New Curatorial Practices: Online Dance Performances

Screenshots from performance. From top left corner, clockwise: natalya shoaf, Melecio Estrella, Liv Schaffer, Molly Heller, Molly Rose-Williams, and Erin Yen
  • How can we keep supporting artists and artmaking during shelter-in-place?
  • What does engagement look like and feel like, at home and through a screen?
  • Why will audience members tune in to our online event, when there are a thousand options right now?
  • How to keep community connections and relationships going?
  • How to offer moments of hope + joy?
  • Why dance, now?

These are some of the questions currently guiding my work as the Artistic Director of Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley, California. We are a nonprofit dance space now into our 62nd year. We offer 120 classes a week for both youth and adults plus artist residencies, rehearsal space, and intimate performances, when our space is open for business and in-person participation.

Our presenting series is called Dance Up Close/East Bay. On Saturday, May 2nd, we premiered our first online performance experience, From One to Many: Six Solos Shared. I wanted to take this writing opportunity as a moment to reflect for myself on this event and also to share details with the field. We all are finding our way as artists and administrators in this moment. Plus, we are looking ahead to the future months when online performances might become the main option (or the new Plan B for each live performance project in the works).

Basic Details Behind the Project

Due to shelter-in-place and cancelling numerous performances and residencies, Shawl-Anderson Dance Center crafted the idea of curating an online performance project to engage artists and audience members alike.

We first asked Salt Lake City-based composer Michael Wall — whom we have worked with on several projects and performances in recent years — to be a part of the project. He has an abundant website — soundformovement.com — where you can access and play hundreds of his tracks. We asked for his permission to have six choreographers select from his pieces to use as starting points for solos. Then we reached out to 6 artists — current and former Artists in Residence, plus a visiting artist — to make a piece for May 2nd.

The six choreographers involved were: Melecio Estrella, Molly Heller, Molly Rose-Williams, Liv Schaffer, natalya shoaf, and Erin Yen. Each artist selected one of Michael’s compositions and either adapted a previous solo, or choreographed a new dance that was three to six minutes in length. They each danced their own choreography.

At first we hoped to stream the performance live from each of the six dancers’ spaces. We envisioned having audience members play the music at home from a playlist shared with them. After weighing both options of live and pre-recorded performances, especially considering all of the technical problems that could arise, we decided to ask the dancers to record their dances in a space they have access to right now — their home, their backyard, or a local park or empty space. We also were clear that it was about filming your solo; this was not meant to be a screendance project with highly edited and manipulated footage. They needed to make a film of the solo performed straight through. (Of course, each choreographer could do as many “takes” as they like.)

The dancers had about three weeks to craft their pieces. Videos were submitted 5 days prior to the event to be compiled together in iMovie and then prepared to launch via YouTube Premiere on Saturday, May 2, 2020 at 5pm PST. We selected the 5pm time to engage East Coast audience members as well as our local community.

The Format of the Event: Saturday, May 2nd, 5–6:15pm

All ticket holders received an email with the key links for Zoom and YouTube.

At 5pm, we gathered on Zoom. We had 100 people, not 160 as planned. The participant increase that we had purchased for our Zoom account had required an extra step that we weren’t aware of. (We thus were feverishly fixing this at 5:05pm behind the scenes while the event was beginning, with updates being sent through our ticketing client and personal emails.)

I gave a welcome and introduction to the audience, and then each of the artists introduced themselves and spoke for a moment about their piece.

We then all headed to the YouTube premiere site, where the video went live at 5:15pm. YouTube Premieres begin a 2 minute countdown at the scheduled time, then begin playing automatically for viewers. Viewers can scrub back in the video, but not forward. When the premiere is done, the video stays on YouTube as a normal video (though you can adjust the privacy settings to make it Private or Unlisted if you like). The six solos totaled 32 minutes in length. This was our performance. Amazingly, many of the dances looked like they were being performed live!

With the Zoom issue corrected, around 116 audience members returned to our Meeting Room for a Q and A with the artists. Audience members posed questions in the Chat, and many also opted to simply share quick feedback and impressions about the performance they just saw.

I wrapped up the Q and A around 6:05pm, but about 30 people lingered for another 20 minutes with the artists. There was more to say and share. Even across screens, people wanted to talk and connect. As dance scholar — and longtime SADC community member — Sima Belmar noted about the night: yes, we were watching pre-recorded dances, but we were doing it together at a specific time. We were still gathering, and the Zoom sessions before and after allowed for talking, dialogue, and seeing artists and audience members together.

A live, real time component was a vital element of the project, even though the live bit was talking, not dancing.

Key Learning: Artistic Buy-In From the Start

I think one of the most important details here, which made for a successful event, was that it was clear from the start that this was going to be online. We were not trying to take a previously scheduled live project and transfer it online.

The idea of audience members watching in their homes was a very important aspect to bring into the choreographic process. As choreographer Molly Rose-Williams shares:

Knowing that I wouldn’t have the live performance element made the visual aspect of this piece much more important to me than it usually is. The camera flattens perspective, and also, to a certain extent, energetic texture. The camera is imprecise about conveying things like facial expression and subtle changes in physical tone, so I had to rely much more on overall body shape and the narrative elements offered by my compositional choices and interaction with the space around me in order to share the lighthearted and playful tone I wanted the audience watching to experience.

I invited artists who I thought would dive into the project, be curious, and take risks. Each one indeed fulfilled these hopes and wishes! Each piece used the time, care, and artistic inquiry I value and appreciate from these six choreographers.

Production Management, Just Like We Do with All of Our Performances

Maybe stating an obvious component here, but we did treat it like all of our performance projects. Jessi Barber took the lead as the Production Manager, just like she does for every Shawl-Anderson Dance Center production.

We sold tickets via Brown Paper Tickets on a sliding scale, $0–15. We wanted to still earn revenue from the show, but wanted to invite everyone to the event at this moment in time, regardless of finances. One drawback with Brown Paper Tickets is that the ticket sales must close online no later than one hour before the show. This meant that people who still wanted to join had to email Jessi directly to receive the links and pay via Paypal or Venmo.

We wrote and distributed a press release, connecting with both local and national dance writers. We cultivated both preview writing and reviews of the show. Jessi made a trailer video that was shared on social media and to our email list.

The goal was 100 audience members, pulling from our devoted East Bay audience as well as new audience members out of state.

The night of the event, Jessi served as our Stage Manager, hosting the Zoom event, fielding questions via email and Zoom chat, and providing logistical facilitation for participants in the meeting. Due to the issues with the participant cap, our Administrative Director also jumped in last minute to trouble-shoot. One lesson we learned to pass onto colleagues: have at least one staff member on call for tech assistance for your entire event in addition to the person who is virtually hosting the event.

The Finances of It

We offered all seven artists involved — choreographers and composer — a stipend to be a part of the performance. Our modest goal was 100 ticket sales.

Even with 100 tickets, that would not cover the cost of the artists, plus Production Manager and Artistic Director. We were lucky to also receive funding through the organization’s Frank Shawl Legacy Fund, which was created in Fall 2019 when SADC co-founder Frank Shawl passed away. We honored Frank with this dancemaking project during shelter in place. In its 62 year history, we believe this is the first time that the center had to cancel performances.

In the end, we sold nearly 160 tickets!

Considerations for the Coming Months and Year

As we move forward with a lot of uncertainty about opening up theaters and college campuses, and possibly needing to shut down again, I wanted to highlight three key ideas here: music permissions, taking live shows online, and hybrid performances.

Music permissions. I am hearing of dance videos getting pulled from Facebook and YouTube because of the music they are using, without permissions. Thus, I was strategic to begin first with getting music permissions. I definitely recommend thinking through your music options in the brainstorming phase.

Prepping for when a show might need to shift online. Believe me, I want to go back to planning and curating live performances. I cannot wait! But as we start to dream and vision for the coming season, we need to integrate backup planning into our production and art-making processes. Even for a scheduled live event, do you want to video it multiple times throughout the process in case the show gets cancelled? Would you have a high quality recording to do a viewing online (and still charge tickets)? Will you have the permission and rights to do this — permissions from the choreographer, composer, set designer, and dancers? Plus, how to work closely with choreographers throughout the process to support the artwork and the experience of it in-person AND through a screen?

Hybrid performances. As I mentioned in my previous article about artmaking in the months ahead (April 24, 2020 on medium.com), what about smaller audience sizes due to public health restrictions in your town? Would you be able to offer in-person performances in your space AND livestream them at the same time, or record to allow more audience members to see it in the near future? Again, is the choreographer keeping this in mind from the get-go? How will the work read on a screen?

Find Out More about From One to Many: Six Solos Shared

I look forward to hearing from colleagues near and far about your innovative ways to make and share art in these times. Best wishes during the months ahead. We’ve got to keep creating.

Jill Randall is the Artistic Director of Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she curates events through its Dance Up Close/East Bay Series. She also writes about dance throughout the United States with Life as a Modern Dancer, DIY Dancer, and Dance Teacher.

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Jill Randall is a dancer based in Berkeley, CA.

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Jill Randall

Jill Randall

Jill Randall is a dancer based in Berkeley, CA.

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