The phrase that’s become eponymous with Dr. Bonnie Henry may not have become famous at the time, but it was certainly ringing in Stephen White and Bernard Sauvé’s ears in mid-March when COVID-19 brought Dance Victoria’s 2019-2020 season to a screaming halt.
‘Be kind, be calm, be safe’ best describes their reaction to a crisis whose magnitude in March had yet to be fully felt. It’s an attitude that allowed the team the space and time they needed to completely retool their 2020-21 season.
Douglas asked White (Dance Victoria’s Executive Producer) and Sauvé (the non-profit’s General Manager) to tell us their story of coping through COVID and coming out the other side of an economic lockdown with a fully re-imagined offering.
The first decision was made when the duo found out that B.C.’s Restart Plan had identified large social gatherings as being Phase Four of re-opening, and that it would only happen if there was a treatment or a vaccine or herd immunity. “That’s when we decided to suspend our current season,” says White. That was probably the most difficult one to make, as they’d have to alert subscribers and single ticket holders who were looking forward to the last two shows of the season – Ballet BC’s Romeo+Juliet and Tania Pérez-Salas’ Compañía de Danza.
White remembers they were in the Royal Theatre preparing to open Romeo+Juliet when they got the news that the province had gone into lockdown. Around $60,000 worth of expenses had already been incurred, as well as more for the next show planned. They were surprised and gratified by the support they received when they contacted ticket holders. Many agreed to donate their tickets back to the company, which helped offset costs incurred.
Their next decision was to suspend their 2020-21 season, and they announced it on the same day as fellow arts organizations, and friends, the Victoria Symphony and Pacific Opera told media they were suspending theirs. “That, I think, had a real impact for the Victoria public to go, whoa, wait a minute. Nothing’s going on at the Royal Theatre next year,” says White. “But we also made a clean break on revenue already committed. We refunded subscriptions. These were patrons who had already donated the cost of tickets to our current season to us, so it just didn’t feel right asking them to give more.”
Hitting the Pause button
The next step was a complete shutdown of operations, for two weeks. This, says White and Sauvé, gave them the crucial time they needed to process the crisis, find their calm, and figure out what the rest of the year would look like. At this point, anything could happen, but luckily, since the team’s usual workflow was to be quiet over late Spring and early Summer, they could observe the pandemic’s trajectory, assess appropriate action, and implement when the time was right.
While they rested, they thought: White about how to get creative in engaging their patrons in new ways, Sauvé about what a season would look like without people in a theatre watching performers. That, says Sauvé, is where the power of relationships came into play.
He began by contacting Compagnie Hervé KOUBI, who they’d already been negotiating with to be part of their 2020-21 season. “We said, we’re not going to be able to present you in front of a live audience. How would you feel if we presented the film of the piece? And we got an immediately positive response. But we had no idea what we were doing. We didn’t know how much we were going to pay them. What are the rights, what is the appropriate process? We felt very grateful for all the help we got from the international community of dance in figuring all of this out.”
A blessing in disguise
COVID-19 revealed its silver lining when Sauvé was able to sign Grupo Corpo to the season. They’d been trying to bring them to Victoria for several years, but scheduling conflicts, and the theatre size restrictions, had foiled their attempts. In a virtual season, however, the dance company could very easily participate. And so the next performance was signed, along with the Ukrainian Shumka Dancers’ Nutcracker, and the Bereishit Dance Company.
With the skeleton of a season confirmed, what could Dance Victoria offer its subscribers in lieu of the special experience of live performance? That’s when White’s imagination kicked in. He took the elements Dance Victoria fans love – like dance classes, Q&As with the performers, Christmas storytelling, cocktail receptions – and found ways to bring them all online. Cascadia Liquor created four cocktails themed for each dance performance, local businesses donated gift certificates for a virtual swag bag, they are planning video interviews with dancers, choreographers and directors, creating coloring pages for kids to print off; and Story Theatre’s Jim Leard will host an animated video story of The Nutcracker.
“We’re very happy with how the public has responded so far,” says Sauvé. “We also were careful to keep the price point affordable for people, so our audience can access the entire season for $20 a show.”
White and Sauvé say they are grateful for the ongoing government support they received, which has helped them continue to, in turn, support the dance community. “The government recognized that an investment in institutions like Dance Victoria or Pacific Opera or the Victoria Symphony were the best way to ensure that artists still had opportunity to work – that our role is being a bridge between them and the artists. We know the independent dance artists were impacted most in our sector. So we were thrilled that our Board approved budget for us to offer residencies at our studios for local dance artists and dancers from Vancouver to come and develop new work.”
A re-imagined future where real and virtual worlds live side by side
Time will tell how Dance Victoria’s virtual season will perform revenue-wise, but their team are confident it will do well because their current audience is so engaged and loyal. They say they’re enjoying the opportunity to bring the Victoria dance community together in a different way, and grateful for the opportunity a pandemic has provided in allowing them broader reach in a digital format. Because the season is virtual, anyone from anywhere in the world can experience it, and that reinforces their mission to be a conduit through which audiences experience the magic of dance performance.
They also believe digital will play an integral role in future seasons. When Phase Four kicks in “we could possibly live stream a ‘what’s on stage’ to an audience that maybe is still not comfortable going back into the theatre. And we are realizing now that we were behind the digital curve for so long by not having a solid presence on the internet. And now, you know, in that way, our future has shifted forever.”
White says looking back at the collective COVID-19 crisis, “we’re proud of how we collectively responded. We really do work well as a team. Our staff and Board were fully engaged with the changing vision and willing to take the time we needed. We were also very realistic about what was happening at the time. We saw no point in denial or false hope. We tackled the problem head on, but we were calm and deliberate in our response.”
“Yes, that’s right,” says Sauvé. “We kept calm and carried on. The Queen (and Dr. Henry) would be proud.”
Single tickets are available now for Dance Victoria’s 2020-21 season. Visit www.dancevictoria.com to purchase yours.