“When there’s a crisis—not that we’ve ever experienced anything like this—we do what we have to do. I refuse to let this be the death of our organization.”
Those were Nan Giordano’s words in April. I spoke to Giordano, the artistic director of the dance company her father Gus formed in 1963, on the day Giordano Dance Chicago (GDC) was scheduled to open their spring series at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. By then, GDC had already been forced to cut half its staff and freeze progress on a capital campaign aimed at converting Old Town’s Hermon Baptist Church into a state-of-the-art dance center.
Around the same time, I spoke to a number of dance leaders about the impact the coronavirus pandemic was having on their organizations. It was bad, but survivable, was the tone of most of these conversations. At the time, we all assumed that theaters would be back up and running by now.
Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theater, like GDC, had its eyes set on growth. The company raised more than $1.5 million aimed at providing full-time jobs with benefits for its 19 dancers. Without the company’s 44th annual American Spanish Dance & Music Festival, which was supposed to take place last month, executive director Jorge Perez predicted $200,000 in losses from canceled summer events alone.
Dance companies with modest budgets have fared slightly better. Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre and Chicago Tap Theatre salvaged the summer and fall by rethinking programming to incorporate audience restrictions and live-streamed performances. And Joel Hall—still residing in a rented space in a nondescript, worn down building north of Andersonville—is in the process of restructuring their entire organization, including a location change.
“The mid-sized organizations, which are those of us in the $2-$10 million range, are in very challenged positions,” said Lori Dimun, acting president and CEO of the Harris Theater, in an April phone call. “We all have full-time staff, but we don’t have major cash reserves. A lot of organizations basically have one production of buffer. So, if you had one program that were to epically fail over your season, you would have a cushion.”
Three months later, organizations of all sizes are dealing with entire seasons lost. Many have announced they will simply hold off until 2021. In some cases, that means a full calendar year without public performances.
Beleaguered by the health crisis—which forced tour and performance cancellations and coincided with the permanent closure of the Lou Conte Dance Studio—Hubbard Street Dance Chicago seems particularly vulnerable. The $6.5 million company pivoted to a free, online season finale in May and early June, and has yet to announce the 20-21 season. And even as they vacate the Hubbard Street Dance Center at 1147 W. Jackson, the company has not publicly identified a new location to house its rehearsals, youth program and administrative staff.
As a result of COVID-19, the Joffrey Ballet initially postponed performances of Don Quixote, originally planned for April 22-May 3, and canceled their annual gala. Don Quixote, intended to be the Joffrey’s final production at the Auditorium Theatre, was later canceled as the company looked ahead to a scheduled move to the Lyric Opera House this fall.
Now, we won’t see Joffrey at the Lyric until next February, beginning its season with a new ballet by Cathy Marston based on the Steinbeck novella, Of Mice and Men. A round of layoffs was handed out this week to chip away at the estimated $6.5 million loss accumulated from cancellations of the gala, Don Quixote, a fall production of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon and a critical line item: The Nutcracker.
The 130-year-old Auditorium Theatre has weathered many storms—war, political upheaval and decades-long closures—but nothing quite like this. “I have every confidence that we’re going to come out of this and be operating again,” is what CEO Rich Regan told me this spring. The Theatre, originally scheduled to announce its 2020-21 season in March, is still figuring out what to do and has indefinitely halted all live programs. “Obviously, it affects us acutely. If we can’t have shows, we can’t operate,” said Regan. However, Regan’s first passion is historic restoration, which is what drew him to the job following the 2018 departure of Tania Castroverde Moskalenko. So, in addition to rethinking how to use the Auditorium’s gorgeous 4,000-seat theater, renovations are ongoing to prepare for the return of patrons, whenever that may be.
Even the smaller venues are dealing with a complicated set of decisions. The Dance Center of Columbia College, for example, will have to alter the configuration of its lobby to manage social distancing guidelines outside the 272-seat theater. Holding performances with a mandated 25% capacity will generally cost more than companies and venues stand to make in box office receipts. Not to mention, theaters within academic institutions—the Auditorium, the Dance Center and the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts to name a few—are at the behest of their respective administrations.
Look, dance is not immune to disruption and interruption, and it has withstood the test of time through revolutions and wars, plagues, civil unrest and everything else. And at its core, dance is the same as it ever was, clinging tightly to origins in the temple, the village, the plantation, the court, the cipher, the jazz club, the street and, yes, the theater. To borrow and paraphrase from Joseph Haj, executive artistic director of Minneapolis’ storied Guthrie Theater:
“The very premise of [dance] is gathering people together in a shared space to enjoy a shared experience. In 2017, a study found that patrons’ hearts beat at the same time during a theater performance. This type of synchronicity has been linked to trust, to empathy, to friendship, to the removal of social barriers—camaraderie that doesn’t happen in the same way when we watch a performance virtually. …I’m not worried about [dance] at all in the long future. It’s essential in people’s lives. If we have to be away for a time, I think we can all survive that, because in the end we’re going to need a place where we can regather.”
Dance will survive, but the looming question is whether or not organizations, institutions and artists can withstand the ongoing financial peril at hand. Artists tend to show an infectious degree of optimism in spite of extraordinary circumstances, but the existential threat to all arts organizations remains. It might simply take a big dump of government money—an infusion of cash like the United Kingdom recently approved—to get through this. It would require lawmakers to give a damn about saving the arts. To be fair, most probably do, but have a lot on their plates. Even if something like a huge government grant were to happen, the arts won’t emerge unscathed, and it gets more dire with each passing month.
Considering the desire of artists to press on at all cost, most of our dance organizations will probably try to make something happen in the coming months. Case in point: Dance in the Parks is still dancing in the parks, with a planned release of dance films shot in park districts across the city at the end of the month. And See Chicago Dance partnered with Navy Pier to produce a series of weekly outdoor performances this July and August. Precautions in place include enforced social distancing and masks for all patrons and performers.
But it’s still only July. And while Illinois is faring better than most states as we seek to cautiously reopen, the next few weeks following the July 4 holiday will be telling for the fall. I suspect a very different kind of season will present opportunities for small, nimble, independent companies, who are frankly better set up to perform for small audiences outside until Chicago weather calls us indoors. What used to feel like problems—lack of union representation, for example; plus freelance, low-paying contracts with no benefits and miniscule operational budgets—might now be blessings in disguise. Combined with companies’ efforts to live-stream performances and produce dance films, this is what dance will look like for the time being.
It is possible to mourn what we’ve lost and still accept this new reality, though I admit it’s particularly hard to watch dance return to normalcy on other continents, where leaders better handled the pandemic.
Then again, plenty of people would say that normal is not what dance needs. That nostalgia has guided us for too long. That we cling to obsolete funding models and false idols. There’s an imperfect metaphor to be made about how white Americans idealize U.S. history. We were taught to link patriotism to the perceived goodness of our democratic and meritocratic ideals and falsely imagine those ideals are applied universally—that working hard is what it’s all about.
The heart of what’s to be learned from the multifaceted upheaval of this era, from my view, is that simply making it through the pandemic and somehow surviving immense financial and emotional setbacks is not good enough. Status quo is no longer acceptable. We in the arts may well be forced to step back or start over. Channeling the optimism of artists, what potential could arise from that very real possibility?
I’m inspired by the words of Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., whose new book “Begin Again” applies the writings of James Baldwin to present day America. Glaude points to a need to discard, once and for all, systems of power and oppression which prevent Black Americans from fully accessing what white Americans perceive as the American Dream.
“Something has died. But the ghosts will not leave us alone. True freedom, for all Americans, requires that we confront them directly. Maybe tell a different, better story about how we arrived here. Tell the ghosts to go on and rest; we’ve got this now. All of which requires that we work even harder for a better world; that we put aside the old fears and the histories to justify them in order to finally bury that old Negro and the white people who so desperately needed him, and finally begin again.”