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  • Writer's pictureJohanna Kepler

The Power of the Performing Arts — Uniting Artists While Apart

I woke up this morning in Ann Arbor, Michigan with the same feeling I’ve had for the past four weeks: a pit in my stomach in the absence of my creative drive. A few weeks ago I graduated from the University of Michigan Class of 2020 with a BFA in Dance and a minor in Latino Studies. My life used to be filled with the hunger to create, to soak up everything possible, to learn and innovate new ways of creating, but the COVID-19 pandemic is slowly draining that from my being.

I roll over and scroll through COVID-19 updates on my phone. The feeling of not being able to do anything about the hurting world in the palm of my hand makes my heart sink a little. I’ve scrolled through the news every morning to see if anything has changed. Maybe there will be a decrease in the death toll, the news of progress on a vaccine or an extension of the stay-at-home orders? But like usual, there is nothing.

Each morning I have a choice. I can bury myself in my covers, away from the morning sun, or I can get up and do the one thing that has been a constant in my life since the COVID-19 pandemic started: I can keep creating.

The day my in-person graduation was canceled was the last straw for me. The days leading up to that had been filled with cancellation after cancellation. My senior dance concert was canceled, then the New York City senior dance showcase trip, then classes, and so on. It did not feel like anything else could be canceled. But then, we got that email. There were a lot of tears that day from the graduating Class of 2020.

My international friends had to leave immediately because of the closing of the borders in many countries. Some of the people I was closest to — people who are like family — suddenly had to get on a plane in less than 24 hours. They left, often packing one backpack, and no time to say goodbye. In the days to follow, students left by the hundreds for home; as dorms were closing and students were being urged to move off campus immediately. In about four days, it seemed like our whole world had been altered, our plans irrevocably changed. There was no sense of closure. We had set into a new reality.

For four years, I’d dreamed of walking across the stage in The Big House [Michigan Stadium] in front of thousands of families and friends. I had been chosen as the School of Music, Theatre & Dance’s (SMTD) student speaker; I was planning to address our bright futures and all the world had to offer.

I’m adopted from Guatemala. My birth mother’s wish was for me to get a good education and go to university. Like many women in Guatemala, she had no formal education. She signed my adoption papers and birth certificate with her fingerprint because she could not read or write her name. Crossing that stage was not just for me, it was for her. It was for all of the people who look like me and never get a chance in higher education.

Although I didn’t get to physically address my class, I had a virtual graduation online.

My school posted various videos of graduating seniors. I was asked to record my speech and gear it towards what we are going through now. I ended up standing in my kitchen with a selfie light and iPhone stand, wearing maize and blue in my Michigan slippers. It wasn’t the graduation I’d imagined, but it was still an honor—my speech ended up reaching more people than Hill Auditorium could fit in one ceremony.

I pouted through the next few days. I felt sorry for myself. I was angry at the world. I didn’t want to be around anyone; I felt cheated in every sense of the word. I felt cheated of my graduation, of closure, of a bright future. I felt cheated of moving to New York City and auditioning right away. 48 hours after graduation was canceled, I woke up in the middle of the night. I took out my laptop and began to write. I wrote all night and into the morning. By the time the sun started to stretch its fingers between the blinds, my room was covered with sticky notes, drawings and several Google docs full of notes and ideas.

I decided I would do what I always do: I would create. I had two choices at that moment: I could wallow in self-pity and the pain of the world, something I could not control, or I could be an innovator and realize I had control over one thing at this time of uncertainty, myself and my actions.

This was the birth of The Power of the Performing Arts: Uniting Artists While Apart (TPOTPA). The color-coded sticky notes that covered the north side of my bedroom wall were full of names, ideas and lists of people I wanted to reach out to about potential interviews. I was going to create an interview series to bridge the communication gap in the performing arts world. I would create a community in the most technologically-authentic way during a time of social distance. I would raise awareness of how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the performing arts community. I had no grand plan to make this project international, translate into multiple languages, or involve over 350 artists. That would come later in the project’s development.

My goal was to reach a diverse set of artists from different companies and backgrounds. I started by reaching out to my dance network. Two summers ago, through the University Music Society's (UMS) 21st-Century Artist Internship, I worked at the Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s company management and general management departments. I was able to meet company dancers throughout the summer along with arts administrators running the company. I was blown away by the talent and the kindness of the company.

Everyone from the dancers in the company to the organization’s leadership was extremely open, honest and kind. I started interviewing them for my internship project. I was interested in the person, the artist, the maker and creator, what happens in the studio and off the stage. I was drawn to the humanity in the artists. I wanted to tell the story of them, not just their product.

I’d started a student organization in my sophomore year called Arts in Color. We are a part of the dance department committed to diversity, equity and inclusion within dance. Through this organization, we would interview various professional dancers for our newsletters. We interviewed dancers from Martha Graham, Abraham in Motion, Hubbard Street, Dance Works Chicago and more.

We talked about diversity, equity and inclusion in a candid, more conversational way. I found artists willing to open up to me, a college student, and be real about their struggles with diversity as a minority dancer. Through this, I realized my status as a woman of color, as an artist and as a student gave me a platform to work and share. I fell even deeper in love with the value and voice of a singular story.

This was certainly part of my inspiration for this interview series. My whole work revolves around connecting my passion for the performing arts rooted in dance with my social justice advocacy work, specifically around immigration reform. I use my art to tell stories that are often erased in U.S. history. My work gives a platform to the stories of marginalized people of color in the U.S.

I am an immigrant, so I am a fighter. I am a dancer, so I know I can innovate. I decided it was my job to continue to create and innovate because art is essential. I respect those who wanted to take a break from the performing arts at this time. I can understand those who may not have the mental or physical capacity to keep practicing and creating. In a way, this project saved me from deep sadness and got me through the hardest part of quarantine. I had my world turned upside down as a new U of M graduate with no job, no auditions—the industry I was about to enter had completely shut down. Yet I had my laptop and my ideas — and I went to work.

I started by reaching out to all of my contacts. I texted and emailed every dancer, choreographer, director and arts administrator I knew. I had a list of questions and worked over Zoom. In about a week, I was doing 10 interviews a day. It became somewhat of a manic job for me. I was obsessed. I would interview all day long starting at 11:00 a.m. and go until 10:00 p.m., with a break for a ballet barre in my kitchen. I would then wake up in the middle of the night to scribble down new ideas, potential partnerships with larger arts organizations and the next steps in the project.

I quickly realized I would need help with this large endeavor. I thought who better to be involved than recently graduated and undergraduate U of M students. I knew many of my friends had lost their part-time jobs and were struggling to stay engaged and creative. I enlisted five of my friends to help; project manager, editors, development, webmaster, and eventually adding Spanish translators. Now that I had a team, I was able to solely focus on the interviews. We set up the most effective system for how to interview, edit and publish. I worked closely with our graphic designer to build a website where we would publish each interview.

In the beginning, the process was hard with a lot of trial and error. I was working over 12-hour days with no funding. I started to write grants to the University of Michigan two weeks before I graduated. Luckily, we were able to receive funding from the Department of Dance, EXCEL, and the office of diversity equity and inclusion within SMTD. Once I onboarded our development head, we were able to branch out even further to local arts organizations. UMS has also been incredibly supportive of TPOPTA.

As the weeks went on and 100 interviews quickly turned into 200, and then 300, I was on a high. The interviews had started with all dancers and quickly morphed into all performing artists. The interviews began with people in the U.S. and branched out to six other countries. I was getting to talk to artists from all walks of life, in all different places in their career, professional and pre-professional, freelance and company contracted, the people on the other side of the table; directors, producers and choreographers.

I was amazed at how willing and open people were in talking to me. At the beginning of the pandemic, many of the artists I reached out to were over Instagram messenger. I was reaching out to artists who caught my eye through their profile. They were down and ready to share their stories and do an interview with me. Some of the artists I interviewed are Broadway stars and choreographers, who may not have had the time to interview with me in their everyday life, but the world was at a halt, and my fingers were furiously typing.

I would say the interviews have drastically changed week-to-week, hour-to-hour, depending on who I am talking to. I started with a set of questions that I memorized to make the interview more of a conversation. I wanted the interviewee to feel comfortable. I also quickly realized I had an advantage as a college student to get raw honest answers. I am not a big arts organization or a magazine, I am just a young woman in a small student housing Ann Arbor apartment with a laptop and a lot of drive.

Many of the questions I asked required them to stop and think about the answer. Many artists said, “Wow. No one has asked me that question in a long time.“ Questions as simple as, “What inspires you and drives you forward as an artist?” or “What have been some challenges in your professional career?” It made me think, Why don’t we talk about this stuff more often and openly? When do we lose humanity in our art-making? Why don’t we talk about the hardships when our core job as artists is to be vulnerable?

I wanted to dig deeper. In every interview, I wanted to be able to share with the rest of the world who the interviewee was. It should not be a secret that Sophia from Brooklyn was adopted from Texas and runs a non-profit organization for inner-city youth in the arts. It should not be a secret that Adam from Spain worked his whole life to come to the U.S. and was undocumented for several years performing with various professional companies before obtaining his citizenship. Our stories are the fabric that make up the performing arts. So why don’t we stop to tell them more often?

I have also learned that by telling my own story, many artists open up right away. I was adopted into a two-white mom, half-Jewish household. I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in Brookline Massachusetts. I did not start seriously dancing until high school and I have struggled with anxiety my whole life. Almost every single person I talk to relates to my story in some way. Some may say, “My sister is adopted!” or “My dad is Guatemalan!” or “I started dance late as well!”

Whatever the story may be, the intersectionalities in my own identity have opened the door to honest and open conversations. I have found pride in my identity and I use that to help others be prideful in theirs. Out of the first 200 interviews I recorded five adoption stories of people of color in white families. Out of the five stories, only two admitted to being open about their family status with others.

When I interviewed each of these artists, their eyes lit up when I told my own adoption story. One artist was on the verge of tears and thanked me for being so open with them. The adversity, pain and triumph these artists have experienced should not be a secret. Without this interview series, I never would have met them and I would have never been able to share their incredible stories with the rest of the world.

One main theme in all of the interviews is the idea of this “mass pause.” Many artists have said very candidly that they are selfishly grateful for this pause in life. Many artists talked about not remembering the last time they spoke to their families for more than 15 minutes over the phone in a given week, or eaten breakfast standing in an audition line for hours on end. One artist, when asked what they change they would like to see in the performing arts, responded, “I want the rest of the world to see that we are essential. The performing arts and the artists who create and make up this world are essential and should be respected and paid accordingly.”

Why is there no union for dancers? Why do we still work hours and get paid below minimum wage? Why are we not seen as essential to our economy and society? I would argue the arts are everywhere. The arts are the architecture above our heads to the cement below our feet. The songs that play in the restaurants to the video games we play with our friends. What artists are doing right now is reclaiming their importance in the world. We are seeing that people are turning to the arts during this time of social distancing. We are the creators and innovators of the world.

One of the interviews that touched me the most was with Aaron Dworkin. Aaron is an American violinist and music educator. He founded the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra, served on President Obama’s National Arts Council and was named a 2005 McArthur Fellow. In asking about his background, Aaron shared his adoption story into a white Jewish family.

Even though I was starting in the professional world with no job and no auditions lined up, I realized I did not care at all because each day I was getting to meet another artist and leader in our field who gave me bits of knowledge, hope and inspiration. The feeling of being cheated out of my immediate future vanished and was replaced by a deep gratitude to all of the artists who have spoken to me thus far.

Aaron went on to talk about his work with diversity, equity and inclusion in the arts.

Everything that he said deeply resonated with me. His struggles as a man of color, being adopted, losing his way in high school, being raised in a predominantly white neighborhood and his passion for social justice advocacy work. Sometimes I feel like I am the only one of my kind, but then I meet people who are doing exactly the work I want to be doing and I am blown away. The impossible seems tangible with the power of the performing arts.

When I asked him to talk about the times we are living in today and what we can do as artists during this time. Aaron said, “Leaps of innovation happen during times of crisis. You have 100% control on how you respond and 0% control on the COVID-19 pandemic.” He went on to talk about how the role of the performing arts is critical during this time and how artists have a duty to our society to continue to be the creatives and innovators.

I thought a lot about what he said after the interview. I thought about how I am a tiny piece in a larger puzzle, but a piece that connects. That is my job as a creator I have learned in the past four years in school. I bring people together, I bridge gaps and all of the work that I do revolves around being inspired by my peers and fellow artists. The first few weeks of the pandemic I was on a roll. I barely slept and did over 10 interviews a day.

As the weeks rolled by my creative drive began to slow. It is currently week eight and I am exhausted from absolutely nothing physical, but the mental pressure and idea that the world around me is constantly on edge. My job during this time is to connect people in the best way that I can during social distancing. My job is to continue to be an innovator in order to instill hope in the communities that I am in. My job is to bring people from all walks of life, social backgrounds and political affiliations to elevate our shared common experiences. My job is to keep moving, keep dancing and keep creating during a time of a universal halt.


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