2020. It’s been a difficult year for the dance industry, and especially for freelance artists, freelance dancers, and recent dance graduates. Thanks to the Covid pandemic and resultant lockdown, there has been very little in the way of dance opportunities both here in London and all over. Theatres have been closed, audiences prohibited, dance classes, events, workshops and intensives cancelled, venues and companies have been struggling to survive, and dancers have been confined to Zoom classes from home. Inspired to help freelance dancers recover from the pandemic, Company Wayne McGregor announced RESET2020, a professional development programme for freelance dancers and recent dance graduates.
This programme is currently in its second phase, and I’m due to be attending in just a few days, so I thought I would bring you a post telling you all about my experience specifically of the first phase of RESET2020.
The programme was separated into three strands, based on dancer experience. The most experienced professional dancers could take a ten week course, most other professional dancers a two-week course, and recent graduates the LABS programme, which featured three consecutive Saturdays of dance labs. This is the strand in which I participated.
Covid-Safe Measures in the Dance Studio
This programme, designed and organised by the dancers of Company Wayne McGregor, was a really outstanding example of how dance can continue in the studio under Covid-safe measures. A dedicated space was set up at HereEast, not actually in Studio WayneMcGregor but another building beside it that allowed dancers to enter and exit the studio directly from outdoors, therefore eliminating the need to use communal entrance areas, corridors and lifts. A one- way system was set up for entering and exiting. We wore masks at all times inside the space and automatic hand sanitisers were provided. Upon entering, each dancer had their temperature checked every day, and we were given a numbered space on the floor. Each space was marked out with tape as the dancers’ own socially-distanced area, with an individual barre. We also had a plastic box in our space in which to place our personal belongings, and each box contained anti-bacterial wipes to wipe down the barre and the plastic box at the end of each day. The room was fitted with an anti-microbial dance floor, which was very comfortable to dance on. The biggest adjustment was dancing in a mask, but thanks to these measures I felt very safe in the space, and I think that a lot of studios and companies that might not be sure how to operate safely under the current circumstances can look to Company Wayne McGregor and the REST2020 programme as a really good example.
The LABS Programme
I participated in the very first three Saturdays of the RESET programme, so I actually only had three days’ notice that I was going to be heading back to the studio after four and a half months of quarantine! Even before lockdown, I had only started doing full classes after my ankle surgery at most a couple of weeks before everything shut down, so I was Not Fit. Add to that the challenge of dancing in a mask for the first time, and I was quite daunted.
Jumping straight back in to a full day of dancing after so much time of very little activity was definitely a shock to the system, because the LABS programme ran from 10am-5pm. Even though part of me wished that we could do it three days in a row, rather than a week apart, I feel like at that time when I was really unfit, I probably needed most of that week in between to recover!
There was something so euphoric about being back in the studio, taking class and working in-person that was invigorating to the soul. I think that as performers, we really feed on one another’s energy, and I was definitely missing that with Zoom classes and practicing on my own. Even though we were still confined to our own spaces in the studio, it was more space to move around freely than I’d had in a long time and I loved every moment of it.
Each day of the LABS consisted of: a contemporary dance class, then a short break, repertoire, lunch break, more repertoire, a short break, and a creative task at the end of the day. Wayne McGregor famously works very fast, with complex choreography, and doesn’t like to repeat himself- and we got just a small taste of this style of working with his dancers. Each day was led by two Company Wayne McGregor dancers, and they were all incredibly nice and welcoming, super talented and really eager to engage with us and give us all they could. They definitely slowed things down a lot for us, but as someone with a learning disability, it was still way out of my comfort zone at first! I found myself getting really stressed when I couldn’t pick things up and remember them, and the stress only makes it worse. I had to remind myself that much like getting physically fit after time off, it takes a while for your brain to get back in the game, too.
Despite this struggle, I absolutely loved learning repertoire- it was my favourite part of the LABS. Wayne McGregor’s choreography is pretty athletic, so it was full on, but at the same time the technique felt really right in my body. It definitely pushed me for strength, flexibility, co-ordination, speed, everything, but I think as someone who is trained in ballet and contemporary, it was so amazing to use my ballet technique and just take it to a whole new place. In ballet, we’re usually very limited to the confines of the codified technique: McGregor’s choreography allows you to break all those rules and use your technique in a new way. I was actually surprised at some of the things I could do when given permission to break out of that box, and I came away feeling inspired to explore those lengths more. I found myself really wishing I could revisit the choreography once I’m fully fit again, because my lack of fitness definitely hindered me a bit.
My favourite choreography was part of a duet from Autobiography. I was very lucky to watch Autobiography on stage as well as in rehearsals at Studio Wayne McGregor back in 2017, and I remember being enthralled by this duet then- I actually have a tiny clip of it in rehearsals:
(and these are the bruises I got from doing that shift of weight over the knees movement!!)
What I loved was that we spent the second day of LABS learning both halves of that duet, adapted to be socially distanced and within our little boxes. In this way, our experience was actually enhanced by those restrictions in place, because we got to experience the choreography from both sides, leading to another level of understanding. I felt I picked up the choreography much better than I had the week before when we worked on each part separately, but later we performed them as a distanced duet- we danced one part with another person, but inside our own spaces, and then we swapped roles. This proved to be absolutely too much for my brain and I completely messed it up! At the time I was upset with myself, but looking back on it, it was a really great experience nonetheless.
We also learned other parts of choreography from Autobiography, as well as things from FAR and Tree of Codes, in addition to the classes and the creative tasks. The creative tasks involved things like taking the repertoire we’d learned and adding our own movements to it, mixing it up with various instructions, or creating our own movement in response to certain prompts and adding in parts of what we’d learned. I found these parts super challenging, because my brain was fried from learning the repertoire and I was already struggling so much with picking stuff up, but I still really enjoyed it and experienced some super cool new ways of creating.
Talks & Workshops
In addition to the practical dance element of the programme, everyone who participated in any strand also had the opportunity to attend a number of talks and workshops. After having an amazing experience at the LABS and really enjoying talking to the dancers, I was keen to sign up for everything I could.
The talks I attended were:
- Finance: this talk on finance for freelancers sounds dry, but it was SO helpful. I think that as dancers, we can feel scared and intimidated by very non-creative things like bookkeeping, but as a freelancer, you’re essentially running a business, and this is a big part of that responsibility. This talk left me feeling really empowered with information on good financial practices, filling out my tax return, pensions, insurance, and invoicing.
- Physiotheraphy: the physiotherapist that the Company Wayne McGregor dancers got in to talk to us was so fantastic- she taught us what we should look for in a physiotherapist as dancers, what we should expect and what we should ask for when we go to them, especially if finances mean that you can’t keep seeing them regularly, and how to get the most out of recovery, with lots of interesting stories from her years of experience.
- Self-massage: this workshop was really lovely. I remember being so stressed and anxious on the day, and it was very nice to have some relaxation time, and learn some techniques on how to self-massage, which is a great skill to have especially at the moment when going to get a massage isn’t always possible.
- Nutrition: having already worked with a dance nutritionist in the past, then only recently attending a great Zoom talk on nutrition with the Royal Ballet School Summer Intensive, and also being a To The Pointe Nutrition ambassador, I thought I was probably already armed with as much nutrition knowledge as I needed. However I’m always keen to learn more, so I signed up to this talk anyway, and I’m so glad I did, because this gave me knowledge I didn’t already have. I learned a lot more about shopping for food with good nutritional value, and also a lot more about cooking and preparing food, so I gained loads of useful tips from this talk.
- Psychology: this was one of my favourite talks. We learned a behavioural psychology method called the ACT (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy) Matrix, and it helped us to reframe our thoughts and behaviour, especially in the context of all of the uncertainty of living through a pandemic. I found it endlessly valuable, and continue to use this method to guide my plans and choices.
- Repertoire: Much like the LABS, there was also the option to sign up for a repertoire workshop, which I did. We went much faster than we did in the LABS workshops, but as this was a couple of weeks on from those initial days of dancing, I felt more ready. The first piece was one we’d already done, so I enjoyed being able to go back and really get it more in my body and brain. However the second one was a new piece that was lightning-fast and definitely would have reduced me to tears if we’d been given it in the LABS, but I went in feeling super determined and actually picked it up really well, so I went away from that one on top of the moon.
- Improvisation: This was another practical workshop, and we learned a couple of new techniques to help us improvise and create our own movement. It helped me to connect to my body in a totally new way, and I was able to really break out of my habitual movement patterns- anyone who is a student of improvisation knows that this is a constant struggle, especially when you have really specific or stylised training like a lot of ballet! So again, this was super enjoyable and useful.
- Stage make-up and hair: Along with psychology, this was my other favourite workshop, because I love make-up! Claire Calvert from The Royal Ballet came in to show us her stage make-up routine (I felt a bit starstruck because she’s one of my favourite dancers) and we were able to follow along a bit. I learned loads of great new tips and and tricks and it was just so fun to do!
The Buddy Scheme
As part of the programme, the recent graduates also had the opportunity to be paired with a ‘buddy’- one of the Company dancers who could act as a sort of mentor to us. I love this idea so much and of course signed up. We have since communicated via email and Zoom, and my buddy has given me lots of tips on looking for work, keeping my fitness and artistic development going, and moving forwards in the industry as a new graduate. It’s really nice knowing there’s someone in the industry I can reach out and talk to and ask for advice when I need it, especially because we didn’t get that end part of our formal training when our tutors might have given us advice about work and auditions, etc.
As I mentioned, the RESET programme was extended and Phase 2 is now well underway. Increased interest in the programme and the new lockdown have caused a few changes, so this time the talks and workshops have been on Zoom and they’ve been great so far- I will share more about them in a separate blog post about the second phase! I am going to be attending 2 days of LABS workshops this weekend and next, so I am really looking forward to getting back there. I’m not as fit as I could be, coming out of ANOTHER lockdown, but this time it’s only been 4 weeks off so I hope that I am fitter than last time and ready to go even further with the repertoire and creative tasks.
It’s hoped that the RESET2020 scheme can continue until March 2021, and I hope that it can continue and help even more dancers during this time that is so challenging for us. I gained so much from taking part in this programme, it has been exactly what I needed as a recent graduate going into an industry that’s currently in crisis.
If you’d like me to share in detail more about what I learned in any of the talks and workshops I described above, please do let me know because I took pages of notes during each of them!
Until next time,