“It’s so wild to think back on it now, because it was so full,” says Nicole Johnson, cofounder of arts platform Fly on a Wall. “Full lobbies every night, full crowds, all these artists together exchanging ideas. Everybody had started these works, and Jimmy Joyner and I had a new creation we were working on, and you just could feel all of this energy, like, ‘Oh here’s the momentum, it’s all about to tumble forward,’ and it was so exciting. And then the next weekend, everything shut down.”
For Johnson, the March lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic came one week after Fly’s Excuse the Art program, in which artists from across Atlanta came together to share their works-in-progress. Christina Massad, an Atlanta dancer and Fly member, described that week as like being on a high. Seven days later, Fly suspended its dance classes.
Fly wasn’t the only Atlanta dance organization that had its momentum halted. Zoetic Dance was rehearsing Mixtape, its annual dance festival, when artistic director Mallory Baxley made a decision she could only describe as devastating.
“It was a Thursday night and things were getting really crazy,” Baxley says. “I was sitting on the floor in my living room like, ‘Oh my god, we can’t go into rehearsal . . . there’s no way.’”
In Kennesaw, Andrea Knowlton, a choreographer and dance professor at Kennesaw State University, was facing the same dilemma. Weeks before the self-produced show featuring her dance This Land was to premiere, she had to cancel.
Deanna Saunders, a KSU dance major, was supposed to perform in Knowlton’s piece. When the university sent students home and went virtual in mid-March, Saunders found herself in a dark place. Fresh off a performance in Moondust with the KSU Dance Company, lockdown left her feeling trapped and lonely.
Within 10 days, dancers in Atlanta went from being surrounded by sweaty bodies at rehearsal, planning classes and shows, and riding these “highs,” to being alone and not knowing what the next day would look like.
The COVID-19 shutdown
While Baxley, Massad, Johnson and Knowlton were lucky enough to keep their jobs, overall the arts and entertainment sector took a huge hit because of the pandemic. According to an article by the AARP, 25% of people in that sector were laid off nationwide. For a while, the future of dance seemed grim at best. In an industry where work is already hard to come by, living amid a pandemic only makes it worse, Baxley says.
It seemed like the worst-case scenario. In fact, many dancers’ worst nightmare is getting injured. Not so much because of the pain it causes, but because it forces them to waste precious time.
The pandemic had a similar effect — it caused many dancers, choreographers and companies to lose momentum they had spent months and years building up. Initially, Baxley wondered if she, along with her community, would be able to come back as strong. Still, she remained rooted in her belief that artists would persevere no matter what.
And persevere they did. Seven months later, artists in Atlanta have done what they do best: use their creativity to find solutions to a modern problem.
At the beginning of August, when Johnson and the Fly team decided to suspend their classes through December, they decided to allow artists in Atlanta to use their studio at the Windmill Arts Center free of charge.
Even though the Fly team didn’t feel as though it was the time to continue their own works-in-progress, they wanted artists who did want to work through the “myriad of things going on in the world” to have a place to do so, Johnson says.
Space at a well-known Atlanta studio like Dance 411 costs from $35 to $90 an hour, so Fly’s offer was huge. Some 26 artists have booked the space on a recurring basis. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, Massad says. “People are like, ‘Oh I’m so excited to just not dance in my living room,’ or ‘I’m so excited to have a safe space to explore and to move,’” she says.
About the same time, Fly also gave away several 5-by-5 squares of marley flooring to artists who made donations so people could set up dance spaces in their homes. Gestures like these, albeit small, are rare, she says.
The need to have dance back in their lives
For Baxley, being stuck at home led to a different idea. As the quarantine lengthened, she began to film herself around the house and post it online. When she met with fellow Zoetic artists in May for a check-in, she realized how badly they needed dance back in their lives.
“It was really nice to hear that everybody was like, ‘We need art, we need to move, we need to express,” Baxley says. “That put a fire under me to step out of my own, ‘Oh god, what do we do,’ and I was ‘Yeah . . . we can’t stop making art.’”
What began as Baxley creating mini-dance films for Instagram became Distance Disco, now a full-fledged Zoetic installment à-la-pandemic. Zoetic’s website describes the Distance Disco project as “a virtual dance initiative that highlights the collective social-distance experience through film, dance and community-driven conversation in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic.”
Dancers can submit posts and improvisation videos to Zoetic’s blog or submit a film for the Distance Disco series. The series’ second installment premiered September 26, and featured 11 works from artists across Atlanta.
College is now back in session for KSU students and faculty, although it looks a little different. Classes are mostly virtual, the campus is rarely full and everywhere one looks, there are masks. “I started prepping a month or two in advance by upping my cardio because I was so nervous about being able to breathe and teach in the mask,” Knowlton says.
Other than dancers being a little winded, she says things are relatively the same, considering. What did change was the format of the annual KSU Dance Company fall concert. What used to be a night of several staged works performed live at the company’s Marietta theater will now be a filmed concert, viewed largely virtually.
Despite the strangeness of it all, Saunders, who is part of a film by KSU dance professor Sean Nguyen-Hilton, says the experience has been good so far. “One of the things I was nervous about was dancing in a mask, and honestly now I don’t even care about it,” she says. “I often forget that we’re in this situation. When we go to rehearsal and when we go to dance, I feel like it just kind of stops for a second.”
Knowlton, who’s also creating a film for the show, wants to inspire a similar feeling for dancers in her film. In a departure from the strong social and political commentary in her last work, Knowlton chose a lighter direction.
“It just felt to me like there were a lot of venues in our community where we could engage socially and politically, and what I could contribute to the moment was some lightness and joy,” she says. “We’re focusing on making a work that embraces youth and textures, the textures of enjoyment.”
Navigating the next chapter
In the end, all of the projects have a similar purpose: to help dancers and their community process a time where nothing seems to make sense.
This isn’t new. Art has served as a coping mechanism throughout history, a way for artists and audiences to work through difficult situations. And it’s not the first time art has intersected with a pandemic. Giannella Ysasi Tavano, author of an American Medical Association Journal of Ethics paper, said visual artist Félix González-Torres used his art to work through the 1980s and ’90s HIV/AIDS crisis.
One can even go as far back as the infamous Black Death in the 14th century: It was then that Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio wrote The Decameron, a steamy collection of stories within stories featuring 10 people quarantined together in the Tuscan countryside.
Gonzalez-Torres and Boccaccio may be long gone, but this generation of Atlanta artists has similar advice for dancers trying to navigate what seems to be the new norm. “I think as artists, how we cope is just through expressing ourselves,” Massad says. “Even when you’re tired and uncomfortable, continue to dive deep.” It doesn’t have to be some grand project, she says, creativity can mean coloring or picking flowers.
This can be difficult for dancers, whose identities often begin and end with movement, Johnson says. Losing that, even temporarily, can seem like a loss of self. She urges dancers to keep trying. For Johnson, it’s important to learn from the slowness and not fall back into old patterns.
“Explore all of the other creative parts of yourself,” she says. “Play music, write, paint, grow things. You have so much more to offer than just dance.”
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