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Chicago dance artists figure out their next steps

On March 9 last year, Ayana Strutz, a professional dancer and actress from Evanston, flew to New York City to try out for multiple Broadway shows. 

“I remember I was sitting in the audition room—you know, hundreds of people waiting. And then this girl came into the audition room, and she’s like, ‘Broadway closed down,'” Strutz says. “Then little by little, other auditions that I have scheduled were getting canceled, one after the next. And literally that day, I just saw all the lights on Broadway start going out, and Times Square was so empty, and it was literally a realization of, ‘Oh, my God, what’s going to happen?'”

The 27-year-old cut her trip short and flew back to Chicago two days later in case New York imposed a lockdown order and left her stranded. 

Unable to find work in the performing arts, Strutz now helps a family in her neighborhood with online schooling, leads workshops at the Actors Gymnasium in Evanston, and attends virtual acting and dance classes in preparation for the return of live dance and theater productions. This is her new normal.

Like Strutz, dancers are wearing sneakers more than pointe shoes these days. According to an Americans for the Arts survey, 95 percent of artists reported a loss in earnings due to the pandemic. Even with the hope that vaccine distribution brings, the financial impact that the pandemic has brought on Chicago’s dance community since last March is striking. 

A Brookings Institution report from August estimates that Illinois lost 104,618 jobs in the creative industry from April to July of 2020 alone. Indeed, in October, the Joffrey Ballet canceled the remainder of its 2020-2021 season, and at least three dance studios—Lou Conte Dance Studio, Foster Dance Studios, and Miss Geri’s School of Dance—have permanently closed.

Joshua Blake Carter, operations manager of Giordano Dance Chicago, recalls the uncertainty and anxiety the company felt at the early stages of the pandemic. “There was a moment that we were fearful that this would be the end of the company,” he says.

Fortunately, through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, small grants, and budget cuts, Giordano has stayed afloat. “Normally, we’re at like a $1.2 million budget a year, something like that, and this year it’s just under $500,000,” he says. The company laid off half of its eight part-time and full-time staff members, and all the dancers stopped working regularly, Carter says. 

Like Giordano, the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago also received federal relief from the first stimulus package, says the president and CEO of Joffrey, Greg Cameron. “The PPP loan was a godsend,” says Cameron. “The $2,019,000 from the federal government, I would guess, is probably more money from the federal government than the Joffrey has gotten in its entire 65-year history.” 

However, federal support was not enough to keep Joffrey operational. It also required the elimination of 11 full-time administrative positions, a salary reduction for all staff members, and a reduction in the company’s fiscal year budget from $22 million to $10 million, Cameron says.

While both Joffrey and Giordano were fortunate enough to receive federal relief, that was not the case for every dance company. “We were on the hunt, like everyone else, to find relief money,” says Vershawn Sanders-Ward, CEO and founder of Red Clay Dance, an Afro-contemporary dance company in Chicago. “I will say that I was deeply disappointed that the federal government did not bail out the arts industry like I think it should have.” Individual donations and small grants have been crucial to the company’s financial stability, Sanders-Ward says.

Nonprofits such as See Chicago Dance, which promotes events and holds trainings for individual dancers and dance organizations, and Chicago Dancers United, which gives money to dancers with critical health conditions, have shifted their focus to relieving the economic burden of the pandemic. 

The See Chicago Dance website features “COVID-19 Arts Resources,” which links to relief funds and grants. “What we’re best at is being the hub of information,” says Surinder Martignetti, community engagement consultant of See Chicago Dance. “The role that we took was making sure we had lots of updated information to share with people—to keep the community moving forward as best we can to keep making sure that people had enough money to pay their bills.”

Three decades ago, artists founded Chicago Dancers United in response to a different health crisis. “It began as an outcry about what was going on in our dance community in Chicago as a result of HIV and AIDS,” says Julie Kaplan, board vice president of Chicago Dancers United.

Now the organization offers a new $500 grant that can go toward any medical need, including mental health services, physical therapy, and insurance copays. “It is not even need-based,” says Kaplan. “You don’t have to supply any of your financials. It is strictly medically based, which I think is a beautiful thing for our community,” she says.  

In response to COVID restrictions, companies are experimenting with new ways of connecting with their audiences through virtual performances, classes, and dance films. For its 25th anniversary, Deeply Rooted held a hybrid performance at the Athenaeum Theatre. Fifty people attended in person, socially distanced and masked, while other audience members watched a livestream. “I think that is something that’s going to stay with us. Even after COVID, we’re going to continue to try and figure out how to make this virtual thing work for us,” says Nicole Clarke-Springer, artistic director of Deeply Rooted. “I don’t think it could replace live art. Never. Never. But I think we did an excellent job of keeping artistically who we are at our core alive.”

In September, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago announced the premiere of a virtual series of five new works for its 43rd season. It was essential for the company to keep creating, says David McDermott, executive director of Hubbard. So far two of the five pieces (A Tale of Two and The Sky Was Different) have premiered and are available for free on Hubbard’s website.

“We decided that the new public square was online and have been thinking about our virtual performances as public art that is free and accessible to all,” McDermott says. “That has been really powerful for us in helping us as an organization to cope with the trauma that has been the pandemic.”

Giordano has also been experimenting with virtual art. In October, Carter shot a dance film for the company on his iPhone. The film is a socially distanced recreation of Jolt, an upbeat jazz piece about caffeine addiction that the company first debuted in 2012. “We want to show you what you love about us, which is our energy and our passion and the joy that we bring,” Carter says.

With vaccine distribution currently underway and a consistent drop in daily COVID-19 cases, many dancers and company leaders are finally beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel.

“The morning that the vaccine approval was released, I took a deep breath and I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ It’s like if you’re going on a hike into a mountain and the mountain has been under fog for ten months but you’re not exactly sure where the peak is,” Cameron says. “That morning, I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ We’re still at the base of a mountain and we have a long way to go but we can see at the top.”

While dance companies are hesitant to plan for live performances for the spring and summer, both Cameron and McDermott say they feel optimistic about returning to the stage in the fall. 

“I think that we’re all looking at the fall of 2021 as a realistic time to be back on stages,” McDermott says. “We’re thinking really hard about what that looks like in order to ensure that our dancers are safe and our audiences are safe, but we’re early in the planning.”

Even with the hope that the vaccine brings, Strutz has mixed emotions about returning to the stage. For freelance dancers like Strutz, the instability of the performing arts world is nothing new, but the unprecedented nature of this pandemic has taken a severe financial and emotional toll. 

“It’s just been like a roller coaster of emotions of being hopeful of theater coming back and also being like, why? Every day I battle with going after my passion even though it’s an unstable industry,” she says. “At the end of the day I just end up following my heart, which is theater, and I’m just hoping that I’m making the right choice.”  v

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