October 21, 2019
Dance, the most (literally) touching of arts, especially contemporary dance as practiced by Whim W’Him before the virus, is hard to imagine without physical dancer interaction, not to speak of proximity to a live audience. Yet in the time of Covid 19, all the usual points of contact, from creation in the studio to company rehearsal and performance, have had to be reinterpreted for our corporeally isolated world.
How to evoke feeling without touching is the dilemma of choreographers, dancers and spectators alike. From early March until very recently, Whim W’Him warmups were separately at home and rehearsals held entirely via Zoom. Now, when the dancers do meet—in Seattle parks or parking lots, out on Vashon Island at the Vashon Center for the Arts, and, last week & this, actually in a studio—it’s masked and six feet or more apart. [Note that the photos in this post were taken over two months ago when masks were not yet mandatory outside.] Every aspect of the interactions is governed by a 4-page document of
Whim WHim Covid-19 policies and procedures for rehearsals.
The much-delayed Spring program XALT* is coming to Whimmers in cinematic form. The two new pieces, Manifold, by audience favorite Penny Saunders, and The Way It Is by Whim W’Him founder and artistic director Olivier Wevers, are mostly a series of solos, though they won’t really seem that way onscreen. Filmed in early June on Vashon (Manifold) and Whidbey (The Way It is) islands, there are none of Whim W’Him’s characteristic closely intertwined ensemble segments. The two films will be released on August 13, 2020, as part of the inauguration of Whim W’Him new IN-with-WHIM streaming service. The films will be available for access on that date at 7:00 pm.*
In the process of making the two films, all sorts of problems had to be sorted out, such as how a few duets and trios were to be executed by widely spaced and masked dancers. In the event, the dancers were filmed one at a time then the footage edited to make them appear side by side at the same time in the same space, to maintain interest and connection so that the finished piece would not be comprised of mere scattered bits.
Fortunately, the starkness of strict separation on an actual stage or at outdoor shooting sites have been mitigated, moderated and ultimately transformed into an artistically compelling finished product by the wizardry of cinematography, as practiced by the inimitable Quinn Wharton (of whom more in a future post).
In the meantime, as with so many of the ways the pandemic has skewed every aspect of communal interaction in all our lives, it has been simultaneously intriguing and maddening to observe just how deeply the need for distance permeates the putting on of a dance program. For example, a while back costumer Meleta Buckstaff emailed me her impressions of outdoor, no-contact costume fittings (including sanitized safety pins):
I don’t think I’ve ever done a costume fitting quite like these have been. We were outside where the dancers have been doing rehearsal so we didn’t have a mirror or any privacy like we would in a fitting room or even the studio. And we had two very different days with regard to the weather. Last week we were in a parking lot and it was cloudy and cold, while today we were in the middle of a ball field and the sun was beating down on us! It felt pretty weird to try and do a fitting without touching the dancers at all. I brought the costumes and a big blanket that we put on the ground, and then I set the clothes on the blanket. The dancers each picked up their own things, put them on, and then pinned all the alterations on themselves the best they could. While they did that, Olivier and I stood back and did our best to instruct them, and even called Penny on FaceTime so that we could show her what the dancers were trying on for her piece while she’s at home in Salt Lake. It was a clunky process and it’s a lot more loosey-goosey than I would normally be in terms of getting a good fit, but it was the only way we came up with to keep everyone separate. Luckily the design for both pieces isn’t too complicated, so I think we’ll end up with something that looks nice overall. I have to say the dancers were great for being game to do it and laugh as we did something that felt kind of ridiculous.
There were also a myriad of measures taken to assure that close working together, in the figurative sense, during the week of filming, wouldn’t stray or trespass too closely into the literal sense. In their Friday morning Zoom meeting on June 1st, just before filming began, dancers and Olivier worked out the many social distancing ramifications of taking the company first to Vashon and then later to Whidbey Island for filming outside.
Instead of all bundling together in a couple of cars, it was arranged that five vehicles would go to the islands, and special care was taken so that Quinn, who had just arrived by plane over the previous weekend, could keep his distance. The meeting discussed bathroom use, where to stash belongings, and how to keep people separate.
And throughout the following week as final rehearsals and filming unrolled on the two islands, the same careful and detailed precautions were taken. The company also implemented a contact tracing form, asking for daily whereabouts, temperature morning and evening, with strict instructions to limit outside contact as much as possible, as well as a self evaluation form to fill in each morning before rehearsals. The central priority is everyone’s health and safety.
All of this was strange and unprecedented enough. Then the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests erupted, and the company as a whole paused in its plans, to recognize and honor the difficult revelations and widespread action which first began to engulf the American conscience last month. The dancers participated in marches, donated money and had many conversations among themselves, about the Whim W’Him platform and its uses, deciding that that was not the right moment for raising money for the company, but a time for solidarity, listening and learning how to be more supportive. Hence the six-week delay in release of the films.
The two films at last are ready now, awaiting August 13 and the roll-out of IN-WITH-WHIM. Plans, and rehearsals, are afoot as well for some “POP-UP appearances” of a short in-person version of Olivier’s piece. How exciting it was last week to be in person in the same space, watching actual-not-virtual dancers unmediated by a screen—even though it was across a soccer field, and they danced at a distance, masked, and not in socks but in sneakers. The first POP-UP series is happening on Sunday Aug 3, Monday Aug 4, Tues Aug 5 and Wed Aug 6 at 8pm. Locations will be announced on our social media platforms the day of the appearances. Music is available if you wish to hear the film soundtrack, and you can catch them in action by wearing a mask and keeping 6 feet distances.
•The making of XALT: the collaboration between choreographers Penny Saunders & Olivier Wevers and cinematographer Quinn Wharton
•Dancer features: on retiring dancer Mia Monteabaro plus the 3 newcomers, Andrew McShea, Ashley Green and Michael Arellano
•Mariano Lozano, Whim W’Him’s masterly webmaster
•A closer peak at the new streaming service IN-WITH-WHIM
•Looking forward to September: works in process by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Madison Olandt and Mike Tyus
All photographs by: Stefano Altamura