When performance venues shut down abruptly in mid-March, innumerable planned events were put on hold. That included the Guggenheim’s modest but high-profile “Works & Process” series, midway through its spring season which featured a mix of dance, theater and music events.
Launched in 1984, the adventurous series “explores artistic creation through stimulating conversation and performance.” It might present a preview of a new Metropolitan Opera production one week, and a site-specific tap dance creation the next. It often offers non-NYC-based institutions opportunities to showcase their offerings.
Amid the shock of the complete and open-ended interruption of live performance, the W&P team barely missed a beat. They made a swift, graceful pivot to become an extremely active, generous commissioner of virtual works.
As Duke Dang, the series’ general manager, explains it, there was no alternative. “When we started to see all these cancellations, we felt, these artists are the most vulnerable among us, and we can’t just cancel on them. These artists are part of our family. We had to find a way to continue to compensate them.”
They offered virtual commissions to a diverse, and growing, list of artists. These entailed few restrictions and a lot of freedom. The offer: create a video project of no more than five minutes, with performers and collaborators observing social distancing guidelines. The first was unveiled April 19 and a steady stream of unpredictable, challenging, haunting, witty and poignant videos have been launched every Sunday and Monday since.
“It’s a time of need for these artists,” Dang asserts. “The reason why we exist as a performing arts organization is to support artists. If it’s in your mission to support the artists of our time, it’s time to put your money where your mouth is. We’re staying busy; we need to. We can’t just hibernate.”
The initial $40,000 in commissioning funds that was announced for the project has since grown to $150,000. Increasingly, the commissions bear the names of prominent co-presenters who join up with W&P. The Metropolitan Opera co-presented the ones by Nico Muhly and Missy Mazzoli, cutting-edge composers who both have upcoming works slated for the Met.
NYCB principal dancers Adrian Danchig-Waring and Joseph Gordon used their commission to create I’ve Been Waiting for This, one of this week’s videos. “Works and Process offered us this commission in early April, which was pretty exciting for us because it was early on in the pandemic when we were feeling the most destabilized,” Gordon recalled. “The commission’s requirements were that we create an original piece of choreography and that it be filmed while in quarantine/ isolation, understanding that most of the commissions would be using an Iphone to film. We also had to only use music that was royalty free so that it would not violate any rights or agreements, as we would have full ownership of this work. Thankfully, Works and Process was very flexible about a deadline. We had a lot of time to conceptualize a narrative for the film, and we had the privilege to pull from our artist community to commission music and help us with editing and color correction.
“The themes and narrative of the film are inextricably tied to our experience during the first few months we spent in isolation. Through a complex and fortuitous set of circumstances we ended up quarantining on Shelter Island and one of the few sources of relief we felt in such an uncertain and dark time was the observance and communion with the natural world. The structure of the film is a diptych, that focuses on two characters — the first half representing isolation, the rote aspects of routine, and the pressures and claustrophobia of being confined. But there is a through line of longing and desire for the characters to break free. This desire manifests in an ecstatic dance sequence that takes place in the natural world.
“The commission has been vital at a time when our livelihoods have been taken from us. Working on this film has allowed me to feel less aimless in the midst of this new world,” said Gordon.
Dang has received similar feedback from many of the virtual commission recipients that beyond the very welcome financial support, the W&P commissions provide an artistic lifeline in a difficult moment. “Yes, the financial support is important to them,” he said. “But as we talk to artists, they say that the emotional and psychological sustenance was equally important as the financial component.”
On W&P’s expanding list of commissioned artists dance participants are especially plentiful. The commission by Silas Farley, the elegant dancer/choreographer who recently left New York City Ballet, will appear on August 23. Choreographers Brian Brooks, Camille A. Brown, Michelle Dorrance, Andrea Miller (August 24), Annie-B Parson and Claudia Schreier are on the list, as are a quintet of ABT dancers (Stella Abrera, Gillian Murphy, Sasha Radetsky, Ethan Stiefel and Cassandra Trenary) as well as the Martha Graham Dance Company’s Lloyd Knight.
Dang confirms an open-ended timeline for the virtual commissions. “We’re doing this for the foreseeable future – because the economic impact is going to be sustained, and the need is not going to disappear. As long as W&P exists as an organization, we are going to support living artists.”
Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages and contributes regularly to the Los Angeles Times, Playbill, Dance Australia and other publications.