Many dance companies are canceling or postponing the start of their 2020-2021 seasons due to the many limiting factors presented by the coronavirus pandemic— shuttered theaters, smaller budgets and social distancing measures, to name a few. But this October, Backhausdance artistic director Jenny Backhaus is pressing on with a reimagined lineup of performance opportunities.
“There was a moment at the beginning of all of this where I asked myself what the real harm would be in stopping for 10-12 months,” Backhaus said. “But I believe there is momentum in the doing, in the action. The act of moving creates more moving, so if we stop, it’s harder to get started again.”
The Orange County company’s 18th season, aptly called “Finding Forward,” kicks off on Friday, Oct. 30 via YouTube. The company will be broadcasting from Paragon Media studios in Santa Ana and audiences can expect to view a one-hour live-streamed event featuring a presentation of new solo works and a discussion with Backhaus and company dancers. There will also be a chance for at-home participation as part of a demonstration of the dance-making process.
“We’ve been out of the public eye for a bit since our season was cut short in the spring, so I really want to get the dancers back out there,” Backhaus said.
“With this prolonged absence of doing what we do together, I can’t wait to get started. We’ve got to keep the band together!”
–Jenny Backhaus, Backhausdance artistic director
Following the immediate quarantine in March, Backhausdance, like most companies in the performing arts, experienced a great pause. Company classes moved to Zoom and the annual summer intensive dance program went all-virtual for the first time.
In Backhaus’s opinion, this is all one large lesson in problem-solving, especially when it comes to dance performance. Choreography, after all, usually requires closeness.
“I’ll be honest, it’s not awesome,” said Backhaus, who expressed the frustration of trying to create works over video for an art form that is not two-dimensional. “I have been doing it one way for too long and it takes longer (virtually) and requires more patience. But I think it’ll make us better somehow.”
Company member Katie Natwick is also holding out hope for positive outcomes, though she wasn’t sure what the future held for her career early on in quarantine.
“I think it’s scary to look around and see what is being lost. I completely understand that there are important things to focus on as a country and as a world, things for basic survival, but there is something very human about creating and sharing and communicating,” Natwick said. “So I’m happy to be working on something again to share with our little dance community here in Orange County.”
Planning for the season opener as well as looking ahead to the rest of the year has Backhaus venturing into dance on film, a medium of dance performance she never had much interest in pursuing.
Due to this shift, the company is experimenting with a radically adjusted way of learning, including memorizing movement themes over video to be applied in-person later, meeting outdoors in parks for rehearsal to ensure adequate space between dancers, and finally regular COVID testing and isolation when in rehearsals that require close contact.
“There is something very interesting about taking this ephemeral event and make it last longer,” said Backhaus when considering the temporary move to creating dance films. “There is something valuable in making things that can hang around.”
Natwick said that dance on film creates a different relationship between the audience and the performer that has been fun to explore.
“Something we’ve been talking about is that we have a lot more control over proximity to the audience in this format,” Natwick said. “If we’re onstage my options for proximity are downstage or upstage, but on video, I decide if the viewer sees my entire body or just my hands. We can be very specific about what is shown and create some interesting visual stories.”
As Backhausdance maneuvers through this profound shift in the way they make work, Backhaus challenges her dancers and arts patrons alike to consider how we can “feel our way forward together.”
“I’m a silver linings person,” Backhaus said. “I can only guess that we’ll be more versatile, more creative, from all this creating and reinventing.”
Friday’s special YouTube live event is free, though donations to benefit Backhausdance’s education and community programs are encouraged. Guests can RSVP on the dance company’s website at backhausdance.org.
“More than ever, dance and creative movement are essential to bringing joy, recovery, and healing to all,” Backhaus’s event invitation says.
And Backhaus invites everyone— in Orange County and beyond— to celebrate being together in whatever way possible.
Said Backhaus: “We are an open book. This is us, this is what we’re feeling. This is how we’re finding our way forward.”
Kaitlin Wright is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.