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Dancing to a digital tune: The impact of the pandemic on performers, agents & theatre-goers

Yes, Covid has changed all of our lives — probably forever. At the very least, we will never take the freedoms we used to have – to travel, to meet friends, to socialise in public spaces and gather indoors to watch live performances and other events – ever again.

Then there’s the sheer human cost of all the lives that have been lost. Although former supreme court judge Lord Sumption – a prominent critic of lockdown measures — may think that the life of a woman suffering from cancer is “less valuable” than someone who has better future prospects – every single person whose life is needlessly and/or recklessly shortened is a matter for profound regret and mourning. As Piers Morgan put it to Sumption on Good Morning Britain, how does the idea that one life is of less value than another apply when that person is Sir Tom Moore, who at the age of 99 raised more than £32 million for the NHS by walking 100 lengths of his garden?

Morgan began by citing the hypothetical case of “a 98-year-old man who has a very bad fall and ends up in hospital with multiple fractures and feels so bad, he feels like he’s dying, that he personally signs a ‘do not resuscitate’ notice and puts it on his door. Now would you say that person in that circumstance has basically reached the end of his value in terms of his life?”

In fact, he was talking about Sir Tom Moore, and went on to say: “By your yardstick his value was far less than that of somebody in their twenties but I would argue that the great value we got out of Captain Sir Tom Moore came after that when he was 99, when he began walking, and he began rallying the country, inspiring the world. How can you possibly be saying that he at 98 has less value as a person, as a human being, given what we know that he then did when he was 99?”

Meanwhile, of course, the suspension of our former lives and the inability of many of those in the live performing arts to continue with their careers at the moment is also having a lasting impact.

As Tamara Rojo, 47-year-old lead principal dancer and artistic director of English National Opera, recently told the Radio Times: “Right now, I don’t know if I will ever perform again. I’m at the end of my career and I’ve been thinking: ‘Was that my last performance and I didn’t even know it?’”

And Carlos Acosta, who is the same age and has been artistic director of Birmingham Royal Ballet since January 2020 after spending some 17 years as principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, commented that he feared for his other leading dancers’ careers.

“I’ve had my career, I did my years, but those guys are in their prime, they’ve spent 30 years getting to this level and that could disappear. They shouldn’t be in their kitchen doing pliés, they should be stretching their body to achieve its maximum capacity. I’m in a different phase now, but if I was 35 it would be catastrophic.”

As Alistair Spalding, artistic director of Sadler’s Wells told Marianka Swain in the Daily Telegraph last week, if this closure continues, we might “slide backwards. Dancers are like athletes – they need to keep training and they need performance goals.”

And there’s also the long-term impact on international exchanges and visiting companies. “It’s going to be a changing situation in all these different countries, with different Covid rules and restrictions. We’re seeing the worst of it now, but it’s a long-term issue. We may be ahead with the vaccine in the UK, that’s not the case globally. This will affect us all for a number of years, until the whole world is vaccinated. And it’s a problem for the performing arts especially, because something like dance depends on international exchange and movement around the world.” On average, over half of Sadler’s Wells performances each year are by visiting companies, and roughly 20 per cent of their audience is overseas too.

In the same piece, Akram Khan points out, “It’s decimating jobs, and training. I worry for young dancers graduating – what the hell are they going to do?”

It’s a worry shared by agent Tom Gribby, quoted in an interview feature with half a dozen different agents in The Stage: “I worry about the graduating years of 2020 and 2021. While it is great they can be showcased virtually, job wise there won’t be much work around because everyone is unemployed at the moment.”

He points out that this pandemic has disproportionately affected his theatre clients.

“It often seems performers are bottom of the food chain in terms of any funding, but I think people have forgotten that agents earn off what their clients earn, so they are even lower. It’s not only about keeping your head above water financially but also how you keep clients motivated. It’s been really tough. I had a client who booked The Mousetrap, signed a contract and was told the day after that it was not going ahead. We have been lucky in that we have actors in TV and film, but friends who mainly look after theatre clients have struggled.”

Another agent, JBR of JBR Creative Management, commented, “My business pivoted from stage to commercial and then to TV and film. I stopped thinking about stage and theatre completely.”

Yet another spoke of making changes in her personal life: among other things, Katherine Stonehouse said she managed to spend more time on her allotment, published her nature photography (which she tweets daily), and was adopted by a neighbourhood cat.

“Once the first lockdown was lifted, I had clients in Fanny and Stella [the first show back in London post-lockdown], I saw the press night of Sleepless and I even grabbed my kayak one weekend and headed to Cornwall to see Stones in His Pockets at the stunning Minack. I ended the year watching a client win the Great Christmas Bake Off 2020 with the feeling that we were on the cusp of getting back to our own individual versions of normal. Regarding the future, I think many agents and producers will put less emphasis on the need to have ‘the London office’ and I may adopt my own cat.”

[I’m happy to say that I played my own small part in these activities: Katherine joined me for the opening of Sleepless].

And of course, audiences are being brutally denied what, for many of us, is our lifeblood (and in the case of critics, our living, too). Sure, we all of us have to make adjustments — and I’ve pivoted to putting myself in charge of my own journalistic destiny by revamping my personal website and committing myself to daily content updates like the one you’re reading now.

Many critics are ‘making do’ by writing about online performances; and though I have, of course, done a bit of this myself, I find myself begrudging online shows for not being in the medium they were designed for, namely being watched live inside a theatre. (Instead, I’ve gotten a lot more satisfaction from watching made-for-television product, from catching up — at long last — with Homeland, to newer shows like Succession, Bridgerton and my latest obsession, Call My Agent).

In the same interview with the Radio Times I quoted from earlier, Carlos Acosta also spoke of streaming productions as being the new normal for dance companies. In a feature in The Times last week, its chief dance critic Debra Craine asked aloud:

“We are all on board the digital bandwagon because, frankly, we don’t have much choice. But what happens when the pandemic is over and life returns to the theatre? Do we rush out to experience live dance or do we continue to absorb it from our devices at home? Is Acosta right? Is streaming the new normal?

I certainly hope not. As a lifelong fan and veteran dance critic, that’s the last thing I want to see. I have watched countless hours of dance on my laptop in the past ten months and the overwhelming conclusion I can draw is that dance is simply not meant for the camera — unless it’s dance that’s made specially as a film, a distinctive hybrid all its own in which movement and the language of cinema form a united front.

What I’m talking about here is performance transplanted from the stage to the screen. No matter how well it’s utilised — and filming dance has improved by leaps and bounds over the past few years — the camera, by its very nature, flattens the perspective of choreography and diminishes the exhilarating physicality of the performers, not to mention shrinking the scope of such blockbuster ballets as Swan Lake (which ENB is offering on demand).”

Of course, there’s no denying the democratisation of live performance that digital capture has enabled. Not just on account of price — because audiences can buy online access far more cheaply than for a physical performance — but also geography: we can now watch performances from all around the world. And its also potentially there for all time, too, whereas a theatre performance used to live on only in the memories of those who saw them — with production photographs and reviews the only tangible records of their existence until now.

from News, Reviews and Features – My Theatre Mates

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