• Artists of Lyon Opera Ballet in "Trois Grandes Fugues". Photo:  Bertrand Stofleth.
    Artists of Lyon Opera Ballet in "Trois Grandes Fugues". Photo: Bertrand Stofleth.

With New York enduring the highest outbreak of Covid-19 in the US, it's no surprise to learn that New York City's dance sector has taken a hit. As in Australia, the calendar is a mass of cancellations and the dance community is reeling. New York correspondent Susan Reiter reports.

As March entered its second week, New York City dance audiences could anticipate a substantial and heady mix of events during that month, with an even greater abundance of options on tap for April.

But on March 12 – a date now destined to be remembered as a devastating moment for New York's performing arts scene – a sequence of decisions and announcements led to the dance calendar being wiped clean for the remainder of March, with a frightening question mark hovering over events scheduled for the subsequent weeks – and possibly months.

Along with the unprecedented announcement on March 12 that all Broadway productions would shut down immediately for at least a month, in response to the growing threat posed by the Covid-19 virus's rapid spread, all events held in venues of 500 or more seats had to be cancelled. Within days, the situation expanded to a nonstop series of cancellations of events in every size and type of venue.

It all happened so suddenly and conclusively – a thriving, diverse performing arts calendar reduced to an open-ended emptiness. As a dance journalist, I haven't experienced anything as depressing – and frightening, given the vulnerability of performing arts institutions – as the parade of e-mails cancelling one event after another. Most announcements covered events through the end of March, but Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, with its multiple large and important venues, immediately shut down through April 12. (In a possible foreshadowing of the true grim reality, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. immediately announced cancellations all the way through May 10.)

Within the next day or two, every related dance activity – classes offered by such eminent organisations as Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham, informal studio presentations, educational programs in schools – were also shut down. Seemingly overnight, dancers, companies, performing arts venues, and eager potential audiences were all confronting an unprecedented blankness. Nothing like this had ever happened, and there was no clear indication of how long it would continue, since the dangerous spread of the virus, and the growing numbers of those infected, was ongoing and clearly on the increase.

Wasting little time, the dance community began to find new and different outlets for their creative energies. Online and virtual classes of every type began to be offered on a variety of platforms. Companies and institutions offered an abundance of virtual performances: new or existing dance video content on everything from YouTube, Instagram, Vimeo or their own websites.

Dancers of all levels and sizes found their way into the brave new world of taking class via a screen. These included children who study at the School of New York Theatre Ballet – an intrepid and invaluable small troupe whose 40th anniversary celebration has been lost the current situation – as well as dedicated professionals in desperate need of substituting for all the classes and rehearsals that could not take place under the conditions of this new virus-focused reality.

Major companies were hit hard. American Ballet Theatre had to cancel four significant tour engagements. Their all-important eight-week spring season in NYC, set to begin May 11, hangs in the balance. New York City Ballet just announced it is cancelling its six-week spring season, which would have opened on April 21. Significant seasons by such eminent modern-dance troupes as Martha Graham, Trisha Brown and Jose Limon have been canceled. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre abruptly halted their extensive national tour. The numerous cancellations necessitate large amounts of ticket refunds, though many companies and venues hope and request that ticket buyers consider donating instead, as a gesture of support at this difficult moment.

Now that we are two weeks into this new reality, a sense of dread and uncertainty is all-pervading. No one knows how long will this suspension of any large gatherings and performances continue, since it will depend on the severity of the medical reality, which has been increasingly grim as New York City's numbers increase exponentially. The city is now considered the epicenter of the USA's Covid-19 emergency, and the news is dominated by the increasingly frightening and horrific medical reality.

Dance artists, presenters and audiences can only look ahead and hope that this situation will resolve sooner rather than later, but no one has a clear sense of when any semblance of normalcy might return. The financial losses will be enormous and difficult to counteract. ABT and NYCB have each launched a Relief Fund. NYCB's announcement says the aim is “to ensure the Company’s future and offer immediate support to our NYCB family during this challenging time."

The city's most active dance venue, the 475-seat Joyce Theater, which presents a widely diverse array of companies for week-long seasons, initially cancelled its programming through March, but has since had to cancel all the companies scheduled through May 3. Linda Shelton, the Joyce's longtime executive director, spoke about what the Covid-19 situation has meant so far, and what its far-reaching implications might be.

“I can't compare this to any other situation,” she said, citing such prior events such as 9/11, Hurricane Sandy and the economic downturn. “This hit all at once and we don't know when it's going to end. We need to come up with Plan A and B and C.” She mentioned how much more difficult it was to plan when the Joyce staff is scattered apart, all working remotely, unable to gather in a conference room and discuss plans face to face.

Not only do Shelton and her staff face the uncertainty of when programming might resume (“we're looking at it week by week,” she noted), but she wonders, “can audiences bounce back?” – worried that after the extended period of enforced “social distancing,” the idea of sitting in close quarters with many other people might still scare some people. “This is going to be new territory for all of us,” she said as she faced the many open-ended questions confronting the dance community.

 - Susan Reiter

Pictured top: Artists of Lyon Opera Ballet in "Trois Grandes Fugues". The Lyon Opera Ballet was due to perform at NYC's Joyce Theatre in March, but the performance, along with many others, was cancelled. Photo: Bertrand Stofleth.

Below: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre dancing in isolation.

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