The year that Brett Ishida’s dance company made its debut, things looked great. Its first production in January sold out and was well-received. The company scheduled events in the spring to raise funds for a follow-up production in June. Then the rest of the year would be spent preparing for a third production the following January.
Alas, the year was 2020. So no fundraising events. No June production. No production one year after the successful debut.
But Ishida herself never stopped working, and despite the pandemic, neither did her company.
“I kept in close contact with all the dancers that I’d recruited to do [the full-length dance] dream of black you come roaming in June 2020,” she says. “They’d reach out to me and say, ‘Hey, are we still doing this? We really hope we are.’ Everyone knew that the numbers were going up, right? But the dancers reached out to me to say, ‘Let me know what I can do. We really want to do this.’”
These were dance artists that Ishida had recruited from major institutions across the country – San Francisco Ballet, Houston Ballet, Hubbard Street, USC Kaufman, Juilliard – and she took inspiration from them. “Their heart and soul is in this field,” she says. “So once we realized that we couldn’t do the performances, obviously I contacted everybody and let them know. Then I started speaking to friends that were doctors and nurses and asked, ‘What can we do?’”
The answer: Create a pod. Have the dancers quarantine for two weeks. Test them for COVID. House them together. And keep them separate from others while they’re working.
Ishida believed it could work. “Once we figured that out,” she says, “I reached back out to those same dancers and said, ‘This is the deal. We have to be very strict. The guidelines and the rules are very clear. This is not just for the sake of yourself, but you’re also responsible for the others in your community, too.’ Which goes back to our values as a company, how community-centered we are. There were a few dancers who couldn’t do it [because] they had other contracts – though eventually those contracts were canceled because of COVID, and then they could. But the dancers, they all wanted to be a part of it. They all wanted to do everything they could to help us be successful.”[image-2-right]
Ishida and her dancers found a 12-day period when they could all gather in Austin and safely work together. The new Canopy by Hilton Austin Hotel helped host the pod, and arts groups around town provided space where they could rehearse: different dance studios, the Nowlin Rehearsal Hall at Zach Theatre, even the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center. In fact, Ishida and her dancers did some of their work at the Rollins in January of this year – the very site where the company had its one and only public performance 12 months earlier. This time, however, the space was empty. “It was lovely to go back,” Ishida says, “but it was almost like being in a haunted theatre. There was no audience. People weren’t even at work [in the Long Center]. There was just a skeleton crew.”
Still, even in that ghostly environment, in their artistic bubble, Ishida and her company created new work, created beauty. Indeed, Ishida says, the circumstances in which these dancers were working together may have allowed them to create something unique and specific to the times. “We’re always influenced by social contact, what happens in the environment, where people are personally – all of that factors in,” she says. “And COVID has affected people in so many different ways. [Being in the bubble] intensifies all of our relationships and out of it comes something quite beautiful. I think people will get the opportunity to see that [in our performance this week], to see the humanity and the vulnerability and the beauty that has been fostered even in this really unsettling and challenging time.”
The title of Ishida Dance Company’s long-delayed second production, being performed Friday and Saturday in the Dell Fine Arts Center at St. Andrew’s School, reflects the period in which it was made, a period of isolation common to almost everyone in the COVID era: Faraway, so close. It features four world premieres: Ishida’s longing floats around you, a meditation on and exploration of loneliness within intimacy; excerpts from Ishida’s dream of black you come roaming; a new work by former Batsheva dancer and USC professor Bret Easterling and a duet by Australian native Danielle Rowe, a former principal with Houston Ballet and Netherlands Dans Theater.
Just as Ishida was conscious of the coronavirus in the creation of these dances, she’s conscious of it in the performance of them. “Given what’s happening here in Austin, the rise of COVID cases, we’ve decided to reduce the capacity [in the theatre] to 50%. So people won’t be sitting next to strangers. And masks are required for all patrons. We’re following the CDC guidelines and the City of Austin requirements.”
That said, Ishida wants to be absolutely clear about how she and her company feel about getting to present this work to audiences: “We’re all so thrilled. The dancers are so excited. So fingers crossed that everything will be fine and we’ll get to do the performances.”
Ishida Dance Company presents Faraway, so close Fri. and Sat., Aug. 13 & 14, 8pm, in the Dell Fine Arts Center at St. Andrew’s School, 5901 Southwest Pkwy. For more information, visit ishidadance.org.
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