Dance and Performing Arts in the COVID-19 World

The coronavirus (COVID-19) has devastated dance and performing arts, with New York spring season cancellations of New York City Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and many others. Starting in 2013, I never thought I would write about infectious disease given that I know nothing about the topic. However, with COVID-19, we are all amateur virologists trying to make sense of the scrambled world the virus has upended.

Cancellations of performances are a necessary consequence in the Emergency Phase of the virus cycle to “flatten the curve” to prevent the medical care system from being overwhelmed by sick patients. Once the curve is flattened and the Emergency Phase is over, we all look forward to a future period of normalcy fostered by reliable treatments and ready vaccination. “The only thing that really lets us go back completely to normal, and feel good about sitting in stadiums with lots of other people, is to create a vaccine…” says Bill Gates, whose foundation has pledged billions of dollars to develop a vaccine. However, that state is unlikely until sometime in 2021.

Policy prescriptions in the Emergency and Normal phases are simple: social distancing in the former and life as normal in the latter. The middle and treacherous period is what The New York Times’ New York Times’ Ross Douthat calls the Semi-Normal phase. In this period, society constructs ground rules for living with the virus as a constant threat as we conduct cost/benefit analysis for activities we took for granted in February.

What will the dance and performing arts in general be like in the Semi-Normal phase, say starting this summer? Here are my projections on dance and performance arts in general in the COVID era:

Social Distancing Remains and Slows Dance Recovery

Although the Emergency Phase of the virus will end shortly, social distancing will remain, putting a damper on dance’s recovery. I will be relieved when the curve flattens after weeks of heartbreaking virus news…but not likely to sit through a three-hour ballet (or sports event) in a crowded theater. Joshua Rabinowitz and Caroline Bartman of Princeton University argue that the amount of exposure to a virus (viral load) is important; while a fleeting contact with someone with the virus may be benign, sitting next to the same person for a lengthy period could be lethal. This does not bode well for audience entertainment events. If events are held, there could be distancing in seating, significantly reducing revenue. Masks at public events may be ubiquitous as people seek protection. Attendance from the elderly, a vital arts constituency, will be reduced substantially given that the virus is especially hard on this segment.

Projections in the Wall Street Journal from Broadway theater professionals of June to September openings are optimistic. After months of viewing others as lethal threats, it is difficult to imagine thousands of people flocking to shows soon. Moreover, policymakers will be reluctant to allow such events; large gatherings can turbocharge the opportunistic and pernicious virus, providing it the opportunity to re-emerge (see When Sports Return, Will the Fans? in the Wall Street Journal for commentary on sports fan participation in the Semi-Normal phase that also applies to the arts).

I hate to say it, but the prospect for performances for the remainder of 2020 is highly speculative.

Less support for the Arts

Arts organizations will feel a monetary pinch as the deep recession will drain cash from arts patrons. For those with philanthropy funds, health care services and vaccine development will be prioritized.

Lost Group of Young Artists

Like most artists, dancers do not make much money, even in good times. Based on canceled and reduced performance opportunities, I fear that some talented dancers will walk away from the profession in pursuit of more stable employment while some younger dancers choose not to pursue the art form professionally. This will have negative consequences for the arts for many years.

Ballet Working Conditions

Dancers work in cramped conditions, with many jammed into a studio for class and rehearsal, facilitating virus spread. Companies must consider how to protect dancers, possibly through testing. Hopefully, readily available virus tests will be available shortly.

Streaming Vital for Additional Revenue

Although some dance troupes such as Australian Ballet and Royal Ballet offer a few free taped performances via streaming (Siobhan Burke of The New York Times provides more dance streaming alternatives), companies could charge a fee to view live or recently performed works to enhance revenue. A portion of Misty Copeland’s 1.8 million Instagram followers paying $10 a performance generates real cash, which would add to ABT’s recent annual ticket sales of around $18 million. There is much-untapped potential in streaming, critical given the inevitable slowdown in attendance and donations.

The arts are in the same boat as sports in terms of uncertainty on live audiences this year. However, because of large television revenue, big-time sports will survive and possibly thrive even if few (or no) fans are allowed in the stadium. “Although ticket sales constitute an important revenue stream for individual NFL teams, they are nonetheless relatively small compared to quickly growing revenue from TV deals…” according to Investopedia. Ballet companies should follow the lead of professional sports and make more live performances available to the masses.

I have heard that unions are a barrier to using such technology; I do not know if unions are resistant to change or a useful scapegoat. Whatever the reason, it is in everybody’s interest to have financially healthy organizations that steaming facilitates.

Dance Arts COVID-19 Times Square

Deserted Times Square, 46th and Broadway, Saturday Afternoon, April 4. Click for more photos of Times Square and Lincoln Center during the COVID crisis.

Final Thoughts

It is hard to be optimistic about dance and the performing arts over the next year given the uncertainty on live performances. The positive is that the tragedy may force organizations to embrace technology to make the arts more accessible to the masses, a theme that I preached about in 2016. 

My predictions are put forth with great modesty given that most projections on the virus have been wrong (President Trump, January 22: “…we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”; Anthony Fauci January 26, “it’s a very, very low risk to the United States. … it isn’t something the American public needs to worry about or be frightened about.” Mayor de Blassio, March 10: “For the vast majority of New Yorkers, life is going on pretty normally right now. We want to encourage that.”; “Best Case and Worst Case Coronavirus Forecasts Are Very Far Apart: Infectious disease experts still consider a wide range of outcomes plausible.“)