Pandemic life is nothing new: it’s in the headline of every arts event, and it’s the center of every news story, hashtag, and home. It is shocking how rapidly a single word can trigger dread and create a sense of isolation, or even mania, within an entire population. In these many months, the world has faced a great deal of change, and while isolation has proven to be one of the biggest challenges, we all have found ways to create the personal interactions we so intensely crave. Art has been a surprisingly integral part of these interpersonal interactions—watching a live stream from your favorite singer can be just as engaging as a phone call with a friend, and viewing short films on Zoom together brings us that much closer to the ones we care about. The opportunity to become invested in art and creativity is, in many ways, more accessible than ever. Arts organizations have adapted to COVID-19 by utilizing their websites to increase interactivity with hope of adding the personal touches that help thaw the loneliness of their audiences and supporters. Theater and dance companies have faced the same challenge: how can a theater bring audiences the gift of a show and continue to offer cherished community spaces when they aren’t physically open? This summer season, the artists of local dance company Whim W’Him had to find that answer for themselves.
“We decided to pivot into making dance films” says Whim W’Him artistic director Olivier Wevers. Before COVID-19, the dance company’s summer season XALT was set to consist of two live shows—MANIFOLD and The Way It Is. These pieces intended to explore the human journey and bring the audience into an intimate storyline, latching onto the personal, yet universal, emotions of the audience members and artists alike. But COVID-19 spun the arts world on its head, leaving many dance companies unprepared and in search of new ways to reach audiences. XALT’S MANIFOLD, choreographed by Penny Saunders, and The Way It Is, choreographed by Wevers, use dance to perfectly capture the loneliness of quarantine. It is strangely comforting to see the socially distanced dancers in these performances tread carefully, so as not to step into each other’s space.
To accomplish such a feat, the crew had to be meticulous about scheduling and ensuring that everyone involved was more than 6 feet apart from each other. For MANIFOLD, which was set in an indoor space, dancers quarantined with each other for two weeks so they could safely work together inside. Recently retired dancer Mia Monteabaro (MANIFOLD and The Way It Is), who was in a pod with some of her fellow dancers, described the experience: “We happened to be on Vashon in a pod together when the lock down started, so back in March we were in a house together for that, and we were working on MANIFOLD. Without knowing it, we started this whole thing in a pod, and then we just socially distanced.”
Much like Monteabaro, Quinn Wharton also was involved in the direction of both pieces. During the filming of MANIFOLD, because of social distancing, Wharton had to work through some very new, but exciting, challenges. Monteabaro commented on how he creatively got around those roadblocks: “we had group sessions and recorded it individually so there was a challenge of keeping the same dancing synchronized, even though we weren’t dancing at the same time or in the same space.” Wharton was able to film the dancers using well-placed camera angles, with “tricky transition shots that you can’t tell are there.”
For The Way It Is, Wharton played with using longer lenses to capture Wevers’ vision. It was his job to transition the performance from stage to screen, and Wharton was honored to do so. Pre-COVID, Wevers had choreographed Willliam Stafford’s poem for the stage, but since social distancing meant a live production was no longer possible, he tried his hand at film: “I started researching a lot about grieving and the five stages of grieving [...] I rarely use solos in my work, but with COVID, we couldn't touch, we couldn’t use a studio, we needed to find a solution.” This is where Wharton’s role came in. Wharton shared what it was like working with Wevers: “we really used it as a deep co-collaborative process to figure out what was going to work. He trusted me deeply, he made beautiful work and I did my best to do justice to that.”
One moment in The Way It Is that stands out in particular for its visual beauty, is the scene in which Monteabaro travels through grimey underbellies of highways, clings to the fences of a local basketball court, and blazes through tall grasses that fill the screen with passion. All of these moments, she notes, reveal the process of pain to healing, saying that “You can pull from different aspects of grief and it doesn't have to be just one way.”
Wharton’s role as director and filmographer was to capture this complex narrative in a way that digital audiences could appropriately take in. Wharton emphasized that “every shot is focused somewhat on finding that path and helping draw down the path and going and going, all of it is geared towards that.” He captured these beautiful scenes by thinking outside the box, using longer lenses and stabilizers to get tight, close shots.
The Way It Is centers on that universal feeling of following your own path, or, as Stafford’s poem puts it, “following your thread.” “There’s a piece of everybody in that piece, there's definitely ups and downs, it might not be a straight line that you are on,” Monteabaro notes. But this work also has a more personal meaning for Monteabaro, as this film celebrates the many contributions that she has given to dance. She retired just this past spring, after 12 years as a dancer and 8 years with Whim W’Him. Looking back, Monteabaro expressed the many emotions she went through for the duration of filming: “It was a challenge to me to portray that emotion behind that journey [...] we were kind of stepping into a lot of unknowns, we were doing something for the first time.” For Wharton and Wevers, it was imperative that Monteabaro had one last hurrah. “I had to feel like I could at least give her something, lasting beauty to carry with her; she’s phenomenal, she’s a powerhouse” Wharton gushed. Wevers emphasized how in some ways, the piece was about Monteabaro, as “she was retiring after years of a career as a professional dancer. I wanted to create something special around her journey.”
XALT’s two films represent general feelings of despair, confusion, passion, and potential. MANIFOLD explores our rapidly changing consumption of media, it creates a space for us to dissect the gift and curse of instant information. MANIFOLD breaks it down in the way our brains understand it best, visual and empathetic story telling. The Way It Is offers personal reflection for audiences, celebrating the journey of every person, and honoring the confusion that goes with making one’s way in the midst of human chaos.
Whim W'Him’s XALT provides us with stories we can all empathize with. We all share the commonality of finding our truth through chaos, whether that be through defining our own truth or that of another. We are all following our thread, shaped by our journey and the paths we take, slightly unraveled and worn, but from a life that is uniquely our own.
Whim W'Him premiered the XALT dance films in August 2020. See here for more information and to stream the films online.