Coping with Covid: Creativity During the Pandemic

DANCELIVE – January 30, 2021: New York Alive 
Hive Creative Company – January 31, 2021: Seek

Jerry Hochman

What do you do to pass the time during the Covid pandemic? Well, if you’re a performing artist you create performance art. It’s no secret that in addition to taking lengthy unscheduled (and unpaid) vacations, guesting with actively performing companies (albeit on a pandemic-restricted basis), teaching classes, or having babies, many performing artists in the world of dance have continued to create and / or perform dance art. Indeed, so many dancers and companies have streamed new dances or debuted dance roles in existing pieces that keeping up with all of it on a New York-related, much less world-wide, basis is not just daunting, but impossible. That’s my excuse for doing what some dance reviewers have done during the Covid pandemic: taking a prolonged writing sabbatical.

But two online events occurred recently that merit discussion because of how unusual they were and how different they were from each other in every respect: New York Alive,” the initial program of Herman Cornejo’s newly created company, DANCELIVE, which featured a pas de deux choreographed by Joshua Beamish and danced by Cornejo and Skylar Brandt (both American Ballet Theatre principals); and Seek, a project by recent Juilliard graduate Nathan Hirshaut and his company, Hive Creative. The former was hyped repeatedly by the parties involved and others, featured stars of the ballet and dance world and in related arts (composer Peter Sparacino, pianist Horacio Lavandera, and most significantly, filmmaker Steven Sebring), original costumes by Norma Kamali, top-flight and cutting-edge technical support, a measure of funding (limited though that may have been) or donated time and effort, and was gushingly previewed by at least one major publication. The latter featured one dancer and one choreographer, neither of whom would likely be familiar to regular dancegoers, in a series of short film episodes recorded wherever free outdoor space could be found and with little if any supporting financial resources.

On the surface, the resulting products were like night and day. Cornejo’s company and its initial program were noteworthy and potentially groundbreaking developments (though I’m not yet convinced of that, as I’ll explain below); Seek was necessarily far simpler in style and more limited in significance. But that’s to be expected, and isn’t a criticism. The point is that all performing artists are struggling to survive and to create art, and the products produced must be credited regardless of readily apparent professional polish.

To my knowledge, neither program is still available for viewing. But, as with the Joyce Theater’s extraordinary State of Darkness performance series last Fall, that could change.

A native of Santa Cruz, CA, Hirshaut is a dancer and choreographer who founded a company of artists in various disciplines there in 2018, called “Hive Creative, to create avant-garde and intersectional projects. After being unable to complete his senior year at Julliard as a result of Covid restrictions, he reportedly took this as a sign to re-examine the various prongs of his life. The result is Hive Creative’s first effort for 2021: a series of bite-sized films that collectively illustrates a single overall theme.

Zoe Hollinshead in Nathan Hirshaut’s “Seek”
Photo courtesy of Hive Creative Company

“Avant-garde” is often a catch-all term to describe unconventional style and a purpose or meaning that may be clear only to its creator. Here, however, with an undeniably idiosyncratic style, Hirshaut has created a reasonably accessible piece that revisits an often-explored subject: one’s journey of soul-searching and direction in the face of an uncertain future. Translated, at least in my terms, it’s an effort to visualize and come to terms with issues that most newly minted graduates face: i.e.: “what do I do now and how am I going to do it?” within the additional (but not specifically referenced) challenges of a pandemic environment.

Hirshaut choreographed and directed the effort, but he’s nowhere to be seen, visually, in the program itself. Instead, the sole dancer / actor in this film is a dynamic presence named Zoe Hollinshead.

Everything about Seek, which premiered on January 31, looks simple and relatively raw. Each of the distinct but related sequential filmed sequences has a title (“I remember the glimmer, “I chased freedom,”…) that the ensuing movement quality reflects and amplifies. As part of the whole, each segment collectively produces a linear consistency with the overall theme – but doesn’t hit the viewer over the head with it. That it’s not as obvious as it might have been, but not overly opaque either, is a good thing.

Zoe Hollinshead in Nathan Hirshaut’s “Seek”
Photo courtesy of Hive Creative Company

There’s no happy ending for this sort of theme, although there’s a general drift here from innocence, through angst, apprehension and fear, toward hope and inner peace. [In a nutshell: ‘seek’ and ye shall find.] However, largely as a consequence of each mini-film’s distinct venue (an overgrown archetypal forested area, a building rooftop, an apparently abandoned living space, a non-specific shore area, and an underwater location that I took, rightly or wrongly, to be sort of amniotic fluid within which the “self” gradually evolves), there’s a disjointed sense that’s probably part of Hirshaut’s style, but that on initial view is somewhat annoying, and it takes awhile, despite the more obvious connecting titling sequence, to see the forest for the trees. But if you step back a bit, it all fits together. Of all the sequences, my particular preference was the opening one, in which Hirshaut skillfully merges subtle currents of anticipated potential (seeing the future, or the nascent “self,” in a crystal ball-like platter) with suggestions of paths (roads taken and not) that may or may not lead to a “somewhere.”

Despite the variety of locations in which each segment is located and few props, Hollinshead created a compelling and compassionate persona to identify with and root for, which is no small accomplishment. A 2019 Juilliard Graduate, Hollinshead does what was essential to do to translate Hirshaut’s broad intention (not unusual for young graduates who think in cosmic terms) comprehensible and palatable. I don’t know how much was Hollinshead and how much was the product of Hirshaut’s choreographic inspiration and directing, but she delivered the requisite performance to make it all work.

Nathan Hirshaut directing Zoe Hollinshead in “Seek”
Photo courtesy of Hive Creative Company

The contributions of other members of Hirshaut’s company are apparent, but necessarily more subtle. The accompanying music by composer Assaf Shatil and vocalization by opera singer Lydia Ghram did not interfere with or force the unified theme, and cinematographer Alex Sargent sufficiently captured Hollinshead’s performance without letting it get overwhelmed by the film’s various environments.

Seek might be too primitive-looking to make a dent in overall dance consciousness, and is limited in its presentation of what viewers might consider “dance.” That having been said, Seek illustrates where most young artists, especially relatively newly-minted ones without established reputations, an institutional outlet, or financial support, must be in within the world as it now is. It may not be pretty, but it has to be, and it has to be given credit for being what it is rather than being dismissed because it doesn’t appear to be more than that. So even though raw, it does show promise for Hirshaut’s creative vision, unorthodox as that now is. And I suspect at least that I’ll be hearing more of Hollinshead as time passes, either as dancer or actor or both.

Zoe Hollinshead in Nathan Hirshaut’s “Seek”
Photo courtesy of Hive Creative Company

On the other side of the spectrum of dance art in the time of Covid is DANCELIVE and its New York Alive program that was streamed on January 30.

In essence, DANCELIVE may be described as an attempt to expand the horizons of dance art beyond what the public might usually be able to see on a stage, in film, or in the occasionally brilliant (and frequently comedic) Covid-compelled movement syntheses created by individuals or small groups and performed within quarantine confines (e.g., multiple dancers’ kitchens, living rooms, or back yards), often with TikTok assistance. The execution was impeccable in every respect, as was the intended technical achievement delivered by what Sebring labels the “Sebring Revolution”: a method of filming during which a myriad of still photos abetted by moving cameras are synthesized such that the resulting performance appears to be three-dimensional, with a fourth dimension provided by the sense of audience proximity. The “Sebring Revolution” is also, to me, a play on the word “revolution”: a revolutionary filming technique to be sure, but also a description of the sensation the technique produces. The photographed movement is constant and circular and beautifully fluid, with a varying movement tempo that provides essential visual variety.

The overall New York Alive program consisted of a brief filmed introduction with snippets of rehearsals, the first piece (the untitled pas de deux featuring Cornejo and Brandt), followed by a back stage (or back area) “intermission” featuring “candid” comments by each of the major artists involved, and a concluding solo by Cornejo (actually, a pas de deux of sorts between Cornejo and Lavander’s vibrantly moving hands and fingers) to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Skylar Brandt and Herman Cornejo,
here appearing in American Ballet Theatre’s production
of “Le Corsaire”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Given the known quality of the choreographer and the dancers, the top-flight execution of the pas de deux was to be expected. Most notably, Beamish’s choreography, limited by the intentionally confining spatial parameters (an all-white space with no clear delineation between walls and floor), was quite extraordinary. He didn’t just choreograph to the circular, theater-in-the-round intimacy that the project produces, he admirably exploited it. The effect was fluidity squared. And Brandt, abetted by Kamali’s costumes, looked spectacular: at once firmly planted and sinuously airborne. Together with Sparacino’s subtle and suggestive accompanying music, she made the piece more of a performance statement than it had a right to be. Cornejo had less – visually – to do. But his solid and apparently flawless partnering was essential to enable Brandt to look as good as she did.

I was prepared to dislike the program’s second piece: I anticipated that it would be too egocentric, and to extent it was. But that goes with the territory, and any sense of that was quickly overtaken by Cornejo’s often jaunty movement inspired by the ebb and flow of Gershwin’s quintessential “New York” composition. [The piece is appropriately titled New York Alive.] Sebring’s technical environment (though less pronounced here than in the first piece) did the rest. At the very least, it was great fun.

So in terms of this particular program at this particular time, this event was successful: it was fascinating to watch it all come together.

That being said, I’m not sure how groundbreaking DANCELIVE is (aside from the technology in a dance context) or how much of a future it has. While interesting, the on screen movement often brought to mind images of John Curry’s iconic 1978 Broadway ice dancing program, but with a twist: instead of ice skating looking balletic, we have ballet looking like ice skating. Indeed, one could grow dizzy watching the circular choreography and the circular presentation.

Herman Cornejo,
here in American Ballet Theatre’s production
of “Don Quixote”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

But it’s premature to bless DANCELIVE as anything more than a different way to see dance. There’s no question that the sensation provided by Sebring’s technology enables a viewer to feel close to the dancer’s personal space, and provides the illusion of seeing movement in all its 360 degrees at the same time. But is being enabled to see multiple close-ups and viewing angles different from seeing the full scope of a dancer’s performance art through binoculars (which to me are essential to see the entirety of a dancer’s performance), from theater-in-the-round, or from the multiple visual positions captured in such programs as PBS’s “Great Performances” series or the greatly missed “Live From Lincoln Center” programs, or The Bolshoi’s streamed live performances  – each of which routinely includes snippets of rehearsals, in-performance close-ups, and intermission interviews with the dancers? Sure there’s the constant motion, but that can be seen as a gimmick, albeit a compellingly interesting one.

Further, given the example of this initial program, the technique appears ideally suited for what was presented – a pas de deux or solo. During the intermission break, Cornejo expressed his intent to expand DANCELIVE’s horizons to include story ballets, but I have difficulty envisioning this format being adaptable to a story ballet (or any ballet or dance) filled with dancers independently and concurrently utilizing every inch of a theater’s stage, as well as it being able to replicate the electricity of a live house and the artist / audience relationship that goes with it, regardless of whether the dance is a story.

In that same vein, this program also brought to mind any number of championship (Olympic and otherwise) ice dancing programs, but without the accompanying musical and visual drama. And therein lies the bulk of my concern. The first piece was executed relatively stoically by Cornejo and Brandt (although Brandt did turn things up several degrees at the end). I suspect this was as it was intended to be, with contemporary choreography that relies on movement rather than acting and the medium being the message of the event. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for what’s billed as an attempt to enable a viewer to get closer to ballet and the ballet dancers, it succeeds only in the viewing audience seeing the nuts and bolts of the movement almost microscopically, while not getting emotionally involved. And getting emotionally involved, while not the measure of a successful program, is what takes a performance experience to another level. Watching a dancer’s performance as if you’re within his or her personal space is fine and can be illuminating, but unless there’s something beyond the movement itself, that closeness is physical, not emotional, and just a different degree of distance.

Included within the ambit of emotional involvement is that significant component of dance performances in general and ballet in particular: what I’ve previously described as “transference” – the sense of being transported across the proscenium to feel as if you in the audience are the one dancing with the ballerina (or danseur); of being “in the moment” too not just by watching it, but by being in it.

I suppose that achieving this emotional intimacy, and the cathartic sense that comes with it, rather than the sense of physical “closeness” per se, may be an ultimate goal of DANCELIVE, and this certainly would be a revolutionary development. I have a difficult time envisioning this, even optimally, as much more than another artificial reality (as opposed to the “real” ersatz reality of transference). But then, I used to think the world was flat.

Finally, a cautionary observation.  Also during the intermission, Brandt stated that unlike in a “standard” theatrical stage performance, in this DANCELIVE program everything the dancer does can be, and is intended to be, seen: there was no place for her to hide. That’s true. But in reality, there are few moments when a dancer is performing live onstage when an audience cannot see even what’s not intended or expected to be seen. Unless the dancer faces upstage for an extended period of time or is hidden behind a set (or is in the wings – which shouldn’t count), interested audience members can often see what a dancer does or the image on a dancer’s face even when she (or he) briefly turns away. For example, I’ve often observed a particular ABT dancer (not Brandt) turn off her smile when she’s not facing the audience, making the “forward-facing smile” look even more artificial than it might have otherwise. You’re never invisible when you’re on stage, even if an overly intrusive critic is the only one watching.

Regardless of these observations, and even though I have an instant negative reaction to a company that draws attention to itself by rendering its name in all caps, I’ll look forward to what DANCELIVE comes up with next.