Pandemic pushes dancers to explore new territory in virtual Winter Gala

Contact: Erin Flynn

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—The pandemic thrust the world into a new era of digital connection, from remote work and virtual learning to family gatherings via computer screen.

"I've been really fascinated by how our communication as humans is changing because of this," says Kelsey Paschich, assistant professor of dance at Western Michigan University, who recently received a Creative Living for Dancers Award to create work in a virtual space.

The evolution of communication in the pandemic inspired her piece "Recode," which she choreographed for Western students to perform at the annual Winter Gala Dance Concert. Teaming up with interactive media specialist Kevin Abbott, who runs the University's Virtual Reality (VR) Lab, Paschich imagined a way for dancers to be transported into a digital world. John MacKenzie, producer and director for WMUx, helped with filming and editing.

A student wearing a motion capture suit is recorded for the digital portion of her performance.

"It's totally new territory for me. I've done work in dance film and done my own editing and filming, but I've never worked with motion capture," says Paschich.

Health and safety restrictions also made choreographing a challenge. The dance space, with large areas taped off to allow dancers to maintain a safe distance from each other, coincidentally resembled a video chat grid.

"There's no partnering. We can't move across the space; they can't touch. There are all of these limitations that we're also experiencing (outside of dance). So it's very reflective of this COVID-19 experience," Paschich says. Introducing a virtual dance space, however, opened up a new dimension of possibility. "It ended up being one of the coolest collaborations I've ever done. It really opened my viewpoint to what is possible with technology and dance and how they inform one another."

Paschich chose nine Western dance students to perform her piece, which attempts to convey the feeling of being propelled into a digital world—where connection is fickle, but movement is free.

"We started to work with the idea of the glitch and the loss of communication—you know, the freezes and that shared experience of not being able to truly look at somebody in the eye. All of these interactions are very different from an in-person interaction. So, we started to question what's being lost," Paschich says. "I hope the audience will be able to gather some commonality of this shared experience that we are all still in."

The experience gave Western dance students a chance to expand their skill set and learn new forms of expression.

"Getting to work with the motion capture technology was so cool, because we would do our movement in the motion capture suit, and then (Kevin) would bring us over to the computer and there we were. We could see our little digital bodies dancing on the screen," says Quetzie Jacobs, a sophomore from suburban Chicago double majoring in dance and marketing. "It was really cool to see."

"Recode" alternates between video of the dancers performing and digital representations of their movement, playing with the duality of life in the pandemic.

"I never considered anything like this. I figured once COVID-19 happened, we would do a livestream of the show and that would be it," adds Noelle Dewees, a junior dance major from suburban Chicago. "But there are so many more ways (to adapt our art), and Kelsey has helped us dive into the new realm of digital dance."

A year ago, the future seemed uncertain for many performance majors. When pandemic concerns forced studios to close, dancers found themselves practicing alone in their living rooms, basements and backyards. They could only connect through screens and lacked the human connection that fuels their passion.

"At the end of last year, it was kind of like the rehearsal process was really suddenly ripped away, so to finally be back in that process and to create again with each other was so exciting, and it really does spark my passion," Jacobs says. "Being able to bring it back in this way, reimagined and newly inspired, was very eye-opening as an artist."

Paschich works with dancers in the studio.

"In class we were talking about taking risks, and how the world is right now—it kind of pushes us to take those risks," adds Dewees. "I was only considering performing or auditioning for a company (when I graduate), but I've learned there are more opportunities out there. A lot of companies are even playing with film too, so it lets you know as a dancer you have to get more and more versatile."

That ability to adapt and persist has allowed the dancers to push their own boundaries and learn new ways to stand out in their field.

"It's almost like an awakening. You have to realize as much as technology is advancing, the industry is advancing with that, so you have to keep up to date," Jacobs says, acknowledging the impact the dance program's innovation and ability to adapt during the pandemic has had on her career trajectory.

"It's definitely a huge blessing. I feel that way with a lot of opportunities the program gives us," she says. "At Western, there are so many opportunities to perform, which you don't get at a lot of schools. There are so many opportunities to create and be involved. It really does benefit us, because the more we can immerse ourselves in our craft, the more it sets us up for success in our careers."

The Winter Gala Dance Concert will be streamed live at the following times:

  • Friday, Feb. 26, at 8 p.m.
  • Saturday, Feb. 27, at 2 p.m.
  • Saturday, Feb. 27, at 8 p.m.
  • Sunday, Feb. 28, at 2 p.m.

Tickets are available on a "name-your-price" basis. Purchase a digital seat on the event's webpage.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.