Returning to Dance Post-Pandemic

“It’s a human need to watch something in a dark space together,” said Nathalie Bonjour, performing arts director at Toronto Harbourfront Centre, “because it really is about our shared human experience. That moment we spend together in that dark room is pretty magical.”

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Canada and forced many of us into two years of isolation from each other and our communities. Now, in 2022, the world is ready to start its new normal. But as we return to pre-pandemic life, we begin to notice the experiences and feelings of connection we lost during those two years.

We have spent so long being apart that we have forgotten how to be together.

However, as Nathalie said, watching live performance is about a shared human experience. Sitting in a dark room watching performers bare their hearts creates a connection between everyone that is difficult to replicate elsewhere.

From 2019 to 2020, artists saw a 15% decrease in total hours worked, which remained 12% lower than usual in 2021, when the rest of the labour force rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.

But starting in March, live arts are beginning to make a return. Restrictions are being lifted and artists are coming back to what they love. And as they return to what they love, an opportunity opens for the rest of the us to regain the feeling of connection we lost.

Live dance relies on an audience and was hit particularly hard by the pandemic. But, as an art form that is all about expressing emotion and creating a connection between the performers and the audience, live dance is a great way to remind ourselves we are not alone coming out of the pandemic.

It is time to return to live dance.

Reopening Harbourfront Centre

In anticipation of the return of live dance, I was given the opportunity to speak with Nathalie about the upcoming dance season. As a performing arts director, Nathalie’s job is to supervise a variety of programs at Harbourfront Centre, including the international contemporary dance series, Torque.

Torque has suffered from delays and shutdowns since the pandemic began, but now the series finally gets to open to the public. On March 3rdTorque will begin a mini-season featuring four very different pieces. The four pieces featured this season focus on showcasing global perspectives on identity, love, loneliness, and community — ideas we can all relate to post-pandemic. 

Dance During the Pandemic

During the pandemic, Harbourfront Centre tried to keep the dance and performing world alive as much as possible. Like many places, they relied heavily on livestreams and digital substitutes for in-person events, with some outdoor performances when restrictions and weather allowed.

The digital events were successful in reaching audiences. According to Nathalie, digital content will continue being created for those still not comfortable with returning to live events but who are still interested in supporting dance and the arts.

Digidance is a series formed by Harbourfront Centre, alongside other leading Canadian dance presenters, to deliver full-length dance content across the country. While created in response to the pandemic, Digidance also provides a more accessible alternative option to showcase dance when people may struggle to come to live performances.

That being said, Nathalie encourages those who can to attend live performances if possible. It is the best way to experience how dance can bring people together.

The Essential Dance Experience

The magic of dance is something we missed during the pandemic. Losing it made us realize how important the feeling of attending a live event is and be grateful we have the opportunity to experience it again.

Nathalie mentioned that even those who work in the arts cried when they went back to their first show: they didn’t realize how much they had missed the energy live performance gives.

Witnessing a performance live is so different from witnessing one digitally. It is the difference between watching a virtual roller-coaster ride versus riding it yourself at the amusement park. The feeling of anticipation as you wait at the top for the drop of the carts, the wind whipping through your hair as you tear down the track at lightning speed, the screams of both fear and excitement from you and those around you…

That isn’t something you can physically experience through a screen. Watching live adds an extra layer of emotion, understanding, and just pure human connection that we were all missing.

When the pandemic happened, it pushed aside this need for connection and replaced it with other worries. But as those other worries recede, it once again becomes essential for people to experience performances with live audiences and regain that feeling they lost. 

What Is Harbourfront Centre’s Reopening Plan?

Like most performing arts centres, Harbourfront Centre intends on opening its doors soon to the public. They still, however, take COVID-19 very seriously.

“We’re still very cautious,” Nathalie said. “We have been hoping a few times and then been disappointed, so we are a little hesitant. But it looks like it’s all lining up to reopen, so we’re pretty excited.”

Harbourfront Centre will still function at 50% capacity after March 1st, and they have taken precautions with rehiring and training staff. COVID-19 procedures regarding mask are also being followed for everyone’s safety.

Nathalie also said that they have seen a change in when people buy tickets. Instead of buying in advance, more people seem to buy at the last minute. This could be a side effect of the event closures or people slowly recovering from fear of the pandemic.

L-E-V Chapter 3: The Beautiful Journey of the Heart

Image by Stefan Dotter for Dior

On March 3rd and 5thL-E-V, a dance group from Israel, will open the Torque mini-season at Harbourfront Centre with Chapter 3: the Beautiful Journey of the Heart, co-choreographed by Sharon Eyal.

The piece is the third in a series but can stand on its own. It is described as “a heart wrenching examination of love and loss, damage and brokenness, and the beauty that comes when life unfolds in new and wonderful ways,” something I feel reflects our state coming out of the pandemic.

“There is a sense of closure in this piece, which I think is good timing for us coming out of this pandemic,” Nathalie said. She also stated that “there is something a little more hopeful in this piece.”

Creating Hope through Dance

The arts have always been a way to express feelings and emotions. People go to performances for many different reasons, but many of these reasons all go back to creating long-lasting memories. The emotions the arts express are how these memories are created and connections are formed.

My first time seeing any event live was a performance of Mary Poppins in London, Ontario, with my mom, sister, and grandmother. I can’t remember the first time I saw the film, but the day I saw the stage performance is permanently etched into my mind as one of the happiest memories I have with my late grandmother. While I can’t remember who the performers were or what the stage looked like, I can remember how I felt watching the performance: the excitement, the joy, the love. The experience of watching the musical live with my family made the memory unforgettable.

Unlike most plays and musicals, not all dance performances have a firm narrative the choreographer wants the audience to understand. That doesn’t matter, however, for creating memories. The goal of the choreographer is to get the audience to feel something and have an emotional response to the performance. This is what can make a memory unforgettable, and dance has the power to bring out powerful emotions within people.

With this in mind, the return of dance post-pandemic has never been more important. Now, more than ever, we need to feel hope and joy. During the pandemic we lost a lot, and one of those things we lost was the magic in a live arts performance.

As Canada reopens and performance centres open their doors to the public, I encourage everyone to get out and experience a live performance, even if you never have before. After losing live performances for two years, it’s time to allow a moment to immerse ourselves in the hope dance and the arts can bring. 

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