When the lively arts go virtual | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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When the lively arts go virtual

Two Reader critics talk about digital dance and theater—and other COVID-19 challenges.

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On April 8, several organizations came together for a "Chicago Performing Arts Virtual Retreat." Representatives from See Chicago Dance, Chicago Dancemakers Forum, the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago, Links Hall, High Concept Labs, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Pivot Arts, the Arts and Business Council of Chicago, and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) led breakout sessions, conducted physical exercises, and fielded questions from nearly 200 participants over the three-and-a-half hours of the event.

In the two weeks since, Reader theater and dance editor Kerry Reid and dance writer Irene Hsiao, who both sat in on the town hall, have been occasionally sharing their thoughts with each other about what live performance means and how it survives in the context of the COVID-19 shutdown, along with ongoing examples of online performance they've been watching in quarantine. This is an edited version of that written dialogue.

Kerry Reid: So I think one of the things I keep coming back to in looking over my notes from the town hall and just from the general tenor of conversations with artists and institutional leaders is this: are we prepared for this shutdown to last for a long time? The "Uncertainty" breakout session was maybe the most honest in addressing that. I remember Ginger Farley of Chicago Dancemakers likened it to the "experience of being a young mother and how much . . . like that this was in being suddenly and abruptly cut off from communication with others, other than an infant or a very small person."

You have done so much great writing for us on how dancers are taking their practice online, but I wonder if starting with our own sense of uncertainty might be fruitful. Obviously the Reader is doing a lot of things to hang on since we lost a lot of advertising revenue, but a shutdown like this throws into sharp relief how vulnerable and interconnected all of us are, and raises questions about how do we as individuals, not just institutions, figure out how to deal with uncertainty. Would love to hear your thoughts on that to start. And also, of course, just want to say how much I appreciate all you are doing to cover the work being created in isolation.

Irene Hsiao: Thank you so much for these generous words. Uncertainty has without a doubt become the landscape of our actions—and the pressure is high to seem to be coping well with it. For instance, Carrie Hanson, artistic director of the Seldoms, which was scheduled to perform their new work FLOE at the Art Institute this month, brought up that funding bodies may be seeking "evidence" of companies continuing to work during this period. It seemed both logical yet profoundly unfair that not only must artists be coping but also prove that they are beyond merely existing/surviving. 

Uncertainty also drives questions many have about the sustainability of art forms based on gathering—a small way of asking if we as a social species can survive, perhaps. Uncertainty drives my writing—it feels important to witness the spectrum of responses in this time without rushing to judgment. We can't know whether anything is working, yet we know that people are working. 

I am wondering if you could say more about the role theater and dance play at the Reader, what you as the theater and dance editor have been observing among individuals and institutions, and how the Reader is coping?

KR: The hardest part for me to deal with at first, other than not being around my coworkers every day, was that we were on the cusp of doing the spring theater and dance issue, which I know you had a piece lined up for—on FLOE, as a matter of fact. And then in less than a week, everything went dark. And it became a question of "So, what do we do now that we can't write about what we thought we'd write about?" 

There is a lot of uncertainty in media anyway, and let's face it, that uncertainty was there for a lot of alternative papers before this pandemic hit. But we are keenly aware that a lot of the advertising money is tied to places where people gather: bars, theaters, music venues, restaurants, festivals, galleries.

The Reader has, I think, always been the paper of note for covering the most theater and dance possible in town. Certainly the coverage has ebbed and flowed and we're not putting out the four-section behemoths of the 90s. But we've been the major media outlet most likely to go to a company in their early days, for instance. You reviewed Theatre L'Acadie's The Two Character Play in its first and last weekend right before the shutdown. That was only their second production, and we reviewed both of them. I think that matters, or I'd like to think it does, in showing that we take the work by smaller companies seriously, even if we don't always love it. (And you did love that show, so I hope they bring it back!)

So now the question for me as an editor is—what's a fair way to cover online content? I've certainly written up some online productions since the shutdown, but my uncertainty comes from not being sure if that is even useful right now, at least from the standpoint of being a review. It's either archival stuff or newly created work that feels like a rough draft of history, or what a colleague calls "an amuse-bouche"—a little tidbit to tide us over until we can gather again. 

And I don't mean that in a dismissive way, because I think the companies creating that work are themselves leaning into the uncertainty. And it can feel quite cold to be asking artists to carry on as if nothing has changed for them in creating work. (A pseudonymous writer on Medium got a lot of attention for suggesting that theatermakers should just stop trying to create content during the shutdown. In their words, "These immediate, ad hoc, digital projects highlight not a resiliency, but a deep fear.")

But I didn't get the sense that the town hall participants were worried about how writers like me would respond to the content of their work right now, and why should they be? They were talking about staying well, finding ways to maintain their creative practice and their tribes, learning to adapt to working online, and wondering how much that digital work would form a parallel world even after the shutdown ends. Because we really don't know how soon people will feel comfortable going back to public performances even if we get some kind of "all clear."

In general, I don't think theaters spent a lot of time prior to this on their digital presence. They had archival videos, they had some really nicely edited promo clips or interviews, but those were about preserving company history or PR. 

So to finally answer your question (working from home makes me more ponderous than usual, I guess), what I think I'm observing in these still-early days is "What role is all this new focus on livestreaming, online content, etc. going to have on our mission afterward?" 

Brian Balcom, the director for Teenage Dick at Theater Wit, made a good point in the talkback for that show the first night it went on a ticketed livestream: for a lot of people with disabilities or who live far away from cultural centers, these digital options are sometimes the only way they can consistently see theater. And that would also be true for dance, I assume.

I wonder if in your discussions with dance artists, is there a sense that these new digital platforms might remain even after a vaccine—whenever that blessed day arrives?

IH: At the town hall and in other conversations I have had, performing artists have, again and again, asserted how committed they are to working live and in person. That's the magic of theater, people coming into a space with nothing in it and creating in an hour or two a world we experience together—it's not only the product but the process of this kind of work. Several have expressed an optimistically transient view of the present situation—Katherine Disenhof, who created the streaming dance class aggregator Dancing Alone Together, said in her interview, “I hope that in a couple weeks or months, this whole thing will be completely useless." 

Few dancers want to keep dancing in their kitchens, even instructors who have found themselves teaching hundreds more students over social media or platforms such as Zoom. In essence few performers are household names—they work in the communities they have built. On the performance side, Nejla Yatkin pointed out during the town hall that she had considered video and social media posts supplementary to performance, not performance itself. I think it's worth noting that an area that has really grown is the livestream, which speaks of this desire to connect—if shared space is an impossibility, at least in shared time. 

Of course, there are some artists who thrive in a virtual ecosystem, who understand its parameters not as limitations but as opportunities. Perhaps this is their moment to shine, whether as TikToks or television.

On access: right now, with so much dance and theater online, there's unprecedented access to material, often at no cost or by donation—and in addition to giving viewers a chance to experience work too far, too expensive, or otherwise inaccessible, it is giving smaller companies and independent artists who start with a smaller budget and audience base a chance to be seen—on a more level playing field where it comes to lighting and scenic design! 

Often they already have a practice of sharing their work online—choreographer Yin Yue noted in her interview that it was the only way for small companies to stay afloat because the process of creating a new production can take so long. It has also given dancers a chance to try new techniques or take classes with teachers they may not have had access to—such as the Gaga classes offered by teachers in New York and Tel Aviv, which occur eight times a day and draw hundreds to class. These numbers reflect a demand built by Ohad Naharin’s choreography as well as the limited access most people have to such classes. (Chicago, for instance, lost its only certified Gaga teacher in December.) I could see such classes continuing beyond the present where previously unrealized demand exists. Yet I wonder what we can really learn from a screen—there’s a meme on the BalletMoods Instagram account that points out what we all know.

Larger-scale performances I (like many others who have Internet access) have seen recently, include Crystal Pite’s The Statement danced by Nederlands Dans Theater (which was not going to tour to Chicago anytime soon) and Pina Bausch’s Palermo Palermo (which was to come to the Harris this May). The Statement was filmed cinematically, with close-ups and angles you would never see in performance. Yet Pite’s work often seems made for (and by) film, so its essence translates well to the screen—I almost had the sensation I could see it better than I would have in the theater. 

Palermo Palermo was more like documentation, a low-resolution record of an event, though in fact it was cut together from ten years of performance footage, but Bausch’s work relies on radical presence, the certainty that these extremities of life really occurred. Perhaps the life of any performance really is something more like this recording, the sum of its presentations over time, but this record of it only heightens the hunger in me to see the real thing—to participate in its life. “Dance needs close encounters and personal contact,” wrote current artistic director Bettina Wagner-Bergelt recently on Tanztheater Wuppertal’s Instagram. 

I’m more curious about the work being made for this moment—for example, I love this Instagram video Chicago dancer Amanda Maraist made dancing in an empty Mana Contemporary, which captures the oddness of isolation in a looming space that primarily exists as a canvas for more art and more people, as well as the protracted and accelerated way we are experiencing time. It’s also a piece created for the medium through which it’s presented and uses a space that functions as well in the abstract as it evokes a sense of familiarity for many Chicagoans. 

I am also curious about what is happening beyond what I can see at the moment and with artists who cannot or do not choose to participate in the online melee. 

I don’t feel any more able than anyone else to forecast what will happen for dance or theater. To me, performance is about what is happening right now. 

What are some things you are seeing happening now?

KR: I feel like there are two or three main strands to what is happening with theatermakers right now, aside from lots of places moving class content online. I wrote about some theater for young audiences programs that are doing that this week, and I'll be covering some improv and comedy classes next week.

There is, as you noted, the archival footage. I think that's been great for catching up with shows that I either missed the first time around, like Philip Dawkins's The Happiest Place on Earth, now streaming with Sideshow Theatre Company, or that I would never otherwise have seen, like Phoebe Waller-Bridge's original 2013 solo play Fleabag, which led to the Amazon Prime award-winning series. A recorded version of last year's theatrical revival of Waller-Bridge's solo showed up as a short on-demand run to raise money for pandemic relief efforts in the U.K. 

It's not like being in the audience, but then again, listening to great music at home isn't like being at a concert, either, and if we limited ourselves only to the best of live-ness, our cultural reference points would be pretty starved, especially now. (And since I missed Victory Gardens's production of Fun Home, I'm excited that they're going to bring that back digitally May 12-24.)

I do suspect solo pieces, by virtue of their inherent minimalism, can translate more easily online than a full production, particularly if the latter is a show that was shot with one or two cameras and has questionable sound quality. And I'm not complaining about that as much as pointing out that a lot of the digital archiving theater companies do is for internal purposes, or to send along with grant applications. They were never thinking of these recordings as substitutes for the real thing, though it will be interesting to see how much that changes in the future. Many of them are just tossing up some stuff for free, and I don't think that it's a great affront to the ancient art of theater if it doesn't always translate that well in the digital medium.

But I am more interested in how companies are creating brand-new content. The Neo-Futurists, for example, are perfectly positioned to take something like The Infinite Wrench online. That show is all about creating short performance pieces, and the company typically uses small-scale props and video components even when it's live, so the translation to online content doesn't feel so jarring.

Black Button Eyes, which deals with the macabre, decided to do their own version of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" with The Masque of the Red Coronavirus, which involves short performance videos interspersed with narration. I also dug that on the website, they provided actual stage directions, pointing a way to do it in a full production if so desired when such things are possible. The political message in the piece is pretty overt, but as I said, it's a rough draft, an angry sardonic immediate response to the madness of the times. And it also is short. I don't know about anyone else, but my attention span isn't the best these days, so shorter, more episodic work suits me well.

I'm also excited to see Theatre Y, which is always innovative, deciding to move ahead and do a deeper collaboration with András Visky, one of their chief inspirations. Each ensemble member is going to create a short performance film each week for the next three months, based on a poem by Visky. He spent his early childhood in a communist labor camp and hence knows from privation and isolation. 

But there were also so many good points raised at the town hall about how what we're seeing play out with this pandemic, in the arts and outside of it, reflects a lot of what was already happening. Communities of color are being disproportionately affected. There's a technology gap between people and communities of means and poorer ones. We can't assume all artists have the financial ability (or the time and energy on top of everything else) to upgrade their tech components right away to create the best digital environment for the sake of staying busy with new work. And of course the perennial assumption that artists should be happy to work for free, or for "exposure," still troubles me. 

In that sense, I don't WANT things to go back to "normal." Because what was "normal" wasn't always working so well for a lot of artists and nonartists either.  v

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