They’re Still DancingCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | How a community dance org in Brooklyn is keeping class in session. Published: August 11, 2020
Programming note: This article is part of a weekly column on small businesses in New York during COVID-19. To get #SmallBizSpotlight articles straight to your inbox, sign up here. You'll receive one email every Tuesday afternoon. Thanks for reading!
One-third of New York’s small businesses are on the chopping block, according to The New York Times. I can’t say I’m surprised, given the swaths of shuttered storefronts I walk by in Brooklyn and, in my opinion and many others’, the ill-conceived rollout of federal funding. But it’s still a devastating stat to read in boldface type. Small businesses don’t just bring character and culture: they put food on the table for over 4 million people.
At the individual level, bolstering small businesses goes beyond shopping local and tipping well. It’s also about acknowledging the people behind the storefronts you walk past every day. Easier said than done (I know: I’m shy as hell), but when you know the name of your local bartender/baker/pharmacist, shopping becomes more than a transaction. It becomes a mutual appreciation, a conscious acknowledgement of your existence in relation to another — something we could all use a little more of these days.
This week I spoke with Lynn Parkerson, the founder and artistic director of Brooklyn Ballet, a multidisciplinary dance company and school in downtown Brooklyn. Since cancelling live performances and classes in mid-March, Parkerson is experimenting with digital solutions for teaching and performing, while being pragmatic about their limitations. Below, our conversation on what can and can’t be delivered through a screen and Parkerson’s hopes for the upcoming dance season.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In 2002, you launched the professional company alongside a dance school for kids. Why both?
I was thinking about what makes a ballet company important and useful in a community. Besides producing art, it is providing a place for kids to train. Brooklyn didn't have a strong ballet program at that time, and it’s a very big place, so few people could go to Manhattan to get more serious ballet training.
Broadly speaking, how would you describe Brooklyn Ballet’s approach to dance?
Our school program is primarily a ballet program, but we also have jazz, hip-hop, and modern. We want the kids to be exposed to other dance styles and know how much flexibility you have to have as a dancer. If you're planning to dance in college or dance professionally, you need a lot of different skill sets, not just ballet. In terms of the multidisciplinary approach in the company, we do a lot of work that creates dialogue between styles. We work with street dancers, African-based dancers, Chinese dancers, Spanish dancers… The Brooklyn Nutcracker is our production that brings all aspects of the organization together. And the school kids are involved as well because there's a lot of scenes that involve children.
Looking back in time to this past March, how did the pandemic immediately impact your operations and your community?
Fortunately, we had our company season earlier than we typically do – [it wrapped by] late February. We had a lot of publicity for a piece that we staged with ballet dancers of color that had never been done before, and we did another mixed movement piece. We had a really wonderful season. Then mid-March came around and we had to close the doors. We couldn't do any more rehearsals and the company's performances [dropped off] one by one. We were supposed to perform at the International Center for Photography Gala, the Vision Festival at Roulette, and St. Francis. At first we thought, This is just a two-week thing, and then everything got canceled.
For our school, March 14th was their last day. The spring semester had just started in February — we still had three months left. We credited [those people] for what we hope will be some hybrid of live and virtual classes in the fall. But for the people who had been in class the whole year, we felt like we could provide a continuation [of their training], so we started putting out virtual programming and pre-recorded classes. Not everybody showed up online, but we did the best we could to bring the energy and exuberance to keep people. But you begin to see the Zoom fatigue… Some kids more easily adapt to Zoom than others, but I don't know that any kid is getting everything they need from a Zoom ballet class.
Some kids more easily adapt to Zoom than others, but I don't know that any kid is getting everything they need from a Zoom ballet class.
Specifically, if you're a younger, newer dancer, and you're expected to understand alignment from looking at a Zoom screen... It's a pretty complicated technique to learn and typically there's a lot of the teacher giving little signals to the body one-on-one, and synergy as a class, watching other people get it. We'll see. Everybody’s doing the best they can to at least stay in shape and tie over to when we can safely reopen to in-person classes.
How much of your previous syllabus were you able to bring online?
Ultimately, we built a live Zoom class for each level of our students. And we allowed people to go in and out of all the classes. It was interesting: some kids who never would have taken jazz showed up to the virtual jazz and turned out to really like it. Kids took advantage of classes that they wouldn't normally take, had they had to register and commit. It's convenient. If they live half an hour from the studio, they don’t have to [commute] anymore.
In terms of accessibility, how are you managing different students’ home environments and resources for getting equipment?
Some kids have the whole setup, but certainly not everybody. Some people have a lot more space than other people. If someone is at home with their siblings, they may not be able to focus as well as someone else. There's also the Internet. Some kids just have phones and they have to reload the phone every 15 minutes. We have a checklist to get the most out of class — make sure your correct name is written on the Zoom square, that you have enough space to do X, Y, Z, that your hair is pulled back — but there are all kinds of things going on. If school is somewhat virtual in the fall, kids will hopefully have better Wi-Fi and better computers. I don't know, but I hope. Because it's not just about ballet, they have to do all their learning virtually. But it’s taking some time to get everybody on the same page technically.
I've seen some dance schools around the country doing outdoor recitals. Did you consider anything like that?
We didn't do an outdoor recital. We did something on Zoom that we called “Couch Concerts”: parents and relatives were invited to watch the class [from] their couches. A lot of those outdoor recitals are in suburbs in big parking lots… I think [it’s easier] for schools that work on their recital pieces since day one, but we're not a recital school. We're a training school with some performance.
It's interesting that you point out the suburban factor. I hadn't thought about the environmental constraints of outdoor classrooms in urban spaces…
Yeah, there's some teaching going on in [city] parks, but it's mostly for adults. I do believe that live dance training is important, so maybe we can put up some outdoor ballet bars... But it’s more complicated than it looks. Do I have to get a permit from the city of New York? Are people going to gather around and watch? Then I’d need a monitor to make sure that people are six feet away and all of that. There's a lot to think about.
I know this has been an incredibly trying time, but have there been any happy surprises in the process of transferring in-person classes to virtual platforms?
We've partnered with an organization that provides free classes for public school kids. That means kids from all over the city can register to take classes with us, which wouldn't have happened [before the pandemic]. A lot more kids can take advantage of our programming. You're not going to get the depth of a training, but people who would never think to come to the studio are able to check in.
From a purely operational standpoint, how are you doing financially?
It's incredibly difficult to run a dance organization in the best of circumstances. It's a very hard thing to raise money for, and space and dancers and costumes are very expensive, if you do really high-quality programming. There are a lot of negotiations going on with our vendors and our landlord. We applied for funding, and we’ve gotten some: we got the PPP and COVID-19 Relief and Impact Funds administered by New York Community Trust. Then we talked with other Brooklyn Ballet funders and asked if there was any way we could get our annual gift earlier, and perhaps even an increased gift. Some were able to do that. But how long can we last? I mean, probably 40 percent of our revenue was from our ballet school classes.
What are your plans for fall classes?
We're trying to figure out fall. We only have one studio, and I don’t think we can fit more than five, six people in the studio. Maybe we only have one live class a month and the rest is virtual. We're looking at that because a live class even every once in a while [is valuable], so the teacher can really focus on the kids. We're putting together our COVID plan and trying to make some kind of announcement, an announcement that we know we might have to retract… [We’re figuring out] the wording so that people understand that we're going to have to see. Hopefully things move along slowly and we don’t have to go back into a lockdown. But we don't know. Nobody knows.
What are you planning for the company?
We’re not going to be able to do our big Brooklyn Nutcracker production, but we’re going to do some version of it. There are some interesting creative ideas that happen at times like this, too. Our studio is a beautiful windowed store front. You can see in, see people dancing. And so we're going to create a jewel box theater, with the studio lit from the inside and containing Brooklyn Ballet’s dancers in performance. We’ll give multiple 20-minute mini performances of The Brooklyn Nutcracker, free to passersby, sort of like walking down 5th Avenue and looking at the holiday department store windows but better! We’ve gotten some funding, but we're trying to get more so that we can put on a spectacular series of performances and folks have a fun thing to do for the holidays. Just to have a reason to go outside and look at the window, drink hot chocolate, see the Spanish dance from The Nutcracker. That's going to make people feel good.
How to help:
Until next time,