Happy Hour on the Fringe: Global Pandemics and Art with BalletX
During the global coronavirus pandemic, FringeArts is pivoting the focus of our podcast to checking in with our artists, our audiences, and our community partners during these unprecedented times. Since we can’t gather, we’ll chat remotely about how we respond to this crisis, and how the role of art during a pandemic shifts.
In this episode, FringeArts Marketing Manager Raina Searles and Artistic Producer Katy Dammers chat with Anne White, dancer and Education/Community Relations Specialist at BalletX, Philadelphia’s premiere contemporary ballet company founded in 2005. The three discuss what it takes to keep dancing during lockdown, the essential nature of the arts, and how hope for a brighter future is instilled through togetherness and creativity.
Raina: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. My name is Raina Searles, and I’m the Marketing Manager at FringeArts. In the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic, many of us, especially those in arts organizations, have had to reflect on ways to do our work despite dramatic social disruptions. One thing FringeArts is excited to continue doing is connecting our artists and community partners with all of you listening through this podcast. We’re diving into how artists are responding to the pandemic, the intersection between art and public health, and how community partners are working to meet the specific needs of their constituents. You can learn more about what we’re doing at FringeArts by visiting fringearts.com/covid-19. And as always, enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence.
Katy: Today, we’re talking to Annie White, longtime dancer and current education and community relations specialist at BalletX. BalletX is Philadelphia’s premiere contemporary ballet company, founded in 2005. We at Fringe last worked with BalletX on a pop-up performance in our FringeArts Haas Biergarten in the 2019 Fringe Festival just last fall. Normally, BalletX spends their year performing pop ups all over Philadelphia, in addition to performances at the Wilma Theater touring worldwide and their dance education programs. So excited to welcome Annie today. Thanks for joining us.
Annie: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Katy: So we always start our podcast off by asking what are we drinking? Because this is after all, happy hour on the fringe. So what are you drinking today Annie?
Annie: I am drinking a Yuengling lager, which is pretty much my go to. I’m not a big hard liquor drinker, so I like a beer. And that’s what I’m drinking.
Katy: That sounds refreshing. What about you, Raina?
Raina: Right now I am having tea. I feel like we had a series of warm days, it’s still in that fluctuating cold to warm where it’s like, you know, tea on a random, what is today, Wednesday? in May sounds good.
Katy: Yeah, I am with you there. I’m still going hard on the tea for sure. But I also, in my dreams, would like to think that I’m having a mojito right now because that feels right as we start to move into some warmer weather finally.
Raina: So, Annie, just kind of taking a step back. We’ll catch up all the way to where we are today. But from the beginning, for you and for BalletX, what were those first weeks of stay at home orders and shifting to a new programing model, what was that initial kind of first couple of weeks like for you?
Annie: Oh, gosh. It’s sadly so long ago, it was it was unsettling, of course. And I think as a lot of people know, BalletX was sort of one of the first organizations to make the call to send folks to work from home and that’s really difficult for any organization. And then to put in the dancers in the company made it really challenging. And for the choreographers that were here making work, three choreographers, visiting choreographers were here. So it was disorienting and I think we felt like we kind of had to put our blinders on and just say “this is a decision that we’re making and we’re all going to work together and we’re going to really try to just really think about this as a safety issue and try to take all of our hopes and dreams and expectations”. And for the artists and makers certainly there, you know, being right in the middle of making their work and having to put the brakes on the creative process. You know, it was just sort of, you know, it was really, frankly, kind of devastating and heartbreaking.
But we all rallied and immediately started thinking about ways to keep art making alive and dance making alive by immediately offering our classes on art classes from the center online on Instagram and a lot of our– we have a few company members who teach those classes, also we had company members teach extra classes to keep themselves engaged. And then Christine started this switch over of working virtually with the dancers and having classes or all on taking company class together. But the first couple of weeks were disorienting but, Christine is a great leader and it was pretty calm. And it was just: “let’s be patient. Let’s be good to ourselves and let’s take care of ourselves so we can take care of the community”.
Katy: That’s so great to hear Annie, I think those first couple of weeks were so confusing and nerve wracking for everybody. Like, how long is this going to last? What does this mean on so many levels? It changed how we buy our groceries to our relationship with our homes, not to mention our jobs and our communities. And I’d love to hear more about how that’s shifting the artistic practice. You know, I love seeing the classes on Instagram. I know that artists are, you know, pushing the furniture into the sides of their living rooms so they can carve out some space to dance on at home. But how has that affected the creation of new work, which is one of the most exciting things that BalletX does?
Annie: So first and foremost, there was an immediate decision that, you know, as as many organizations, including you at FringeArts, is: OK, so we’re going to switch gears. How are we taking this art? How are we taking the dance making and the dancing? Well, first of all, it’s not an ensemble work anymore. So everyone is working from their homes. And immediately, Christine, just she ordered marley floors for all of the dancers and Tara, who’s the associate director, so that they all had a place to safely take class. And then. Yeah. And a lot of companies are doing that. But it’s just like– it’s hard if you don’t have– you forget as soon as you leave this beautiful space– our center—that, yeah, like, oh I can dance anywhere. But we’re like, oh this is the ballet technique and we– actually it really is. And then if you were in point shoes, you really need a floor that can accommodate you so you can safely work. So that was the first thing right away. We had virtual company classes to keep the dancers in shape and feel connected through Zoom. And then the process was: OK, we have to look, we have to figure out what are we going to do with these three pieces that were almost completely made and planning on filming those since they’re not going– they were not presented at the Wilma in the in the spring.
So having to task the choreographers to think about how they want to see their work virtually– so that, of course, took them, I’m sure, to a different way of viewing and reflecting on the work that they just made. And then… and then moving forward, they’re inviting the next round of makers to start from scratch and work just in solos and a couple of duets, for example: so Stanley and Roderick are roommates, so they’re able to work together in a duet, and Andy and Zach are a couple, they live together and you can work together and everybody else in the company are working solo. And so for the choreographers and the dancers, it was just: let’s talk about this. This is my vision. I’m re-shifting what I thought I was going to do. And as any good maker will do and any good artist, you’re just working with the confines of space and time and you don’t want to lose an opportunity. And we don’t want to learn– we didn’t– no one wanted to lose an opportunity to connect and make work. So that’s what that’s what they’ve been doing, we’ve been doing.
Raina: I’m curious about, with the work they are making now, with the different solos and duets, are those– do you imagine that those will be performed on a stage one day? Or, you know, something about how they’re being created within the confines of people’s studios and apartments and what not. Do you imagine that they’re also meant to be performed in smaller spaces?
Annie: I don’t really have a good answer for that. That’s really something for Christine to answer. I think right now I think that the choreographers are looking at it in various ways. And it could be that it all sort of comes together as a group for a live performance altogether, or it might end up being that they’re all sort of individually documented and filmed and presented virtually. And I think that will all depend on how how we all reenter, and what that looks like. So I think that they are working from multiple, multiple end results. So, as they’re creating– that’s right– they don’t have the specific product and space in mind. And I think they’re thinking in multiple ways about how the work will transfer and translate depending on whatever that space is, whether it’s live, whether it’s in a on a proscenium, whether it’s meant to be viewed digitally on a small screen or a big screen. So I think they’re thinking really in multiple ways.
Katy: That makes a lot of sense. And in my more generous moments, I can look at this experience as like maybe a good testing ground. I know for us at Fringe and for every arts company out there, it’s been a big exercise in contingency and scenario planning, you know, how many different ways could you make a performance work? How many different ways could you rehearse something, whether it’s in person or via Zoom? So in some ways, it’s really pushing us to be differently creative. And I feel like artists are the best people for that challenge because they, as you said, Annie, you know, make work given the time and the space and the resources available to them. And so I am excited to see what ultimately comes out of this.
Annie: Yeah, me, too. I think it’s really again, it’s weird. I think it’s overstated this idea of using this experience in this crisis as an opportunity. But I think that’s really how I think most humans do. I mean, we all are. We all are meant to survive and thrive. And, you know, artists are no different. So I think moving forward to new work, I am imagining in general, not just with BalletX, I’m imagining that it’s in some ways easier sort of coming into it mid pandemic, meaning that knowing that you have these constraints, I think it’s more difficult for the folks that– many worldwide artists who have planned and made their work based on something that that no longer could happen. So those are two very different things. And we’re sort of experiencing both of those things, that BalletX and that’s– I can’t speak for the dancers—but I’m imagining it’s very tough when they’re not in it, sort of very interesting for them, because, of course, as dancers, you know, it’s really their role, among many others is to really embody, literally embody and to express and help facilitate this vision of a maker and a choreographer. And I’m sure it’s been really fascinating from their point of view to sort of try to really have to step up and really assist in a way that they probably have never had been asked to do before.
Katy: Yeah, it’s a totally, totally different world for all of us. And it’s put the dancers in an uncertain position, but BalletX is also such an amazing resource for Philadelphia, for the classes it gives. And so I’m curious if you can tell us a little bit more about that transition to taking those digital. I have found that I’m taking more dance classes than ever, and because it’s more accessible to me in my home, even though I do miss the studio. So what has the response been like? When has that transition been like for you all?
Annie: Well, this response has been fantastic. And we did it very quickly. And that’s always very scary because, you know, you want to sort of be a leader in taking the charge and trying something new, but then, of course, that’s super risky because you’re putting it out there in the public and just like with making work– in terms of generally the way that BalletX, prepares and curates and makes and presents, work– classes are also similar. And it’s it’s really a trial by error. I think that we’re going to– we’re– right now, we’ve been doing everything on Instagram that seemed like the right thing to do to offer all of our community and free classes when we continued to pay all of our teachers. And that was really important for Christine and for the organization to really keep all of our instructors employed. And it’s been really– it’s been really beautiful on one level for the teachers, because you see all of these folks joining on and on Instagram and signing in, and it’s pretty amazing. But of course, you don’t have interaction.
So it’s sort of like, you know, probably how, you know, a late night costar doing– doing their work from their bedroom when there’s no audience, and, you know, you can not literally cannot read the room. You have one person’s opinion, like, “I’m doing great. These jokes are– they’re landing! Oh, man, I’m killing it tonight!” So there’s definitely that. But the response has been overwhelming. Folks are constantly, as folks who have been taking classes are reposting what they’ve done, we’ve gotten so much feedback saying, you know, thank you so much for keeping me sane. Thank you so much for keeping me on a schedule, because the classes are live. And then we archive them so that you can come back. We have a lot of international people taking classes, which has been incredibly exciting just to hear, like, you know, Ola from Brazil! I love ‘vogueing’! We don’t– you know, it’s just pretty great. And, you know, again, it’s sort of a cliché, but it’s also true. I mean, that that platform really can does on one level really connect all of these people. And I think that was really comforting for for quite a while. For a lot of people, it certainly was for me and so that was been very exciting.
Raina: I’m curious because your role specifically is with community relations, and so, you know, as you’ve said, you do this new model of audience engagement. How has your job changed?
Annie: Well, there’s different, as you said, there’s different aspects of my role that we– in which we all work together. We’re not– we try not to silo ourselves too much. But the biggest community in terms of sort of volume and consistency is dance exchange, and that’s our in-school dance program. And luckily, that runs from September to the end of February. And we were done, and it was I mean, it was just such a– It was just complete luck. So that was a– that was a nice breather. And I felt like whew, because so many other school programs and after school programs, obviously they had to stop. And that– I can imagine that was really difficult.
So that was– that was great. We didn’t have to do that. And I was able to still be in my normal mode of reflecting on how the year went and moving forward with planning for the next year the pop ups that we do. That was– those were all canceled and so that was difficult. And so trying to decide what to do with those pop ups, you know, trying to not just say we’re going to just not do them, but try to think about– starting to think about how can we do these? How can we present these pop ups virtually? Do we want to, you know, do we want to present these pop ups virtually? You know and this is, you know, certainly relies on our partners wherever we are. And that’s been very difficult for our partners. You’re partnering with the Johnson House for Juneteenth and so, you know, again, I’m speaking for a lot of organizations because I’ve been in touch with so many, but it’s, again, going back to this idea of, you know, what is community? What is the impact? What does community really mean if you can’t all assemble physically together? And because that’s really what these pop ups are.
And so trying to find that idea of community without being physically present, I think is on folks minds. In some cases, it will just wait because it is just impossible, but with other organizations, they are thinking about ways that we can share our resources, be in a place, film it, and then present it either later with everyone there or through various social media. But I think the question is, you know, we don’t want to– just like anything else– we don’t want to just do it to do it, we want to do it well, we want to do it with meaning, and we want it to be real community engagement and not just this audience engagement. And so everything’s a lot of talking and looking forward to the next thing, but also trying to think creatively about what we can do because we don’t know when we’re all going to be together.
But it’s been great for me personally and for BalletX because I’m– I’m reaching out– we have our 15th anniversary. So we are in touch with different partners. So I’m really in touch with all of these cultural leaders in the city who I have not really known before. And just hearing all of these Philadelphia institutions and smaller community groups who are making such a difference all the time and to hear their ideas and how they’re navigating their memberships and their community partners, their kids, their education components, it’s super complicated, but everyone’s so incredible. That’s really been a big beacon of sort of hope for all of us, and certainly at BalletX knowing that all these creative people are trying to figure out ways to still impact our city in a positive way.
Katy: Yeah, Annie, I so agree with that sentiment. You know, FringeArts is part of Theater Philadelphia, and we’ve been attending their weekly meetings, and as terrible as it is that there is the possibility that the Philadelphia Greater Cultural Alliance might be defunded, you know, that’s something we’re actively pushing back against and seeking some reconsideration around, even as we understand that, of course, in the midst of the pandemic, things will need to shift and that funds are tight for everyone, it has felt like a unprecedented moment of people coming together and saying, you know, we’re stronger together, how can we support each other and share information and collaborate in new ways, which feels exciting for sure.
Annie: Yeah, I agree with that entirely and, you know, with any kind of crisis, it does– I mean I don’t welcome this crisis at all, but I think it does– It forces everyone to really take another look at the impact of arts and artists anywhere, but certainly for us in Philly. You know, what is a city– what is a place without without art? Without community? And what is the value? And it’s just it’s you know, of course, we all think it’s incredibly valuable, which it is. But it’s really important to, again, to connect with all of the different folks in the city who– it just sort of– it just reminds me that, yes, this is not this is not not important, this is not frivolous, this is not anything extra. You know, the arts, arts and culture are our core part of being a citizen of Philadelphia and a citizen of the world, it’s just incredibly important.
So that– there’s that opportunity at least… to just sort of– I don’t—yeah– I mean, it sounds kind of– I don’t want to sound trite or but or– I don’t know. But I think, you know, everyone gets complacent. We all get complacent with all different parts of our lives. And I think we can get complacent about access to art and art making. And, you know, suddenly when it’s endangered, it really does make you sit up straight and rethink, at least for me. Like, why am I doing this? Well, you know, why am I– from Annie, You know, as a former artist and as an art lover and art ambassador, you know you know what really what does this mean for me? And I think everyone’s thinking along those lines.
Katy: Definitely. And I think our audiences are, too. You know, we as people who work in institutions are certainly the number one fans, but I think it’s also been a moment for audiences to be like, “wow, I really miss going to see BalletX performances. I really miss, you know, our circus festival at Fringe”. And as painful as it is to go through what feels like this extended period of mourning for all of the things we had planned and hoped to do and hope that we will be able to do in the future, I think it has been a good reminder to people how important that those aspects of their lives are. And I’m curious about the ways that you all continue to connect with your audiences, even at a distance in BalletX through the virtual premieres and sharing archival footage, particularly around new commissions that you all have done in your 15 year history.
Annie: Yeah, I think that, again, this idea of reflection and this is actually for us. We’ve been doing that anyway because of the 15th year anniversary. So Christine has been curating for that celebration. And so it’s sort of a natural and a natural Segway into, OK, we’re going through all of our archives. We’re really thinking about where where we started and where we are now and looking at past work that really felt really changed and pushed and challenged the organization in really positive ways. So going through the archives and deciding what to share digitally. And it was also, you know, it’s an opportunity to invite people in who are not from Philly or haven’t come in, who don’t really know anything about BalletX. And for us to get to know– to have contact with new people, I mean, obviously, we all want our communities to grow and our engagement to grow.
So I think it was really– I can’t speak for everyone else, but for me, even though I’ve only been working for BalletX for a year, I have such a long history with Christine and and the organization that– I don’t know. I think a lot of people who would just put the performances up inside and I would just start to cry. I mean, I just– it was a lot of nostalgia. And again, for me, just realizing how important going to those performances are. And so I, I do think that that was a great way to sort of remind remind our supporters and our BalletX community of just– look how far we’ve come, look at this amazing work that we’ve done. Look at the risks that we’ve taken. But then also using it as an opportunity to share with people who maybe have heard of BalletX but haven’t seen it. So I think it was a really– it’s really– there was nothing negative about it at all. It was just a really beautiful process. And I think we felt really– We just really felt great sharing these memories and things that we think are– like I said, who really shaped how, what what BalletX does and why they do what they do.
Raina: Well, I think that’s really inspiring. And so for all of our listeners, you know, what can people do to help out and to support and to engage with BalletX during this time?
Annie: That’s a good question. Well, one of the things is we are moving from our Instagram– our classes, we’re moving our classes– from Instagram to mind, body and Zoom for those exact reasons that I was saying before. The one downside to being on Instagram is that the instructors can’t see the students or the participants. So we’re moving into that in June. And we’re moving to a paid model. We’re still going to have free classes on IG. So that is one way to support, which is, you know, we offered all of the– we offered 200 plus free classes on Instagram. And one way to help engage is to come to our website June 1st and start signing into classes through that platform where– where we’re really going to try to really enhance the class format, and so that the teachers can see you and you can see the teacher and we can see each other if you so choose, you can also take your video off if you want to be more private, which is what I have done. But there’s much more interaction, we’re trying to make it as much in real time, like a real class as possible. And I think that’s going to be a huge relief for our instructors who are just sort of, you know, you know, as teachers of anything, it’s so tactile and you really just want to like, you know, you just want to be in that space. And so this is at least one step closer to feeling like you’re really being seen and you’re part of a community where corrections and suggestions and shares are happening in real time. So we’re really excited about that. That’s definitely one way to just support us as we move forward.
And then another way is to– is to you sign up for our mailing list! It sounds like every– every organization says that, but that is such a great way for us to continue to connect and share all the things that we’re working on so that everyone is ready for the next thing, whatever that may be. And we’re, you know, we’re trying stuff, but I really feel confident that you’ll be seeing Ballet X and in ways that you haven’t seen before. And yeah, signing up mailing list is a great way for us to know who the heck you are and how we can share. Yeah. And then really insta– you know, I think it’s this idea of also just really sticking with us and and our folks have I really feel that our subscribers and our– just all of our audience and our students that come to the school and all of our partners have been– it’s been amazing in terms of support. So I think really just staying engaged and just not, you know, trying to figure out ways to fit Ballet X into your life in a meaningful way and looking for different ways that you could do that is is a great way to try to assist us.
Katy: Awesome. Well, I encourage all of our listeners to check out the BalletX web page, sign up for classes, sign up for the mailing list and, you know, contribute to the exciting and important work that they’re doing in Philadelphia. Thank you so much, Annie, for joining us on this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe. For everybody listening, you can find FringeArts on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and we encourage you to download the FringeArts app or, of course, visit our web site at FringeArts.com instead. To everybody on the call, and to all our listeners at home, please stay safe and stay well, we look forward to our next episode, and thanks for listening.
Dancers: BalletX rehearsing Wubkje Kuindersma’s ‘Yonder’