- Sharon Kain
Repertory Dance Theatre had originally planned to premiere its streaming recorded version of the annual Emerge production on Jan. 8. But the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact arts organizations in ways even beyond forcing them to present their work to audiences in different formats.
According to Nicholas Cendese—Artistic Associate and Development Director for RDT, who also choreographed one of the Emerge pieces—work on the production was delayed when dancers had to isolate due to possible COVID exposure. "No one got sick, and everyone came back negative," Cendese says. "Even with a careful approach, there were still issues and concerns. But one of the benefits of digital performance was that we aren't tied to dates. We're constantly moving puzzle pieces around."
The Emerge program annually provides the company's dancers to showcase not just their abilities as performers, but as creators of new dance as well. Six of the production's featured works offer original choreography by RDT dancers including Cendese, Jaclyn Brown, Lauren Curley, Trung "Daniel" Do, Dan Higgins and Jonathan Kim. While at times in the past the new Emerge pieces might have included more outside dancers, according to Cendese, "We had to keep it within our RDT bubble this year."
That closeness, however, can be part of what makes working in such unusual circumstances easier. The process for rehearsing and staging the Emerge pieces is necessarily different due to safety guidelines, but Cendese believes that dancer/choreographers working with RDT colleagues facilitates operating within this new normal. "On my part, I certainly think so," he says. "I was able to create a 10-minute piece very easily. I get to work with [the dancers] as an administrator and manager very often, but not as often as another artist. I'm always blown away by their ability to take material and transmute it into something wonderful. And I trust them implicitly. It's so easy because of the relationships we have."
The only piece on the program that wasn't created within the RDT family is "Ode to You" by Rebecca Aneloski, the winner of the 2019 New Century Dance Project commission. Inspired by "Auld Lang Syne" and featuring an original score by Michael Wall, the piece was originally scheduled to be part of RDT's spring program, which had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Launched by RDT alum Francisco Gella, New Century Dance Project is a planned long-term collaboration with RDT to work with local dancers for professional and artistic development, including a summer festival (which could not take place in 2020).
Working with new dancers on new choreography isn't the only part of a company with "repertory" in its name, and Cendese acknowledges that there's a different kind of challenge when it comes to working on pieces that are already part of the repertoire. In those cases, the institutional knowledge of company dancers becomes a crucial part of the creative process.
"Nowadays, especially, we really draw on kind of an informal lineage of oral tradition, so to speak, for choreography that's already up," Cendese says. "It's vital for our senior dancers to impart their knowledge about the pieces to those coming in. To get our existing repertory up, our dancers become that much more important in helping newer dancers get into the feel of the piece, the mindset of the piece. Then hopefully the younger dancers get to work at some point with choreographers digitally."
As months have gone by, and artists continue to work in formats previously unfamiliar to them, it's easy to wonder if the process has gotten any easier—to which Cendese responds, "Yes, and no. I think there's always that voice in the back of our head saying, 'Gosh wouldn't it be great if we could have an audience for a live show.' But [Artistic Director Linda Smith] has been so prudent and properly cautious, we have a clear path forward for the rest of this season and beyond. There's no reason for us to panic, even though we'd want things to be different than they are. But as a choreographer, I actually do kind of enjoy some of the creative challenges—we can't do too much partnering, or if we do, we need masks."
Even though this production arrives COVID-delayed and in a different format than anyone involved would prefer, Cendese believes that the artists are dealing with their circumstances as well as could be expected. When asked if the pandemic has created or heightened any tensions within the company, he responds, "I'm sure it's been there, but I think when it matters, everyone has come to the table with the most open heart, and a willingness to be flexible. Everyone, from Linda on down, has put the stress aside for the greater good of the company. I'm sure it's there, but when it's counted, it's been set aside. And that's been really inspiring."