With theaters and performance studios closed in the midst of a pandemic, where does dance go? If the Laguna Dance Festival has anything to say about it, “away” is one place dance will not venture to. In fact, the coronavirus era may have just proved that dance performance can be anywhere as long as you have a screen and connectivity. 

Tonight, Dec. 4 at 6 p.m., the Laguna Dance Festival will stream its virtual program, “Dance Like No One’s Watching,” as a way to raise spirits and funds for the organization, and to continue with its mission to present world-class dance in an intimate setting. 

Jodie Gates, founder of Laguna Dance Festival Credit: Photo courtesy of Laguna Dance Festival

“We are watching the arts go through an unparalleled time of suffering because teachers, choreographers, directors, companies, designers, backstage crew, everyone, has had to press pause,” said festival founder and artistic director Jodie Gates. “With so many jobs lost, I asked, ‘How can we employ artists and give them a sense of integrity and artistic excellence?’”

Practicing “the art of the pivot,” as Gates calls it, to focus more intently on commissioning new works, is what inspired the programming for the festival’s 16th annual winter season. During the streamed concert, audience members will be treated to a world-premiere viewing of a new piece performed by acclaimed international flamenco dancer Irene Rodriguez

The Laguna Dance Festival, in its effort to keep dancers dancing, commissioned the solo work, titled “Towards the Shore,” which Rodriguez choreographed and filmed on location in Laguna Beach.

“I told Jodie (Gates) that I wanted to do it on the beach even though flamenco on the sand is harder for me to dance,” said Rodriguez, who is from Cuba, and said the ocean reminds her of home. “This can connect me with my land, with my house, with my people.”

Rodriguez first met Gates in 2017 and has been anxious to perform in the annual festival for the past few years, never having the opportunity due to scheduling. With the world in the state that it is in currently, she finally got her chance — however unconventional.

“When I watch this video, I think it can make all artists understand that we don’t need a formal concept of a stage, with wood floor and lights, in order to express our feelings,” Rodriguez said. 

“To see people dancing in kitchens reminds me that I used to practice my footwork on wood pallets outside when I didn’t have a studio. We create resilience through historic times and we will continue creating art because it’s not a thing we need to do, it is a thing we want to do. We can’t stop. We are artists.”

By nurturing the creation of new and diverse dance works as well as providing an audience to view that new material, Gates and the Laguna Dance Festival are propelling the art form forward. Even the idea of virtual dance creates space for innovation, for if we get used to seeing dance in the same way, it’s possible we stop truly watching and understanding.

Gates said that it has always been a dream of hers to create a place that resembles other famous dance meccas like White Oak and Jacob’s Pillow, where dancers come to create, experience, and share the various forms of dance. With the necessity to move online in this season, Gates has reasoned that the artists’ location and proximity to California is not a limiting factor and this “place” can really be anywhere. 

“I am so excited to see what new models (of dance) will be birthed from this moment. And I believe concert dance companies will be strongly encouraged to restructure entirely,” said Gates, who especially looks forward to companies evaluating how they can become more culturally aware.

“This has been a great reset, a really awesome reset, and I think, as dance leaders, we have to be courageous about how we curate,” Gates said. “We have to lead with generosity and take time to take action, whether that is addressing systemic racism in ballet, or supporting emerging artists, female choreographers, BIPOC dancers. We have to prioritize these.”

Since its inception, Laguna Dance Festival has presented companies such as Complexions Contemporary Ballet, The Parsons Dance Company, Hubbard Street 2, Trey McIntyre Project, Alonzo King LINES Ballet, BalletX, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, MALPASO and Ballet BC, among others.

This year, audiences will experience a dance sampler that includes performances by talented recipients of Laguna Dance Festival’s 2020 Young Artist Scholarship program in addition to Rodriguez’s performance. 

And although video is not the same as seeing the work performed in person, Rodriguez thinks this format will give her a chance to really show off what makes flamenco dance so special.

“It’s not like a real performance, but at the same time, some things will be better because you can see the footwork closer, and my facial expressions, you can hear me as I make sounds with my mouth,” Rodriguez said. “You’ll be so close you can see the flowers on my fan and you will understand flamenco. You will feel like you are dancing with me.” 

In addition to Friday night’s virtual concert, the Laguna Dance Festival is inviting the community to a talk-back with Gates on Dec. 9 at 5:30 p.m., where she will share clips from her performance career. On Dec. 5-6 and Dec. 12-13, dancers can join virtual classes with internationally renowned artists as part of the Laguna Beach winter dance intensive.   

All of these virtual events, where artists and audiences are sharing their personal spaces on the screen, are a way to figure out how we can best utilize this new platform.

Said Gates: “We’ve all been stripped away of what we thought life was. Where we thought we were going. In some ways, it feels like time was stolen. What happened to 2020? But one needs to think resourcefully and strategically. And that’s how we move on.”

Kaitlin Wright is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at kaitline13@gmail.com.

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