Squares of masking-tape delineate dance spaces. Taped lines mark six-foot distances on the ballet barre. Hand sanitizer and buckets of sanitizing wipes fill the studio. On Tuesdays, I attend Beginning Ballet in The Center for Art and Dance (CAD), six-feet apart from my classmates, sanitized and masked. Thursdays mean ballet over Zoom — I stand in my room, my computer propped on top of my dresser, a drawer pulled out to act as a barre.
As I am taking ballet partly for my Studies in Physical Movement requirement and partly just for fun, I don’t mind the disconnect on those Thursdays when I dance in my room, trying to decipher fairly complicated moves through a tiny screen. However, what dance during a pandemic like for those people for whom it really matters — St. Olaf’s senior dance majors?
This year’s senior dance majors are Joshua Wyatt ’21, Ellie Kiihne ’21, Mehek Jahan ’21 and Allison Peterson ’21. The seniors discussed with the Messenger what it is like to be a dance major during the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has impacted their upcomping final dance project: the Senior Dance Concert.
The pandemic has forced dance — including both the final concert and classes — online.
“Being online — especially with dance — it changes dynamics so much,” Wyatt said. “It changes how you embody movement.”
Describing the challenges of dancing in a space that is not meant for dancing, Wyatt said, “Generally my living room is smaller than a dance studio. And then there’s furniture everywhere, so I can’t do certain movements where I might kick the couch or hit a fan.”
Jahan described the difficulties of technology in learning dance techniques. “In one of my classes, the computer was too far away, so I couldn’t see [the professor] very clearly so I didn’t know what she was doing,” Jahan said.
Kiihne, however, noted some welcome changes in the studio setting. For example, in studio classes, the taped boxes provide a sense of personal space and belonging. “There’s no issue of having your own personal space, and you always have your own home,” Kiihne said.
However, the safety restrictions that guarantee personal space also prohibit movement around the studio and contact between dancers. Kiihne explained that while the restrictions aren’t a problem during class, they narrow the relationships between dancers in performance pieces.
“In making dance pieces, you have to take that element out, which limits a lot of how you can build relationships in the movement with other dancers,” Kiihne said.
Each year, the senior dance majors put on a senior dance concert for the St. Olaf community. In past years, dancers performed their projects live in Kelsey Theater to an in-person audience. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire concert has been moved online, and each senior is creating a dance video to share with the St. Olaf community through Zoom.
The majors have four options for their final dance project. The first is a choreography project, in which the senior choreographs a dance and directs other students in performing the piece. The second is a solo option, in which the dancers commission a professional choreographer who choreographs a solo piece for them to perform. The third is a research paper on a topic of their choosing, and the fourth is a blended and integrated form option, which encompasses any ideas that don’t fit into the other three choices.
Jahan chose the final blended option for her senior dance project. She will perform a solo dance to an original piece of music that she is writing with a student composer. She is also creating a website to accompany her creation.
Jahan is combining her majors of dance and biology in her final project:
“My project is kind of looking at the intersection between the natural world, like the environment, and technology and industry,” Jahan said.
Half of Jahan’s performance will be filmed outside, and half in the studio.
Peterson will perform a solo based on the dance audition process that a professional has choreographed.
“My solo is focused on resilience and tenacity, specifically in the dance world and in auditioning,” Peterson said.
Peterson’s solo will depict a series of auditions in which her character performs and is then cut from the auditions.
“What do you do in those situations to bounce back?” Peterson asked. “What’s the mental process versus what it looks like when you’re at the audition, the internal versus external view of the audition process?”
Wyatt, choosing to choreograph a piece, is choreographing a duet dance centered on self-love within Blackness realized by reclaiming movement in the dance world.
“My piece aims to reclaim movement that isn’t viewed as academic,” Wyatt said. Wyatt’s piece reclaims genres like hip-hop and bove fused with modern, jazz, house dance and West African contemporary dance, aiming for an African diasporic view of dance.
“The piece aims to take those unconventional movements such as twerking and lots of movement in the hips and repurpose them for ideas of self-love,” Wyatt said.
“I have one male and one female presenting and identifying dancers, but they won’t be loved interests to each other in this duet piece, they’ll be love interests to themselves because this is a piece about self love,” Wyatt said. “They’ll be helping each other as spiritual guidance on a spiritual journey to finding their own sense of self love for themselves. I intentionally did that to break a heteronormative space that we have in dance — especially when you see duets around love, they’re usually about a man and a woman who fall in love or meet each other things like that. I really wanted to break that mold. I’m aiming to redefine what self love looks like through dance for black people.”
Kiihne is also choreographing a piece, a murder mystery based off of the game of clue. The dance includes the six main clue characters: Miss Scarlett, Colonel Mustard, Mrs. White, Mr. Green, Mrs. Peacock, Professor Plum, and a seventh, the murder victim.
“The first thing you see is the night after the murder where everybody finds out that their friend is murdered,” Kiihne said. “You see their initial reactions, how they cope with it all; and then we see the night before where they’re at a party and things start to escalate.”
This performance encourages audience interaction: “Within all that, the audience gets time to try and figure out who did it,” Kiihne said.
While the pandemic demands a movement to recorded videos rather than live performances, the changes have not required the majors to learn a whole new set of skills.
Stephen Schroder, technical director for the dance department, is in charge of setting the lighting for, filming and editing the performances. The dancers have the option to share their design ideas with Schroder, or do the work themselves themselves with Schroder’s guidance.
When considering the limiting effects of COVID-19, the dancers had different perspectives. The initial guidelines intimidated many of the dancers. “I thought I was gonna have to change ideas and do something else completely,” Kiihne said. “But now with using a camera, there are other options that I didn’t even think about before… It is limiting but also it’s just a challenge to overcome with a new creative solution.”
“When we first got the new guidelines for what we had to do I was like, ‘no, I’m just gonna do a blended option, or I’m going to write a paper, I cannot do this,’” Wyatt said. “It just seemed like it was going to be impossible. But the more you get to sit and think about it, and I think definitely for me, seeing a lot of ways that dancers and just creatives in general were using technology to reimagine art and performing arts specifically, I was able to find something more creative to do.”
The restrictions allowed Peterson more creative choice in her piece. Dancers typically choose a choreographer from the Minneapolis area so that they can work with them in-person, but due to restrictions, she has been able to work over Zoom with a choreographer from New York.
“The new guidelines and everything for me allowed me to do what I’m doing with this choreographer specifically,” Peterson said. “It kind of worked out for me because I really wanted to use her as a choreographer, and the situation, while really unfortunate, allowed me to.”
Each of the dancers hopes to pursue dance in some capacity after they graduate.
Wyatt intends to incorporate his dance and race majors to pursue using dance as an outlet for activism through arts management.
“One of my callings is to help other people fulfill their written dreams through visuals: through arts and things like that, while also incorporating activism,” Wyatt said.
Peterson intends to pursue commercial dancing. She plans to audition for the Vikings cheerleaders and hopes to one day become a Radio City Rockette.
“My big dream ever since I was younger was to be a Radio City Rockette,” Peterson said. “That’s always been something I loved, and that’s actually how I connected with the choreographer that I have right now — she’s a Rockette.”
Rahan intends to pursue the biology world, but hopes to continue to dance in some capacity.
Kiihne hopes to combine her passions for dance and helping people through physical therapy.
“I do enjoy working with the elderly, and I’ve done quite a few projects on how dance is beneficial for them,” Kiihne said. “I also really like working with kids. Kids dance all the time. Kids love to not do work. So if I can make their treatments into a dance, that’s a lot more effective than just having them do their little workout things.”
The senior dance majors each have hope for the future of the dance world and anticipation for a pandemic free-future in which they can again experience physical connection in dance.
“I hope that we can shift back into that because that’s what really I love about dance, that physical connection that you get with people,” Peterson said.
However, Wyatt noted that some aspects of dancing during COVID-19, including hybrid dance classes and virtual choreography sessions, are here to stay.
“There’s certain aspects about being virtual that I just don’t see going away… out of convenience and out of endless possibility,” Wyatt said.
Moving some parts of dance online allows artists around the world to work together, allowing for that endless possibility.
While the pandemic has limited in-person performances, contact between dancers and classes in the studio, the dance department, and the senior dance majors, have found ways to make their senior year, and final performances meaningful. Check out the senior dance concert over Zoom on Nov. 13.