Dance in the Time of Coronavirus

by Tanja Råman and John Collingswood / TaikaBox, 6.5.2020

Tanja Råman and John Collingswood from TaikaBox write about creative strategies one must adopt while working on an international dance project under the restrictions of the current COVID-19 pandemic. What can be done when performances and workshops are cancelled? As sensory experiences - essential for dance artists - are restricted, how to respond to the challenge and work together anyway?

Online workshop with a big projection of participants.

Oulu research days followed online from Luleå Sweden. © Dansinitiativet

Dancing on the Margins of Climate Change is a long-term project uniting 11 partners in the Barents region – Northern parts of Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia– , and including creation and touring of dance and circus in the region.

The aim is to contribute to building a sustainable and thriving international dance sector in the North. Due to lack of resources, adequate funding and job opportunities, one of the biggest challenges for the development of the dance sector in the North is to be able to maintain professional artists and also to attract new ones to regenerate and strengthen the sector.

Therefore developing stronger networks amongst the artists and organisations in the Barents region has potential to create long-term benefits for everyone involved, provide employment and professional development opportunities for the freelancers in the area – and perhaps start a new kind of touring circuit that will help raise the profile of dance created in the North.

The project includes a research period leading to the production of four new pieces by dance and circus artists from Northern Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia, and culminating in a joint tour across the four countries.

The artistic theme for 2020 revolves around local places, the inhabitants, and how they are being affected by global trends – urbanization, digitization, globalization and climate change. What a timely theme it has proven to be so far due to the pandemic outbreak of COVID-19 that has demonstrated clearly how vulnerable we are as human beings and as a society.

When we embarked on the project in 2018, we certainly did not expect to find ourselves in the current lockdown situation.

The world has presented us with a real global issue that we need to face – there is no point in pretending that everything is going to return to normal after a few months, if ever. There are likely to be more significant challenges on the horizon due to accelerated climate change. Therefore we are forced to embrace digital platforms and tools to support artistic work despite the fact that teleconnected performance seems to go against the intrinsic nature of traditional live dance shows.

At the end of March 2020 TaikaBox arranged a three-day on-line research period in Oulu, bringing the artists together via Skype for practical workshops, seminars and meetings. The discussions involved issues such as the artists’ ability to help people in the process of grieving a lost way of life and moving forward.

How could we, as dance artists, use digital tools to reach out and create meaningful connections with people who are isolated? Will there be an increased need for artistic experience – and particularly touch – after isolation?

Some participants were a bit skeptical about how a practical workshop and research gathering would work in video conferencing but in the end, the experience was positive.

“I have never ever danced on camera with my colleagues. This new experience was much more fun than I thought it to be at first. I had a big studio and big projections of everyone and that made it really easy to get into it. I particularly liked the impro tasks where we danced all together and also took in what we saw from the others,” explains Jenny Schinkler, dancer from Sweden.

The uncertainty about the future has meant that the project needs radical rethinking. We do not know if international travel will be possible later this year, or whether venues will be open during November when the tour was planned to take place.

Creating a range of potential plans is problematic as it is very difficult for such a big project to be flexible enough to respond rapidly to changes in the world situation. Venues need to be booked many months in advance and it is difficult to budget for all outcomes simultaneously, so a new plan is needed.

Sustainably produced art which is locally anchored

Dansinitiativet, the project leader in Sweden, is currently re-writing the project in consultation with TaikaBox, developing a new model for sustainable methods for creating and touring that can survive in a global lockdown, and will be relevant when the borders open up once more.

“The new format is based on digital platforms and tools to enhance the contact between the artists despite distance. We are working towards a structure and community that can keep living in some form in the future,” says Per Sundberg, producer at Dansinitiativet.

It is immensely important that we as artists continue to work in cross-cultural projects, particularly at this time when our borders are closed and many of us find ourselves lost in uncertainty and isolation – Marie Hermo Jensen, producer at Stellaris DansTeater, Norway.

“The outbreak of COVID-19 has forced us, artists who often focus on touch and sensory experiences in both our processes and in performance, to explore connectivity in a different way,” she continues.

Although everything is currently uncertain and seems impossible, we believe that persisting with the project and responding to new challenges has huge learning potential for all of the partners, participants and audiences involved.

By Tanja Råman and John Collingswood / TaikaBox, Oulu, Finland. TaikaBox is the Finnish partner in the project.