Half a dozen starts to this post. Each draft overtaken or interrupted by events. Just now I spent over an hour on the phone with an old friend we hadn’t heard from in years, pouring his heart out. There will never be an ideal moment (or finished thought), so now’s the time to get it out.
This elephant doesn’t just fill the room, its gigantic body looms over the entire planet, and every conversation that doesn’t mention or even center on it seems a bit like missing the point. It’s so omnipresent that even facing it and looking it straight in the eye is only a first step, and not one that particularly clears the air in the way acknowledging many problems does. We just have to live with it, and talking about how we’re processing it is sometimes the only medicine available. We all test positive to being part of this upheaval.
Dance, especially contemporary dance, is the most hands on, anti social-distancing of arts. It presupposes and requires close physical intertwining, the concentrated corporeal presence of dancers and choreographers in the same room for many hours each day, followed by a scattering of participants to their separate private lives. All of that is out of bounds now.
Olivier Wevers, Whim W’Him‘s founder and artistic director, has often spoken about the importance to contemporary dance, and to the performing arts, of the patrons showing up. And yet without the possibility of congregating in numbers, the audience can’t show up for the show, which can’t go on. So, how do we “keep in contact,” “stay in touch,” when those very expressions have become figurative, images from another time—like “hold your horses” or “blackboard”—that have very little literal meaning any more. In this new strange world we all inhabit, artists of every variety have been working out ways to reach out to the world, and in various ways and to varying degrees the world has reached back. We all have to find new means of showing up.
But that’s all generalities. How is Whim W’Him, in particular, weathering this time out of joint? The company’s day-to-day core is the 7 dancers, Olivier, executive director Keri Kellerman and patron services manager Melody O’Neill (whose bland title hardly does justice to all the jobs she takes on and carries out with unassuming and friendly competence). In a conversation for my never-completed post on Melody, she said, “I love working for Olivier, I would do it for the rest of my life—his ideas about art and community and art are something everyone should experience. He has zero ego too, and is not afraid to get in there and do the work. I might come in to find him sweeping the trash.” Olivier also has very high standards that don’t budge. “It’s not to please him that everyone works for, but to live up to the company’s standards.”
And Keri, Melody continues, “has brought the quest for equality and accessibility in the arts to the forefront.” They strive “to keep the organization as efficient as possible, to shift the focus to the art. It is such a high level of production quality, and the company functions so well.” Having worked for some years with arts non-profits, Melody recognizes that “there will always be dysfunction, but what is important is how you address it. It’s the quality of leadership.”
Since the start of the pandemic, Whim W’Him has been living up to its high standards. As with any other small non-profit arts organization, money has always been a challenge, even before the current viral crisis upended everyone’s world. The Whim operation is small and lean. Just like the dancers, the company itself has no body fat. Keri, Olivier and Melody are the office. For a well-respected, thriving dance company, Melody exclaims, “to be going on 11 years with a staff this small is remarkable.” She adds, “We’re all very good people, which helps,” again commenting on “the lack of any ‘I need to be the star’ mentality, which makes it possible to concentrate on the art and create something beautiful and meaningful.” And perhaps particularly important in such unchartered times, “Olivier is not afraid to think big. Just figure it out and it will work.”
In a time like this (not that there really are other times like this), leadership matters immensely, and kindness and willing partners. For once, the leanness of Whim W’Him is proving something of a life-saver. Even in big companies which charge high prices, like San Francisco Ballet, only half the company’s costs are covered by ticket sales. Since Olivier has been so adamant all along about keeping ticket prices very low (and therefore most of what the company runs on has to be obtained from elsewhere), the proportion of the total is low, and there are enough resources to keep going for a little while on reduced rations, a state of affairs he and his administrative collaborators have been working hard to achieve over the last 3 years and of which he is justly proud. Belt tightening, even tighter, will surely have to ensue, but first and foremost, Whim W’Him is continuing to pay the dancers’ full salaries with no interruption.
He also continues to be actively involved in and concerned with the dancers’ well-being even when they are not in rehearsal. Every day for an hour and a half, Olivier joins the dancers, including the the 2 new ones slated to arrive in June, to hang out via Zoom. (More about that in the next post a few days from now.)
These ten people, 7 dancers and 3 administrators, are the heart and soul of Whim W’Him, although many others like the board, the designers, photographers and stage crew of each performance, the volunteers, and—all too obviously in these days of shuttered theaters—the audience are also necessary to make this common undertaking go and prosper. In case theaters are still not open at the end of May, in time for the program, “We are working on plans B, C and D and will share information once we have more concrete plans,” Olivier says. Stay tuned.