Dancing at a distance

New circumstances call for new ideas: the Kaskadenhalle at the Toni Campus becomes a dance studio. Photographs: Regula Bearth © ZHdK

New circumstances call for new ideas: the Kaskadenhalle at the Toni Campus becomes a dance studio. Photographs: Regula Bearth © ZHdK

How a ZHdK discipline is drawing strength from today’s crisis

How is coronavirus changing dance studies? How can one dance at all — despite “physical distancing”? And how has lockdown affected dance students — who are spread across the world? Gianni Malfer, operative head of the Bachelor Contemporary Dance and Canadian student Julian Beairsto look back on nightly training sessions via Zoom and offer  insights into the new everyday life of dancers at ZHdK.



Monday morning, 9 a.m., Dance Hall 2: just like every other day, ZHdK’s Bachelor Contemporary Dance students are working out. Although everything seems normal, the new normal — characterized by “physical distancing” and special health and safety measures — has arrived. How to dance without proximity and contact? Much has changed for the dancers: for example, they are now dancing in newly formed small groups while the choreographers are teaching from a distance. Temperatures are measured on a voluntary basis. Gianni Malfer, operative head of the Bachelor Contemporary Dance, explains that these measures are meant to offer students some reassurance. The dancers are also dancing in masks: “Since they are high-performance athletes and need a lot of oxygen, wearing a mask is very challenging. But we have to prepare students for a professional world in which they may have to dance in masks — which is already the case internationally.”

New ideas are needed

The motto is: adapt to the new situation, as happened back in March 2020. If dancers can’t exercise extensively, they easily fall into a hole, Malfer says. “We therefore had to create a new structure in lockdown: daily sessions, music theory assignments and career development classes. We also hired choreographers to work with students via Zoom. This gave them a reason to get up in the morning.” The transition went surprisingly smoothly: “The group dynamics were tremendous. Everyone suffered under the circumstances, was alone and had nothing else to do but dance due to job
losses.” Above all, everyone had the same goal: to finish the semester at any price! Malfer adds that he will remember one image in particular: “the screen with these 15 Zoom windows and the idea that one person was in Italy, another in Japan, yet another in Canada — that was crazy.”

Dancing around the clock …

Julian Beairsto joined the sessions from Canada with a nine hour time difference. He will never forget these special months: “We were suddenly confined to our kitchens and bedrooms and had to dance in these small spaces.” Since home was too cramped, Julian looked for a place to train outdoors: a wooden platform in the middle of the forest. To be able to see at 1 a.m., he used floodlights. “It was really tough. But I was glad that I could continue training,” says the 20-year-old. His greatest challenge: loneliness. Something he shared with his fellow students. “They yearned for their dance partner, for physical contact — and of course for performances in front of an audience. The result was withdrawal symptoms. If you can’t show your skills, you lack something, a purpose,” Malfer explains. For Julian, however, being thrown back on himself was also an exciting experience: “In the dance hall, you often compare yourself with others. On Zoom, you’re alone, and have no outside influences. I simply gave my best, whether someone was better or worse didn’t matter. That was refreshing.”

… on the landing stage or in the forest

When they were finally allowed back into the dance hall in the 2020 autumn semester, the dancers were exhilarated. “The students have become more humble, and appreciate the infrastructure at ZHdK, the large rooms, the cushioned, elastic floor, the fact they can dance together again,” Malfer remarks. And not only that: “The crisis has made the students more mature and more aware of their bodies.” Some have not only become more reflective, but as a result have actually improved technically. This self-reflection will now be increasingly integrated into teaching. Gianni Malfer draws other positive insights from the far-reaching effects of the Covid-19 crisis: “We are dealing differently with distance. For example, we managed to hire choreographers from Germany or Israel to work with our students via Zoom. We want to keep this up.” Arrangements are also underfoot for prospective students to audition via Zoom or live streaming. “As a physical discipline, we need space. Covid-19, however, has shown that that space can be anywhere — on a lawn, on a landing stage, in the forest.”

Nevertheless, no digital medium can replace the feeling of being on stage together and dancing for a real audience. “It’s magical,” says Julian Beairsto. “This is what we live for.” And that is exactly what clearly transpires in the dance hall on this Monday morning: a simply magical energy.

Sophie Käser (sophie.kaeser@zhdk.ch) is responsible for communications at the Department of Performing Arts and Film at ZHdK.


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