5 months… it’s the longest break from live performance I have ever had in my life!
It was quite pleasant for a few weeks in March to have some ‘time off’ of theatre attending, Following a busy work year I convinced myself it was ‘OK’ that the arts industry was shut down. In the way you convince yourself you won’t miss chocolate when you go on a crash diet. This began to wear thin by summer and I found myself craving theatre even more than a chocoholic on health retreat!
After a cultural wasteland of a summer I was overjoyed to be invited to see the National Youth Dance Company perform at Sadler’s Wells. I had last been in the building on March 10th when we were sent to work from home in anticipation of a COVID lockdown. So many brilliant performances had to be cancelled or postponed during the ensuing 5 months so it was a thrill to think the stage would be alive again.
We were dance guinea pigs – an invited audience there to test-run the building for socially distanced performances and to witness this talented young company get the chance to perform.
We have all had an unexpected and challenging year, but I can’t help thinking this has been particularly rough on our youth. Promised the time of their lives, a summer of love, travel and the high jinks of University – most of them haven’t even left their houses. The young dancers involved in NYDC should have been playing to a packed Sadler’s Wells – the peak of their training as part of this exciting company. However, their performances at Sadler’s and subsequent tour had to be cancelled.
As the summer passed, little green shoots of hope and creativity sprung up, the NYDC team felt determined to make a final performance happen. Choreographer Russell Maliphant’s 39 dancers had just 3 weeks to re choreograph in a COVID-secure way. Restrictions meant that there would be 4 performances, each with 10 dancers, remaining 1 meter apart at all times. The 1500 seat auditorium would only have 150 people, spaced in small groups and masked throughout.
I am used to running into a packed foyer (usually late) frantically finding my tickets at the Box Office and picking my way through the thronging crowd to find my seat. This was a markedly different FOH to the one I recognised. I walked in, solo, to be greeted by about a dozen FOH ushers waiting in a semi-circle. No box office or ticket desk, just an usher in protective visor who immediately escorted you to your assigned seat. It felt more like airport security than theatre foyer.
A film created about the dancers’ lockdown experience prefaced the main work and gave a fascinating insight into the process of rehearsing over Zoom and then finally in their studio bubbles.
All the COVID security measures slipped from my thoughts as the lights dimmed and I felt that wonderful sense of expectancy you get when you know the stage is about to come alive.
The cleverly reworked choreography seemed to perfectly accommodate the restrictions. For the 20 minutes or so that we watched the NYDC dancers swirl and sway across the stage I almost forgot about COVID. Their isolation seemed strangely apt, as they groped for a way out, caught in the search light beams shot across the stage. You felt their yearning to touch, to feel, to absorb each other’s energy in the same way our frustrated lockdown souls strove for the comfort only other humans could bring.
During the post show Q&A, the dancers commented on how phenomenal it was to be back in the rehearsal studio, to feel (even at a distance) the vitality of another. We the audience nodded a collective gesture of understanding as we drank in the energy of seeing the dancers on stage again.
Afterwards an usher arrived to escort me out of my seat and safely out of the building. In an instant, I was back on a sun speckled Roseberry Avenue. I had been worried socially distant theatre might leave me sad and under-nourished. Far from it – it left me hungry for more. More action, more dance, more audiences and more humans.
Georgette, October 2020