The COVID-19 pandemic has left performing arts organizations scrambling. Seasons have been cancelled and artists put out of work, while arts managers try to find new ways to reach audiences. But some see opportunity in the chaos.
Zenetta Drew, executive director of Dallas Black Dance Theater (DBDT), thinks the pandemic may actually be the catalyst that saves the arts.
“The arts were dying,” she says, citing diminishing audiences and season subscriptions. “They were dying as far as how you reach new audiences, how you create new revenue streams and how you reach underserved communities. Being forced to deal with COVID has changed all that.”
Drew has long felt that technology is the key to reinvigorating the arts. She’s been working on developing distance learning programs for decades. “We used to have a program called choreographing the future through dance, technology and education,” she says. “That was in the late ‘90s.”
But she quickly discovered roadblocks. Licensing and intellectual property were frequent concerns when it came to performing and teaching online—choreographers didn’t want to have their work copied or stolen.
And in general, arts managers were unenthused about embracing change. “The fear in the arts has been that if people get virtual access then they’re not going to come sit in a seat,” she says.
Drew saw it completely differently, drawing inspiration from an unusual place: football. After football became widely televised in the ‘70s, there was an explosion of interest in the sport. “People who’d paid no attention before learned the game, and everybody had a little league team,” she says.
Accessibility meant increased engagement, and more fans who were hungry for a new way to experience the sport. “Virtual access doesn’t take away from the concert experience and the awe and the aura of sitting in a theater,” Drew says. “Just like televised games don’t take away from being in the stadium.”
If anything, they drive more ticket sales. “To us, virtual engagement is a way to always have a sold-out show,” she says.
Now, with every arts organization at home, Drew is finally encountering openness to the vision she’s had for the last 20 years.
“Now opera, Broadway and everyone are having discussions about licensing and unions,” she says. “People are now looking for income streams and they’re much more open-minded. For us it’s like a giant box of possibilities has now been opened and we’re going to grab as much as we can, as quick as we can.”
On the 15th of the month, when stay-at-home orders went into effect in Dallas County, DBDT transitioned to work from home, cancelled their remaining 27 performances for the year and put their classes on hiatus. Shortly after, the board came up with funding to ensure company members could pay their rent in April and May, and they scheduled meetings to discuss the rights to perform their repertory works virtually.
Dance is a higher risk activity compared to some other performing arts because it’s intensely physical. Drew says it’s unlikely DBDT will perform in their usual location at the Wyly Theatre “until such time where there is either a vaccine or some other mechanism to help ensure the health and safety of dancers and audiences.”
But she’s far from desperate to get DBDT back into the theater. “We know we’ll eventually get back to that,” she says. Instead, she’s focused on seizing this opportunity to innovate.
On April 1st, DBDT launched virtual classes at a reduced price and were successful in retaining half of their 550 students. By June 1st, they began welcoming instructors back into their building, who were able to use the space to virtually host their usual summer programs and training camps.
“Overall, in six weeks we did 498 classes that were all fee paid,” Drew says. This was important because their lost revenue for 2020 totaled around $458K in ticket sales and earned income.
The necessary safety precautions generated extra work. Individual dancers rotated between rooms, which had to be cleaned with each change-over. DBDT put tape on the floor to indicate six-foot spacing and administered temperature checks. But the virtual format ultimately strengthened the programs.
Students and guest teachers from elsewhere in the state, and throughout the country, were able to participate with ease. New programming elements, added to bolster the new format, were well received.
Among these was French language learning, which acted as a supplement for ballet lessons. Mental health speakers were also added to the roster, to help students exchange how they were feeling about the stay-at-home orders and how dance could help them process those feelings.
“We will never again not have virtual training,” Drew says.
None of this would have been possible pre-pandemic. “Now that the schools are shut down, many of them are making resources available to underserved communities,” she says. “Now suddenly the students that we serve have the capacity to actually participate.”
Saroya Corbett teaches at the Institute for Dunham Technique Certification (IDTC), and she says the pandemic has pushed them to innovate as they never have before.
“We now offer more programming through weekly online classes and new virtual training for our teacher-certification candidates,” she says, adding that she sees these practices becoming permanent.
But Corbett’s experience also reflects that for some companies and studios, implementing new technologies can be a frustrating process of trial and error. Varying camera and internet quality, combined with makeshift dance spaces, can make it hard to judge musicality and poses an increased risk of injury.
“On top of this, it is difficult to see students' bodies online to give good technical feedback,” Corbett says.
And the pitfalls are unique to each video platform. Zoom allows for the most privacy and interaction with students, but its sound-cancelling feature makes it difficult to hear the teacher and the music simultaneously. “Video platforms like Zoom are made for meetings and conferences and not dance,” Corbett says.
While she’s primarily an educator, Corbett thinks performing virtually is also more complicated for dancers than those in other arts disciplines.
“For performing art forms like music and acting, they are already set up to be experienced virtually in some way, through music recording, movies and television,” she says. “Due to the in-person nature of dance, I have witnessed dance professionals resist the online virtual experience by not participating unless they have to for employment responsibilities.”
But even with all of these challenges, Corbett still sees growth in the dance sector through increased accessibility and new programming, much of it free to viewers.
“We [IDTC] expanded our student base and are engaging students from all over the world,” she says. “As a dancer myself, I have been taking classes from teachers from different regions of the country. Dance organizations are facilitating new types of virtual programming like artists’ talks and collective meditations. These new approaches have been fruitful for the dance community.”
“We wanted to attach a value to that,” Drew says.
After talking with partners Dance USA and the International Association of Blacks in Dance they learned this was uncharted territory. Most companies were offering work and requesting donations. Only one dance company had tried charging for virtual concert performances in March and they reported it was not successful.
By June, DBDT had prepared a series of three virtual performances to be held on Zoom that would determine whether they launched a paid virtual season in the fall. To ensure the dancers’ safety, the performances would take place outdoors, with dancers in different locations, or with just a couple dancers in a highly controlled environment.
The first was a recorded performance of a nationally recognized work, priced at $20. The second, a work by a senior dancer in their company, was offered at $10. And the third, also priced at $20, was a live performance held outdoors at the Nasher Sculpture Center.
DBDT spent two to three days marketing each, using all the same tactics they normally employ. “We promoted it with all of the television media, print media and digital media that we would have if it had been a butts-in-seats show,” Drew says.
She believes this approach, which carried over to the performances, was key to their success. Audiences were met with the same welcome, introduction, and post-discussions of the work that they would have experienced in a traditional theater. And once the performance was over, it was over. One couldn’t go back and watch it later.
“We literally created a concert experience,” Drew says. “You were invited to the Zoom Theater.”
The ticket sales suggest they are onto something. “We were able to sell the equivalent of half of the Wyly Theatre physical seating in every last one of those performances,” Drew says.
And the virtual format yielded more than just ticket sales. It gave DBDT the opportunity to learn more about their audiences than ever before, from hometowns to how long people stayed engaged with the performance. “If you’re in a concert hall you sit through it because you paid for it, but if you’re on Zoom you can just get up and leave,” Drew says.
DBDT saw more people stay for the post-discussion on Zoom (70 percent, up from an estimated 25 percent) and every performance had attendees tuning in from 18 or more states. Some even had international attendees. Drew says this information can help the company identify where to tour in the future.
Given DBDT went into the summer virtual programs with little experience and little time to prepare, Drew is encouraged about the future. She thinks virtual performances, done right, could be the way to reach new audiences.
“We think there’s going to be a lot of new patrons in all art forms, not just dance, trying things that they would have never tried,” Drew says.
“The pandemic will cause some small businesses and organizations to close,” she says. “However, because dance hasn’t historically been funded at the same level as some other art forms, many dance organizations—particularly dance organizations focused on Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities—are used to existing with less resources. I believe many will find a way to survive the pandemic.”
Many dance artists Corbett knows supplement their income with teaching, and she’s observed that a lot of those jobs are still available, although it depends on where one teaches. Some people who’ve lost jobs have been able to offset their loss of income through unemployment benefits and other federal support.
“Those who teach at universities or colleges and K-12 school districts are still employed,” she says. “Individuals who teach in dance studios and other privately owned businesses are experiencing more financial issues.”
Drew sees a new groundswell of respect for and interest in the arts that will continue to benefit arts organizations when those jobs have hopefully begun to return and long after the pandemic is over.
“Everybody moved into a creative genre,” she says, in reference to people who are experimenting with creative arts like painting or music for the first time, as they look for new ways to pass time at home. “What you found is that the arts were the backbone of what was going to feed the soul and the spirit of people who were now isolated.”
At DBDT, Drew is still choreographing the future. Now she’s calling on other arts organizations to embrace it as enthusiastically as she is, and join her in the dance.
“I think collectively as a community if we move from the horror of COVID to the exciting opportunity of COVID, then there are so many things that we will be able to do that will set a new course for the future and the financial sustainability of the arts going forward,” she says.
Caroline Pritchard is a copyeditor at Publicis Hawkeye and a freelance journalist in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.