Several students stomping in sync, their vibrant costumes lighting up the stage. A sea of young instrumentalists coming to a crescendo as the conductor gestures emphatically. The last sentence of a student’s inspiring story, spoken to a standing ovation. Scenes like these comprise only a fraction of the wide array of artistic talent showcased at Berkeley High School (BHS) for local audiences to enjoy. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, performances will have to look a little different than the norm in order to keep everyone healthy and safe. How are the people in charge of developing safe shows in the age of COVID-19 handling it?
“The plan right now [for my classes] is to have all of the presentations of our work happen in a digital format,” said Linda Carr, teacher of several BHS modern/jazz dance classes. This digitalization will not only change the performances themselves, but much of the creation process as well. With regard to her Dance Production (DP) class, Carr stated that “the choreographers and dancers are going to be creating their work not just through the art of dance, but also through the art of videography.” She explained that DP students would spend time in class learning how to edit their own dance videos and developing their skills in the art of dance for the camera.
For her beginning modern/jazz class, Carr talked about how she planned to have her students take full advantage of their unique home environments, using their houses and the surrounding areas as artistic inspiration. She said students would choreograph and film “dances that are using the doorway as a frame for a dance, or using a staircase, or a hallway.”
Despite the fact that she and her students now have to manage a “tech mountain” as well as the usual dance mountain, Carr said she and her students are looking forward to exploring new horizons this year. “We’re in a constant state of adjustment right now, but I think [my students] are excited about … the potential of learning some new, very cool artistic skills,” she said. “I am, I’m into it. I think it’s gonna be fun.”
BHS’s African Diaspora (also known as Afro-Haitian) Dance program is known for its lively, impressive performances. Dawn Williams, known as “Doc Dub” by her students, teaches beginning and advanced classes within the program. She reported that this year is “the first time in over thirty years that we do not expect to have a live show on stage.” She spoke of the disappointment many of her students are experiencing as a result of this loss, saying “there is a feeling of grief among my students.”
One unfortunate consequence of virtual performances is that group dances are difficult to pull off. Williams described her class as “extremely community-oriented” and predicted that the “move from group-based dances to solo performances may seem strange.” However, she also suggested that solo performances could cause students to become more independent as dancers. “Solo performances mean that there is no hiding … and there is vulnerability in that,” she said.
Williams said performances will most likely “be streamed and made available on YouTube.” She noted that with a digital platform comes a wider reach, and said she was excited about the prospect of students inviting “family members from anywhere in the world … to watch them dance.” She mentioned an Austrian exchange student from the previous school year who had to return home because of COVID-19, and would now be able to watch the performances remotely. “I look forward to sharing our performance with her,” said Williams.
Unofficial BHS performing arts programs are heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic as well. The student-run show Our Monologues debuted onstage last year with the goal of creating “a platform for a collection of stories gathered from [the BHS] community that go untold,” according to their website.
This year, the show is co-directed by Rusma Kharel, a senior in Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS), and Risa Sundu, a senior in Academic Choice (AC). Kharel said the two were “looking into safe alternatives to a live show such as an outdoor socially distanced performance or a virtual platform.” Kharel voiced one difficulty that comes along with advertising the show virtually: “Already, we are having to find new ways to do promotion and make sure that everyone hears about … the show.” They also mentioned the struggle of creating camaraderie over virtual platforms. Sundu said she and Kharel “expect it will be harder for the cast to bond and for us to build a community when we have very limited opportunity to interact in person.”
On a more uplifting note, Sundu predicted that using a virtual platform will allow Our Monologues to reach an audience that isn’t restricted to just the Bay Area. “Also, we will have more flexibility to adapt to people who have different needs in terms of participating in and watching the show,” she said.
Additionally, Kharel and Sundu stated that they are still open for monologue submissions from the BHS community. “Write about anything you want,” they encouraged students. “We want to hear from you!”
Between Zoom rehearsals, YouTube performances, and videography lessons in dance classes, there is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic makes the “performing” part of performing arts unusually complicated and difficult. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a silver lining to all this. Williams observed that this pandemic brings “an opportunity to express ourselves.” She continued: “Students have the opportunity to step up and tell their stories about being Black in America, about Covid-19, about being a teenager. … Watch out world!”