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July 5, 2020

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Dancers adapt to staging productions online

HOW do you create dance in the age of coronavirus when dancers are not supposed to touch each other and stay 1 or 2 meters apart?

All across the world choreographers grapple with the challenge of creating safe, socially distanced pieces that still set the heart aflutter.

It may be completely counterintuitive, but the very rigidity of the restrictions has been liberating for some, allowing them to play on the new taboos and dramatic tension around personal space the virus has produced.

“It unleashed spontaneity!” declared the great German choreographer John Neumeier, artistic director of the Hamburg Ballet. “In ballet, we are so used to being free in the way we touch. Sometimes we take this for granted, because we touch everybody almost everywhere in doing pas de deux, in doing a lift. And now we have a situation where we cannot touch, where there is distance, which immediately gives a new sense of tension.”

With all the usual advance planning thrown to the wind, Neumeier said the virus allows him to create without thinking about what the costumes or sets should look like.

“I am working with the purest material, just dancers in an empty space,” he said. The restrictions have forced him to “concentrate much more on the art of the solo” for his new work “Ghost Light,” which premieres — virus permitting — on September 6.

Neumeier is using 57 dancers, but he can’t bring them all together for now.

“It is a kind of mosaic,” he said. “I work with six dancers, then I work with eight dancers, then with two — but I don’t know what it will be like when we put it all together.”

Annabelle Ochoa Lopez has become dance’s queen of Zoom over the past few months, making a series of short pieces on the teleconferencing app.

Like so much else in the lockdown, it happened by accident, said the Belgian-Colombian choreographer. “Two French dancers who were retiring from the Norwegian Ballet approached me because they couldn’t do their farewell show,” she said. “They asked if I could make something for them on Zoom. I thought, ‘OK, that will be very awkward but let’s do it.’ They had three children and sometimes the children would be there saying hello from the couch.”

In the work they made together, “Where do the birds go?” — which is now on YouTube — the couple, Julie Gardette and Francois Rousseau, actually dance on their sofa.

Creating online has changed the way Ochoa Lopez works.

“I have to talk a lot more to get my ideas across, and I have to direct their eyes more as well because the frame is so much more intimate than the stage,” she said. “I am constantly coming in close to my computer and then going right out again to show the movement. Sometimes I even lie on the ground to show them my feet.”

In a second video she made with a dancer from New York’s Ballet Hispanico, she used the windows in her apartment as a framing device. In another, she channelled the legendary French mime Marcel Marceau and used a live chicken for a piece set around a table with two dancers from the Tulsa Ballet.

“Of course I miss the studio, but I think I will take something from this experience,” Ochoa Lopez said.

The lockdown may lead to a trend towards shorter works.

“A lot of companies are going to make small pieces that are cheaper and easier to handle in terms of social distancing,” said Martin Harriague, a choreographer with the Malandain Ballet, Biarritz.



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