A camera looks out onto a dimly lit living room. The frame is slightly unlevel, tilted up toward the right. In the bottom corner, a candle flickers; its shadow dances over the comfortable white drapes at the end of the room. Deep piano music starts, and a woman walks into view. She’s dressed simply: just shorts and a tank top. She starts to lunge toward the left, but then the video quickly changes to a different woman. This time, we’re outside, and the new subject continues the lunge from the previous shot. The camera changes again, now to a kitchen, where two people stand on screen in complementary loungewear sets. They continue the previous movements until there’s another switch, and then another, and then another, and then back to the first one. The sequence continues, the music swells and the dance finishes.
This is Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “One Thousand Pieces,” a performance created by PNB’s first-ever resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo. It was set to open the day after social distancing orders disbarred performances in PNB’s native Seattle. Instead of giving up, however, the company filmed the work from their various quarantined locations.
In many ways, the collaged final product is amateur: an amalgam of blurred clips taken on phone cameras that don’t capture the right frame and can’t handle the harsh lighting of homes and apartments. Pieced together, though, the imperfections make it beautiful. The work is bewitchingly haunting — the setting is intimate, the dancing is personal and the title “One Thousand Pieces” all of a sudden seems to work too well to be an accident.
This is not the only product of dancers in quarantine. On Instagram alone, New York City ballet posted a similar collage of Justin Peck’s “The Times Are Racing,” San Francisco Ballet published archived footage of previous performances and NYCB principal dancer Tiler Peck started teaching virtual ballet class six days a week. Every day, even every hour, new content floods the feeds of isolated ballet fans across the globe.
These are big names in the ballet world. NYCB, SFB and PNB are part of a select group of elite ballet companies in the United States. Their performances often cost hundreds of dollars to see, and their dancers — especially the principals — are the closest one can get to celebrity in a world of pliés and pointe shoes.
Traditionally, the dance world is interwoven across a networked bubble of passionately competitive individuals. It’s a community known for secret-keeping and built on the sink-or-swim method of orientation. Outsider audience members only get to see the finished product.
Social media has dissolved some of these boundaries in the past few years. The first wave of influencers pulled back curtains on a ballet dancer’s life off-stage and showed the world they were also people who laughed and cried and walked their dogs on their days off. Nevertheless, the divide between us and them — between stage and audience, in and out — remained strong.
Now, we all seem to be an audience for the same horrific show. We’re sitting on couches and floors and beds and chairs as we watch a pandemic desecrate an artistic community wholly dependent on large crowds and public performances. Without the stage, companies and individual artists are left wondering how to stay relevant, not to mention ready-to-go when it’s time to rebuild. Last week, San Francisco Ballet posed a telling question on their Instagram story: What would you like us to show you?
In a humbling equalizer of our own humanity, the ballet world thus faces a re-evaluation of who gets to see what, who takes class from whom and what defines the very essence of performance.
No one has answers. Everybody has questions. But, in a thrilling change of events, everyone is in control of where this goes next.