Creating under Corona: LeineRoebana

For more than a year now, corona has been dominating our lives. How has the performing arts world been coping? What has it been like to work under the restrictions? What has changed in terms of ways of working and ways of mediating the work to audiences? How has this impacted subject matter and dance vocabularies? An interview with choreographers Andrea Leine and Harijono Roebana, from dance company LeineRoebana, whose latest performance, The Greenhouse Dances, just premiered in an empty theatre.

What has the past year been like for you, creating under corona?
Harijono Roebana: Practically speaking, a lot was postponed, or cancelled. Not just the bigger projects – we had a collaboration planned with the Concertgebouworkest – but also smaller local projects. In addition, we felt a huge responsibility for the mental wellbeing of our dancers. Keeping their spirits up while they were stuck at home, creating a safe space to rehearse once the first restrictions lifted.
Andrea Leine: One of the most important things I have come to realize this past year, is how a performance really is a collaboration between the artists and the audience. Even before the actual premiere, we usually have people visiting the studio, watching rehearsals, providing input. But even once we were able to perform again, for audiences of thirty people, things felt different. When there are so few people in a space, positioned at an unnaturally large distance from each other, the physical empathy is off. Humour, for instance, works differently in an empty theater. People don’t quite know how to react. “Is this segment funny?” “Is it okay to laugh?”

How has corona affected your latest project, The Greenhouse Dances?
Roebana: Our rehearsals were pretty chaotic. We had a composer who was stuck in Italy, a lighting designer living in Vienna. All our meetings were long distance, via Zoom. Dancers would be out for a week, sometimes even two weeks, at a time, if someone in their vicinity tested positive. That’s mostly practical stuff.
Leine: Artistically speaking, I do feel The Greenhouse Dances really is a product of these times. Not just because of its central theme, human ‘hubris’ – it deals with our irrepressible ambition, no matter the costs – but especially in the way the dancers’ bodies relate to each other in space.
Roebana: We were very conscious of keeping our distance, almost compulsively so. Even during rehearsals.

But professional dancers are allowed to be in close proximity to each other, aren’t they?
Leine: The federal government has given professional dancers an exemption to the 1.5-meter distance rule, but that doesn’t suddenly make it safe. The health risks are still there. This knowledge influences the work. Physical contact is no longer something we take for granted, neither in life or in our choreography. We are not one for traditional partnering work, but there’s always an interplay between distance and proximity. Placing and keeping a body in close proximity to another body has now become emotionally charged, be it on stage between musicians and dancers, or in the auditorium between members of the audience.
Roebana: Proximity has become a statement.
Leine: That’s one way corona has definitely shaped our performance.

The Greenhouse Dances was slated to premiere for a live audience at Chassé Theater Breda on 13 March. The premiere still took place, but in an empty theatre.
Roebana: When we first started rehearsing, in the fall of 2020, our March premiere still seemed so far away. We knew we probably wouldn’t be playing for a full house. But we thought playing for an audience of thirty people, just as we did with SOLAS in September, would surely be possible. We started rehearsals with this goal in mind. About a month before the actual premiere we started to realize that even this was a pipe dream.
Leine: We quickly decided to have our premiere at Chassé Theater, regardless. In the end, I’m really happy we pushed through. It means we were still able to release our creativity into the universe.

Have you ever considered releasing the performance as a livestream?
Roebana: We do have the show on tape, filmed with multiple cameras, but we still have to decide what to do with it.
Leine: I think people underestimate live streaming. It’s something we have been thinking hard about: how to capture performance art on film in a way that makes it more than just an inferior placeholder?
Roebana: And also, it’s not just a question of pointing the camera and push ‘record’. You need a whole apparatus, a paywall and a functioning website. Which is easier for larger companies and theaters, like ITA, NDT or National Opera and Ballet. With our limited budget, that just wasn’t in the cards. Instead, we poured all our artistry into the actual product which, hopefully, people will soon be able to enjoy in real life.
Leine: There was also one other consideration: people are already continuously staring at their screens during the day. Do we really want to add more screentime to their schedule?

So what happens now?
Leine: We’ll keep rehearsing and tweaking the show, just as we would normally do after a premiere. Only now without the usual feedback loop.
Roebana: The tour is on hold, but everyone is on standby. We have our dancers close by, the composer – who also performs in the piece – is moving around, but we keep in touch, so we’ll hopefully be able to kick back into gear the moment the theatres reopen. Hiring skilled technicians will prove a bit trickier, though. Many of them work freelance, and have been forced to find other occupations during the extensive lockdowns. One of our regular technicians is now available during weekends only.

What does the near future hold for you?
Roebana: In May we hope to resume our tour of SOLAS. But there’s considerable uncertainty: the goalposts keep moving and ours is not the only performance waiting in line. But there are also two new ventures we are currently looking into. The first is looking for alternative locations to perform, which is something we were already contemplating before corona hit, but has now really gained momentum. We are so dependent on the availability of theatres, a scarce commodity in Amsterdam in the best of times. Alternative locations can broaden the scope. We are now in talks with real estate developers. Mid-July we plan to host a small festival at the B. Building in Slotervaart in Amsterdam, a series of short performances by different artists. We are also looking into developing an augmented reality app together with the Breda University of Applied Sciences, which will offer people a guided walk through the city of Breda with performances they can see on their phones.
Leine: I’m really attracted to this idea of enticing people to venture outside. To move and be moved, out in the open. We need to keep looking for creative outlets, both during and after corona.

Tour The Greenhouse Dances

photo: Anna van Kooij