Culture Trips

Masked moves and ballet in the bath: a year of digital dance | Dance

The first time I cried watching someone dance in their living room was in April last year. A few weeks into the first lockdown, unnerved by sudden confinement, there was ballerina Céline Gittens on my laptop screen, bourréeing past a pot plant. Then in a different living room, cellist António Novais drawing out a Saint-Saëns melody, and in another house, pianist Jonathan Higgins, all deeply engrossed in this re-creation of The Dying Swan, music crossing the divide.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the dance that appeared online was all about trying to connect. That’s what was moving about Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Swan, or the Alvin Ailey company’s dancers performing Revelations in their New York apartments, or the companies doing their ritual daily class over Zoom and inviting us to watch or join in. It was a way of witnessing people apart but moving in harmony, absorbed in the same actions, finding a rhythm together, closing the distance.

Back then, it felt a bit transgressive to be seeing inside people’s homes. Especially ballet dancers who are often very protected by their companies, glamorous in public and aware of curating their own image. On stage, they trade in their ability to seem apart from mere mortals, but here they were surrounded by the detritus of life, radiators and washing-up paraphernalia and carefully arranged sofa cushions.

New stages … Alonzo King

Not all of the films popping up were confined within four walls. Dancers found new stages in their spookily vacant cities, like Dutch National Ballet in the empty streets of Amsterdam or Alonzo King’s dancers getting deep with Californian nature. Creativity bubbled, and while companies dug out archive recordings to broadcast, dancers and choreographers plotted how to make the most of the situation at hand. You can see how thinking progressed in the space of one evening broadcast in May from US choreographer Mark Morris. It starts with a dance transposed from the studio to people’s homes, with limited success, then switches to making moves for the camera lens, playing with closeups, edits and framing.

There was plenty of imagination about what you could do with boxes on screen: the Juilliard school’s epic Bolero, Australian Ballet’s Giselle skit, Ed Myhill’s synchronised Clapping and with some grander production values, Corey Baker’s glorious take on Swan Lake, performed entirely in bathtubs. Geographical borders became immaterial, whether the collaborators were international ballet stars, amateur shape-shifters or tween B-girls.

Glorious … Corey Baker’s Swan Lake

Where dance really thrived was on Instagram and TikTok, from silly family dance challenges to star turns (literally, many, many pirouettes and fouette turns) You could do a dancealong party with Sia choreographer Ryan Heffington, join Beyoncé favourites Les Twins in their mum’s basement, or go down a rabbit hole discovering new routines. (Or that’s what I did, at least)

As soon as it was possible, dancers were back in the studio, wearing masks, grouped in bubbles, at first only housemates and couples allowed to dance together (this was a good time to be in a relationship with another dancer). Some built social distancing into the dance, like the two-metre-diameter skirts in Will Tuckett’s Lazuli Sky. New work was made for screen with a more filmic sensibility – Jonzi D’s potent Our Bodies Back, five ambitious commissions from English National Ballet’s digital season, a livestreamed premiere from Rambert, Draw from Within, performed in their own studios, the camera tailing them around the building.

It’s not as if the idea of putting dance on screen was a new thing; it’s been happening for decades, it’s just always been seen as a bit of a poor relation. But that was already changing. The best things I saw in the last year were made pre-pandemic: Wilkie Branson’s intricate animation TOM; dancer-turned-director Tommy Pascal’s films with Alexander Ekman and Royal Swedish Ballet; and not long before that, Michael Nunn and William Trevitt’s brilliant film of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, shot on location.

The making of Wilkie Branson’s TOM

There are plenty of people rethinking the parameters of digital dance. Some viewers complain that watching on screen takes away your autonomy to look where you want on stage, so Les Ballets de Monte Carlo’s new BMC Stream allows you to switch between shots, including cameras in the wings and backstage. Clémence Debaig attempted to close the gap between distant performers with wearable technology in Remote Intimacy, and Joy Alpuerto Ritter’s rOOms involved the audience in Zoom polls, the questions going from, “What dress should Joy wear?” to “Are you feeling worried about the future” in the space of 20 minutes. Alexander Whitley got rid of the dancers altogether in his Digital Body project, where he shared motion-capture data of himself dancing, which any digital artist could then use as the basis for a new creation.

Tech in dance was on the rise long before Covid, with artists talking about VR and AR and AI (even if they haven’t worked out how to use them yet), and undoubtedly that’s going to continue. But it seems likely that digital dance, in all its forms, will retain a more prominent position even when theatres reopen. When dance companies have been reaching viewers all over the world who wouldn’t normally see their shows, they’d be silly to stop (though the question of whether you can really make any money out of online streams is still a moot one). The accessibility of the internet is great for an art form that still has trouble shedding its reputation for elitism and abstruseness.

Dance doesn’t translate to the screen as easily as theatre does. It lives in 3D space, it’s fuelled by exchanges of physical energy; you can’t just sit someone on a sofa and give them a lengthy monologue (well, you could do a dance version of that, but it’s somewhat restrictive – feel free to prove me wrong, choreographers out there). And there are tricky issues such as music rights that can be prohibitive.

You’ll never replace the live experience, but you can add something extra to it. Performance streams need to come with great direction (nobody wants to watch one wide-shot from the back of the auditorium, or editing that’s so choppy you can’t focus on the dance), and with wraparound content: interviews, histories, ways into the work. But mainly, artists and directors need to devise dance directly for film, for big screens and for phones, things you couldn’t do on stage. That’s not news – plenty of people are already doing it, but one legacy of this year may be that audiences are finally much more enthusiastic about watching it.

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