Making do: How Chicago's dance companies are discovering new ways to connect

The performing arts have gone digital, helping the world endure the devastating losses and hardships of COVID-19 at a time when the pandemic has closed access to live performance world-wide.

In an ironic twist of fate, as artists and arts organizations struggle to stay solvent, free online concerts, recitals, classes, workshops, discussion forums and short videos are creating unprecedented access to the performing arts, stimulating and sustaining a burgeoning public appetite for its message of hope and faith in the human spirit. 

Enhanced communication has been a universal outcome of the pandemic. Other common positives are reaching audiences of unexpected size and geographic range for online programming, discovering a surprising variety of creative solutions to the limitations imposed by the lock-down, and finding a valuable tool for creative exchange in a technology many resisted initially.

I talked to five dance leaders about how Chicago dance keeps moving. I learned how coping with the pandemic has brought about unique programs, surprising discoveries and collective embracing of fundamental values. 

The Joffrey Ballet

Ashley Wheater “We’re going to have to be really creative; we can’t just think we’re going to go back to the way it was.” said Ashley Wheater, artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet. “We have to find opportunities to connect in different ways.” 

Informal checking in among the dancers and staff is one of the ways Joffrey uses Zoom. Giving the dancers a work week teaching classes for each other, as well as Joffrey Academy students, is another. The classes are recorded and are available to all, so that dancers all over the globe are dancing together.

The company also invited prominent dancers and choreographers world-wide to give talks and master classes over Zoom. Hugo Marchand of the Paris Opera taught a class for the Academy. Marionella Nuñez of the Royal Ballet gave a talk. Zoom forums have allowed European dancers to share what it’s like dancing in a company abroad with Joffrey Academy students in Chicago. All the guest artists donated their time.

“You can take the best online content,” Wheater said, “and juxtapose it with studio work and get a well-rounded program.”

The company’s weekly series, called Joffrey Connect, benefits a larger audience online with a dance buffet of repertory excerpts focusing on different choreographers, interviews with company members, and one-time workshops for the general public. And plans are in place to offer summer intensives online for the first time, which will enroll up to 130 students from all over the world.

“When we look back on this (pandemic), I hope we can take away the good things that have come about because of it,” Wheater said.

One of the things he is most grateful for is that the dancers are all healthy. Another is having payroll protection for the dancers and staff, and work for them. Another plus for Wheater has been his participation on the counsel of Dance/USA. 

“We’ve had communication with every director from around the world, sharing information,” he said. Making plans to mitigate expenses by sharing productions is one possibility many companies are exploring. “Being creative about what we can do together has been a beautiful experience.” 

Of course, there have been challenges. The company’s aborted final season in residence at The Auditorium Theatre is one of the casualties of the pandemic. For now, the days are filled making plans for their transition from the Auditorium Theatre to the Lyric Opera House. “We’ve set up a task force to lay down plans for financial stability, what it will mean to return to the theatre, what will happen and when,” said Wheater. “Of course, we would all love to go back to work, but we have to be careful.” 

Deeply Rooted Dance Theater

Kevin Iega Jeff Kevin Iega Jeff, a business-savvy choreographer and founding artistic director of Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, is focused on the future. “We were on a great trajectory before COVID,” he lamented. 

New for its 25th anniversary season, Deeply Rooted started what they called a Special Projects Division. The first of these projects, “Goshen,” was set to premiere May 22 at the Broadway Playhouse, in partnership with Broadway In Chicago and gospel phenom Donald Lawrence. In addition, the company had just contracted a five-city tour when the pandemic shut down all performances. The premiere of “Goshen,” which depicts the story of the Exodus from Egypt—complete with plagues—will be rescheduled as the plague we currently face subsides. 

Meanwhile, in his new role as creative director, Jeff is absorbed in putting funding in place for the company’s move to a new home in Hyde Park, scheduled to open in 18 months. 

Since the shelter-in-place order closed down live classes, Deeply Rooted has initiated free online classes for its youth ensemble, professional company, and the general public. “No one was excited about virtual classes,” Jeff said, “but they have been surprisingly successful.”

“We had to ask ourselves, what is it we really feel we want to do that would sustain itself post-COVID? What would be valuable, and how do we transfer the Deeply Rooted ethos?”

Jeff and his senior artistic team worked together to put a protocol in place for the instructors. That included how to manage students in a Zoom classroom: checking in with each student, turning on mics, setting how class begins, the timing of each class, how to field questions, etc. After the physical class is over, there is always a “continuum” conversation, a debriefing period. “It’s lovely and wonderful,” Jeff said.

Enrollment has been beyond expectations. Company and studio alumni from the past 25 years came through Zoom to take on-line company class together.

The Continuum Workshop is another new program. This month, choreographer Fana Tshabalala will speak from his home in South Africa about his work with Deeply Rooted recreating the stunning “Indumba,” his epic response to the trauma of apartheid. And this summer, Deeply Rooted will offer two summer intensives online for high school-aged dancers of all levels. 

Despite the set-backs the pandemic has imposed, Jeff remains positive and optimistic that Deeply Rooted has a solid business model in place to sustain itself into the future.

Pivot Arts Festival

Julieanne Ehre Julieanne Ehre, founder and director of Pivot Arts, said she feels fortunate that when the pandemic closed down public performances, they were able to “put the brakes on press releases, seasonal hiring and other expenses before announcing the festival.” 

This year, the festival—which has presented multi-disciplinary and site-specific performances in the Uptown and Edgewater neighborhoods since 2012—has had to pivot in creative ways to adapt to stay-at-home restrictions. The festival is still scheduled to run virtually June 5-30. 

“We’ve had a large loss in revenue,” Ehre said, “but we’ve also been able to cut a lot of expenses. There is a silver lining.”

Not all the artists slated to perform are able to adapt to a virtual format. For some, especially those who depended on specific spatial configurations for audience participation, it didn’t make sense. 

But Ehre managed to arrange virtual appearances by L.A. performance artist Alex Alpharaoh, whose recent project focuses on the Dreamers, as well as members of The Rosina Project (a collaboration between Chicago Fringe Opera and BraveSoul Movement) and a screening of “The Long Term,” by The Prison and Neighborhood Arts Project.

“We wanted to avoid a festival of archival works,” Ehre said. “It’s easier for us to ‘pivot’,” she said. “Because we’re outside the box and small, we can hire individual artists to create short videos.” That includes “Untouched,” a new film featuring dance, theatre, sound, and music artists around the theme of touching in quarantine. 

Ehre’s voice choked up momentarily. “At the end of the day, we are a live performance organization. The whole purpose is to bring people together,” she said. Until then, “sending a message of resilience and creativity is my responsibility as an arts leader right now.”

Chicago Tap Theatre

Mark Yonally Just days after the March stay-at-home orders took effect, Mark Yonally, artistic director of Chicago Tap Theatre, and his wife and company business manager, Jennifer Pfaff Yonally, had to vacate their apartment due to the sudden sale and imminent demolition of their apartment building. Fortunately, they were able to secure housing, but it wasn’t easy. “I definitely felt we had an obligation (to the company) and we weren’t able to address it until we had unpacked,” Yonally said.

Once he and Jennifer caught their breath, Yonally convened the company via Zoom to discuss what they could do. “Since we couldn’t produce a show or have our gala, we determined we could put up new, exclusive content every day.”

As they brainstormed, company rehearsal director Kirsten Uttich suggested a book club where they would read and discuss books about tap dance. Initially it was to be for company members only as a way to stay connected, bolster morale, and do something fun and of common interest together. Then they thought, why not open it up to their audiences, too?

“But there was a twist,” Yonally said. “None of it would cost. We weren’t expecting anyone to buy a book, and participation would be free, with donations purely voluntary.” In addition, CTT asked authors Rusty Frank, Barbara Duffy, Acia Gray and Brenda Buffalino to discuss their books with the group.

Yonally has been astounded at the response, drawing up to 60 participants weekly from over 20 states and four continents. He credits CTT marketing director Leah Koch for helping make it all happen.

“Tea on Tap,” is another of Yonally’s pandemic-inspired innovations, and he recently added online classes on Wednesdays. He invites renowned tappers like Michelle Dorrance, Caleb Tysher and Heather Cornell to discuss their careers with him. “So far, everyone I’ve asked has said, ‘yes’,” Yonally said. In addition, every Tuesday night he leads a 15-minute “Story Time” about the history of jazz music and tap. 

The success of these programs prompts Yonally to ask, “How much of what we’re doing do we want to continue, even when we don’t have to?”

Whatever Chicago Tap Theatre does online, “it still has to be on mission,” Yonally says, serving their core constituencies.

“At the end of the day, we want to dance [and] create shows,” Yonally says, but until they can do that again, he is pleasantly surprised by how successful the online programming has been.

"We are doing what we’re supposed to be doing,” Yonally concludes, “which is to surprise and delight with tap dance.”

Giordano Dance Chicago

Nan Giordano “Our dance world is becoming even more connected and more collaborative,” because of the necessities imposed by the pandemic, said Nan Giordano, artistic director of Giordano Dance Chicago.

GDC’s spring seasons at the Harris Theater and the Auditorium Theatre, national and international tours, and plans for developing a new company home all had to be tabled.

But true to form, GDC made new opportunities in the face of adversity. “The way we get through everything is, we are a team,” Giordano said. "We have unified stronger and harder, and we’ve stuck together!”

On April 25, Gus Giordano Day in Illinois, Nan Giordano collaborated via Webinar with choreographer Ray Leeper, in his home on the west coast, to offer a master class commemorating the day. They will offer another similar master class together on June 9. Company dancers participated in the class from their homes while techno-whiz and company operations manager Joshua Blake Carter facilitated all technical aspects of the event.

“Dance is the thread which keeps the pulse of the world alive,” Giordano told her master class audience, perpetuating the spirit that her father inspired with his unique brand of jazz dance.

“The turnout was overwhelming,” Giordano said. Three hundred registered participants from 31 states and 11 countries raised over $3,000.

The class was so successful, Giordano decided to offer classes in the company’s signature technique on Friday nights. In addition, for the first time ever, she will offer the Nan Giordano Certification program online.

The company is also taking joint classes with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, as well as conducting guest interviews online. “There’s lots of communication and collaboration with artistic directors (from other companies).”

Giordano is no stranger to finding the good in challenging times. She sees it as “a sign that we need to slow down. The speed (of life) has calmed down. We all needed to be nicer. This shows what a small piece of the world we are.” Before the pandemic, Giordano would remind the dancers, “Do you understand the fragility? It could all be taken away in an instant.” Now, that reality has hit home in a very palpable way.

“I’m really finding the beauty,” she said of the current moment. Typical of her indomitable spirit and positive attitude, her motto for the company is, “We shall prevail and sail!”

And so may we all!