really helped by giving us a space where you could say, “I don’t have the answers. It can be terrifying if you’re the one who’s supposed to know what to do. It was good to offload that and find that you might have some answers if the right questions are asked.

George Floyd’s death and the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement happened when your organizations were closed and the dancers dispersed. What were your conversations about then?

VILARO We realized that we were very different organizations and that we had to approach these issues differently. But we were able to talk to each other openly, and it was very helpful in deciding our own approaches.

EFFECTIVE We were wondering how do we talk about it? It wasn’t about being of color or not, but about having the tough conversations we’ve never had before about becoming an inclusive art form. We must do better: how are we going to do this?

JOHNSON We could be totally honest with each other. There were a lot of conversations that were pretty good.

Were you different in the way you reacted to the lockdown and the challenges it posed for you and the dancers?

JOHNSON We are different kinds of institutions and different sizes. I think the Dance Theater of Harlem is the only non-union company in this group, so it was interesting for me to hear how the unions approach things.

But there were a lot of commonalities: we were all basically in a situation where our incomes were wiped out and we had to ask ourselves how to keep our dancers motivated and in shape, our art in progress, how to stay sane? It was helpful to bring together different approaches, to hear what was possible.

THE BATTLE OF ROBERT When the dancers are devastated, you as the director somehow absorb that. This kind of situation, when you’re still psychologically trying to fly the plane, was a shared experience.

Let’s face it: you can talk to other people in your organization, but there’s nothing quite like sitting in that particular seat. These meetings allowed us to say, okay, we’re a little scared, and gave us space to breathe and do the work that we had to do. For me, the mental health part was so important: it was like therapy.

What did you think of the streaming performance? Did any of you have any reluctance to post free content or discuss how to monetize it?

MCKENZIE I would say there was a sense of weight on us to come up with a digital content strategy at a time when we were still a little shocked at the scale of our situations. Eventually, we came to understand that this was the only medium we could rely on for the foreseeable future.

WENDY WHELAN It was clear to us that we had no choice, and we discussed it a lot. At City Ballet, we have been fortunate to have, for almost a decade, filmed ballets every year to make extracts for marketing purposes. But we also knew we had to stay creative and find ways to film our dancers right now.

We hope to keep some form of streaming and digital creativity alive; we know how important this year has been in developing and building a greater global reach for the City Ballet.

JOHNSON Digital was definitely a change from the goal of performing live in our normal lives. I think for this group it wasn’t about monetizing online content. It was about making the dancers dance, strong, beautiful and stimulated without being in the studio.

There was a point where we all had endless conversations in other places about budgets and payroll, and I thought, wait, we’re artists. This is what should move us forward.

Has the dance landscape in New York and beyond been irrevocably changed by the pandemic?

MCKENZIE I would say we don’t know yet. What we do know is that each organization is going to come back as a very different entity. On behalf of the Ballet Theater, we have learned a lot about digital broadcasting and its importance. But the experience also underscored the thirst and gratitude for the performing arts. So far it was just outside, we didn’t come back with strangers in the dark. We don’t know how it will feel.

JOHNSON Yes, we cannot take it for granted that this work is possible. You think things are going to go on forever, and it made us realize that sometimes they don’t, or not. We can now measure the sheer joy of doing this work and creating something magical and beautiful.

BATTLE There may have been a loss of innocence. The wonderful thing about being a dancer is that you create that magic outside of the realities that we have to face. The pandemic has made it clear what can go wrong, what can be lost. I’m not sure you can just get things going again and everyone is suddenly okay.

WHELAN With our group, it feels like a hardened shell has come loose from our organizations and a new flexibility and new energy has emerged. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve touched on ballet culture – so many dusty old habits and outdated traditions that are holding us back. Bad habits and unhealthy power dynamics that have been built into the system and passed down from generation to generation have only recently been effectively addressed.

We continue to have groundwork to do, but during this period we have made progress. Most importantly, we are committed to each other to move forward and advance our art form – together.

VILARO The gift of this group has been the alliance that has grown between us and that will help create change in our field. We have broken down the silos that were hierarchical structures of the past. We don’t store information, we share.

So do you plan to continue meeting?

JOHNSON Sure. It’s so much fun.

WHELAN And we do it on Fridays and talk about cocktails.

Have you ever met in person with cocktails?

WHELAN Eduardo works there.

EFFECTIVE It’s been a year. We really need these cocktails.

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