By Julie Gerdes-Becnel
As a native Louisianian, I’ve been through my share of hurricanes. Yet, the footage of the Manhattan skyline surrounded by a sea of floodwater and images of Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood submerged were still surreal.
Last week, a report in From the Green Room described the destructive wake Hurricane Sandy left on many dance companies and theaters in the New York and New Jersey area, noting numerous accounts of lost rehearsal time, cancelled shows, and destroyed offices. While the New Jersey and New York areas bore the brunt of the storm, as with any disaster of this magnitude, the entire region felt the ripple effects of major airport closures and crippled transportation.
In Washington, D.C., CityDance, where I am the communications director, was preparing to present Hubbard Street 2 (HS2) in two performances and to host the company for a mini-residency when the storm arrived. The Strathmore Music Center in Bethesda, Md., where CityDance has its studios, closed for two days, as did the region’s Metro system. As a result, two days of rehearsal were lost. With all three major airports in the region shuttered, we weren’t sure the dancers from HS2 would get in at all. The tech crews’ flights were cancelled. It was an all too familiar reminder that crisis management and arts management overlap in eerily similar ways.
On August 26, 2005, while still a student at Louisiana State University, I became the director of strategic planning for a student-run arts education organization called FOCUS. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina blew ashore. If you think raising money for the arts is difficult, try raising money for a tiny arts education program an hour away from New Orleans in the months following Hurricane Katrina. Contacting past donors was nearly impossible, as many had been uprooted by the hurricane. New prospects were hesitant to help an arts organization when they saw so much need in human welfare in rebuilding parts of New Orleans.
Now, in New York and New Jersey, many in the dance field will be tasked with a similar challenge. Donors will be bombarded with asks even while many of them are dealing with major losses themselves. As the murky water recedes, the solidarity that develops in the face of tragedy will not disappear, but it will fade with the growing understanding that recovery will not be a quick fix. The theater probably won’t be open in time for The Nutcracker. Full regular rehearsals may not resume in one week or even two.
These obstacles, the long-haul recovery, are what make the hard sell. The immediate damage — the broken windows, flooded first floors, and moldy sheetrock — are things that can be fixed with money, enthusiastic volunteers, and government support and cooperation. The less tangible issues, like finding sustainable funding, are harder to navigate. When homes and studios (often second homes, especially for dancers and choreographers) are reduced to flooded shells and basic necessities like clean water and power are not available, the ability to do what makes a person or place unique often vanishes. Culture suffers quietly during a disaster and in its aftermath.
Take New Orleans, a city known for its rich legacy in the arts. For three and a half years after the storm, the Mahalia Jackson Auditorium stayed closed. It was the major performing arts venue for the New Orleans Ballet Association (NOBA). NOBA was forced to perform at Dixon Hall, a much smaller venue on Tulane University’s campus. The lost seats meant lost revenue. Additionally, 12 of the ballet’s 14 education programs that took place across the city were disrupted, costing NOBA’s teachers jobs and wages.
Dance involves human capital, and many moving parts. Many dancers work 9-5 jobs to carry benefits or make a livable income. Some work as trainers, instructors, or teachers. When the other job is compromised, an office flooded or a roof damaged, the loss of wages can be devastating. To make matters worse, some businesses that are able to reopen require their workers to make up their missed time at work during weekends and evenings, resulting in disruptions of typical rehearsal and performance schedules.
The diaspora created after Hurricane Katrina drained the city of its human resources. Not just dancers and choreographers, but teachers and students as well. Those who were dislocated sought out studios across the state. Some organizations, like NOBA, even set up satellite centers in other cities to maintain connections with their constituents.
But what if you aren’t from New Orleans or New York City and you don’t have multiple space options to perform or rehearse in? What if your town’s one theater is gone? The only studio in your county destroyed? Smaller communities in Mississippi and rural Louisiana saw their culture washed out in this way, and now it is a danger faced by dancers and dance educators in areas of New Jersey.
When Hurricane Gustav struck Baton Rouge, La., only three years after Katrina, the region faced these types of challenges. Even with my own house destroyed in the storm, I had to get back to work fast. Baton Rouge Ballet Theatre (BRBT), where I worked as the development director, was gearing up for its production, The Nutcracker, A Tale from the Bayou. As it is for many ballet companies, The Nutcracker is the organization’s bread and butter. Auditions and rehearsals were already scheduled. On top of that, BRBT was set to present the Martha Graham Dance Company in just a few weeks. With many dancers, staff, and board members uprooted, it was going to be a challenge.
Yet, a little over a month after the hurricane, BRBT presented “An Evening of Works by Martha Graham” to a packed house. I was still without a place to live, staying on a friend’s couch. Many of my co-workers were in the same situation. A National Guard-enforced curfew was in effect. Before Acts of Light, the narrator explained that the piece reflected human emotion’s triumph over the forces of nature. As the dancers bent and twisted upward, I felt the audience collectively move with them, faces turning upward, frozen in reverent silence. As the final portion of the cathartic “Ritual to the Sun” concluded, the theater erupted into applause. The dancers bowed to a standing ovation and as I looked out at the crowd, I knew the work had facilitated a transformative moment for the community.
As artists and arts administrators we aim to facilitate this type of experience day in and day out, but sometimes, it’s easy to forget that what we are fulfilling is a basic need. People need the rare escape, just as they need the quiet moment of reflection. After a disaster like Hurricane Sandy, when we take the stage or mount a production, we give the audience a chance to feel something other than frustrated, angry or hopeless. The arts make us feel human again. So, to my colleagues in the northeast — yes, there will be challenges and, yes, funding might be harder to come by, but the very nature of the arts is to be flexible and adaptable.
I thought about this last week, as staff members from CityDance and HS2 worked together to shift rehearsal schedules and secure rental cars for the tech crew. It was an exhausting week of preparation, with more than a few adjustments along the way — including one cancelled performance. But CityDance presented Hubbard Street 2 and CityDance Conservatory to a sell-out crowd. Looking at the young dancers’ exuberance and the hearing the crowd’s post-performance excitement, once again demonstrated to me that even when things get rough and plans change, the show must — and will go on.
Julie Gerdes-Becnel received her undergraduate BA in creative writing from Louisiana State University and her MA in public communication at American University. She is a published poet and short fiction writer, as well as a contributing writer and guest lecturer on topics ranging from social entrepreneurism to cultural diplomacy. Her blog, Engaged with a Cause, is a leading source for information on wedding philanthropy. Additionally, the children’s ballet she authored, Into the Swamp, is currently touring with Baton Rouge Ballet Theatre’s Ballet for Children program. Since 2010, Julie has worked at CityDance, where she is the organization’s director of marketing and communications.
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