Tales of Bangarra's quarantine tour
We all sympathise with the performers who are forced into a frustrating lack of activity during lockdowns. But what about the people behind the scenes who are holding the companies and productions together? When a show is suddenly taken off the stage, the people in the office go into overdrive.
Take Bangarra Dance Theatre, for instance. The company’s usual schedule is to undertake one regional tour in the first half of the year and then one national tour to most capital cities in the second half of the year, presenting a major new work. The pandemic has put paid to that. Last year’s tour was cancelled altogether and this year’s has been cut in half. The management and administration team has had to handle the crisis each time, facing new and totally untested waters.
The first year of the pandemic was bad enough. Staff came to grips with on-line technology, working from home, keeping the dancers fit, engaged and psychologically well, redoing budgets and setting up other sources of income and activities. It was a waiting game, with the expectation that life would eventually return to normal.
This year, however, the impact of the virus has been much less predictable. Cancellations, border restrictions and lockdowns happened suddenly and with little warning. Performance schedules everywhere have been constantly in disarray. Theatre bookings, travel and accommodation arrangements all had to be reorganised -- and reorganised again -- while coming to grips with Covid-safe protocols and the different regulations in each state.
For Bangarra, the year began with a short outdoor season at Barangaroo, followed by what was thought would be “business as usual”: a regional tour of NSW. In June the company finally premiered Sandsong in Sydney, held over from the year before, in what was to be the start of its national tour. But then the Delta strain of Covid hit and the season was shut down prematurely, and the unpredictability began.
The company’s next port of call on the tour was Canberra, which had closed its borders to NSW. Executive Director Lissa
Twomey describes what happened next:
“We got a special exemption to perform in Canberra, and then under quite strict conditions,” she says. “Dancers were not allowed to leave their apartment hotel unless they were going to the theatre and backstage at the theatre masks were worn.” The dancers were confined to one floor of the hotel and weren’t allowed to visit each other in their rooms.
“They couldn’t eat out, they had Covid tests every three days; basically they did not engage with anyone except their own production team. They only took their masks off to go on stage.”
They travelled to Canberra by bus and had been receiving rapid antigen testing while at their home studios at the Wharf as well. On arrival in Canberra they each had Covid tests, were allowed one shopping trip for food and then managed their own meals in their rooms.
After “our most successful season ever” in Canberra, says Twomey, with “ecstatic” audiences, they got on a bus and came home.
The next stop was Brisbane, where the company faced another two-week period in a quarantine hotel, with the daunting prospect of not being able to train or rehearse.
“We had hoped to be treated similarly to sports people, and be allowed out to rehearse, but that wasn’t to be. Sydney cases had started to escalate, so there was some concern.”
That was when the team looked at the prospect of travelling to Brisbane via the Quarantine Center at Howard Springs in the Northern Territory. Two of the company’s education team had already stayed at the facility and Bangarra staff liked what it saw.
“There was a verandah on each of the rooms that gave them access to the outside, which felt a bit freer, had a wonderful outlook, but most importantly an amount of space where they could rehearse each morning, do their barre, do yoga, a bit of cardio outside, be able to see one another. It was too hot in the afternoons, so they could go into the aircon and do some repertoire maintenance and so-on on Zoom. They were a community, rather than being on some 21st floor of a hotel, locked in.”
The cost of quarantining at Howard Springs is not cheap – the website lists $2,500 for an individual for the full 14-day period or a family rate of $5,000 applies for family groups of two or more people in shared accommodation. Bangarra management negotiated a cost share with the presenter, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, the Qld Government and the Australian Government.
Following Brisbane, the Bangarra team had planned to fly the performers straight to Victoria for seasons in Melbourne and Bendigo in September. But with lockdowns announced in August, it proved to be a step too far. A tour of South Australia was to have started in Shepparton, but was also cancelled. Right now the dancers are annual leave.
With each change of plans, budgets had to re-forecast. Calculations that were made on one assumption, such as the financial viability of a season with limited seating capacity, would be thrown out the seasons were cancelled altogether. For every cancellation, tickets had to be refunded, audiences informed and given options. "... For the operational part of the business it’s managing the workforce that would have been on the stage - what do they do now?" Twomey explains. "And there’s the staying in touch with stakeholders, keeping the Covid-safe plan up-to-date and maintaining the health and wellbeing of the company.
“I can’t tell you how many different scenarios I’ve considered over the past months in terms of our options for the next few months and the rest of the year."
Bangarra’s annual national tour provides more than 90% of its box office income. At the time of this interview, Twomey predicted that the company would lose 65% of that income, or around $1.2million.
At the time of going to press, Twomey and the team are concentrating on next year’s program. She expects that Sandsong will be a part of it, for those who missed out last year, and says, tantalisingly, that next year the company will be representing “one of its biggest programs to date”. In addition, its new program for children, Waru, which was also cancelled, will be go on tour separately. All of course is dependent on the vaccination rates and theatres reopening.
It’s impressive to see how determined the backstage team is to keep the company on the road. Twomey calls it “stubbornness and doggedness” to keep performing. “It is what we do -- telling our stories to audiences. When you get the reaction like we received at our performances this year, it is a reminder that art is so important in this time, providing it is done safely.”
- KAREN VAN ULZEN
STOP PRESS! Bangarra has just announced its new production for 2022: Wudjang: Not the Past. The company will join forces with Sydney Theatre Company to present the world premiere of "an epic-scale contemporary corroboree, and Bangarra’s largest stage production to date".
Wudjang: Not the Past will bring together 17 dancers, four musicians and five actors and combine poetry, spoken storytelling and live music with Bangarra’s unique dance language. Directed and choreographed by Bangarra’s Artistic Director Stephen Page and co-written with award-winning playwright Alana Valentine (Bangarra’s Bennelong, Barbara and the Camp Dogs), Wudjang: Not the Past promises to be a outstanding start to the new year.
Dates: January 14 to 12 February as part of the Sydney Festival. Sydney tickets will be available from Oct 26 here.