BYU performing arts students adjust to COVID-19 restrictions

Folk dance students practice social distancing. There will be no public, in-person performances this semester, but classes continue. (Preston Crawley)

BYU performing arts students are quickly adapting to pandemic restrictions by changing how they rehearse and perform. BYU Arts previously released a statement detailing their decision to cancel all public performances for the Fall 2020 semester.

Each department has had to adjust in different and creative ways. Between online rehearsals, masks in dance class and holographic acting, students and faculty are making the best of a difficult situation.

Department of Dance

Dance department chairman Curt Holman said they are shifting the focus to individual movements and lowering capacities in classrooms.

A dance student rehearses while social distancing. (Preston Crawley)

“We’ve altered how we create our movement patterns across the floor,” he said. He further explained that classes are doing a lot more linework rather than moving in a circle. This is a way for the dancers to stay in their own lane. 

Some genres, like tap and ballet, make it easier to social distance than others, Holman said.

Instructors of partner classes, such as folk and ballroom, are looking at individual movement training. The goal is to focus more on what the individual is doing before working with a partner, Holman explained.

“We’re definitely in new territory and trying to adapt the best we can while following the guidelines we have here at the university,” Holman said.

Dance professor Jeanette Geslison said the dancers in her folk dance classes learn techniques separate from each other and she minimizes the time spent in formations and doing partner work. The students also wash their hands before class and before doing any partner work.

One of the largest adjustments has been wearing masks in rehearsal. Geslison has been keeping movement sessions shorter and giving dancers breaks in between. Students can go outside and take a break from wearing their masks while still social distancing.

Masks have presented another challenge in rehearsal. Geslison explained that as a dance teacher, she is used to seeing students’ whole faces. Now, she has to pay attention to how dancers show expression and energy through their eyes. “Being able to isolate the eyes like this has been a real learning experience for me,” she said.

Geslison encouraged her students to “be wise” and make the best of the current situation, emphasizing personal responsibility. 

The Dance Department will also host BYU Dance Live, a live-streamed performance, every Friday at 5 p.m. There will be 60 socially distanced seats instead of the normal 300. These seats are for dance students and family members of performers, Holman and Geslison explained.

“It’ll be nice for the performers to at least have some reaction from a few people that are able to come in,” Geslison said.

Holman said the dance department has a large following of performing companies throughout the world and these shows are “a way for us to keep present during this unusual time.”

“We’re keeping up the art form of dance while trying to exist in a very limiting environment,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes. It’s a bit of an experiment, but we’re excited about it.” 

Department of Theatre and Media Arts

A student puts on clog shoes before dance rehearsal. (Preston Crawley)

The Department of Theatre and Media Arts is also making changes. Wade Hollingshaus, chairman of the department, explained that none of the shows will be the same as previously planned. For example, they are not doing “Fiddler on the Roof” because musicals require too much singing and dancing in close proximity.

There are two risks the department is trying to mitigate: disruption and spreading the disease, Hollingshaus said. “If an actor gets sick, you can’t run the show. We wanted to ensure as much as possible that what we had planned would actually happen.”

To combat this, the department is experimenting with different models of performances. There will be three performances this season, Hollingshaus explained.

The first two will be remote shows, performed over Zoom or similar technology. Actors will perform separately from different locations and the performance will be live-streamed. This way, if an actor is sick, the production can still go on.

The third show will be a series of short plays performed around Halloween. These will be conducted using Pepper’s Ghost, a projection technology that allows actors to appear on the stage as holograms, Hollingshaus explained. This technology is famously used in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion.

He said there will be one actor on the stage at most, with one to three more virtual actors projected from different locations. This is an opportunity for theatre design students to be involved in the process. These short plays will also be streamed online.

The department is conducting classes both online and in-person, Hollingshaus said. They are also using physical distancing and masks in acting classes. The actors sometimes use face shields during performances so that their faces can be seen, Hollingshaus said. “Shields are the exception, not the rule.”

Hollingshaus sent a message to theatre and media arts students following BYU’s announcement of plans for this semester. In the message, he discussed the “yes, and” concept in improvisational acting. This means to embrace what you’ve been given and add to it. He applied this idea to how he wants his students to deal with the current circumstances.

“It would be easy to wallow and lament over what might have been,” he wrote. “Rather than take that enervating path of least resistance, we have chosen to say, ‘Yes, and!’ and have begun to make bold and innovative decisions that forge new opportunities, new possibilities, new potentialities for our department.”

School of Music

Groups in the School of Music will also be live streaming their performances.

Director of bands Donald Peterson explained that students are currently practicing with recordings at home. “It’s a big emphasis on individual preparation.” 

Sectionals and socially distanced rehearsals will begin four weeks after the start of school, around the beginning of October. 

When in-person rehearsals start, Peterson said students will social distance and professors will shorten rehearsals. Students will need to “hear further” since they won’t be as close to each other as they used to be.

In addition to rehearsal changes, practice rooms can only be reserved within a four-hour block due to cleaning requirements. 

According to the CDC, 87% of a choir in Washington developed COVID-19 after a practice with just one symptomatic person and two people died. “Transmission was likely facilitated by close proximity (within six feet) during practice and augmented by the act of singing,” the CDC report says. 

Social distancing and cleaning measures are in place at BYU to avoid an outbreak like this. “We didn’t want to be the ones getting blamed for (school shutting down again),” Peterson said. 

Peterson said the student body can support performers by wearing masks to reduce the transmission of COVID-19. If everything is shut down, there won’t be any more rehearsals. 

Peterson also mentioned how isolation has affected musicians’ mental health. “Musicmaking is such a community thing. When the pandemic hit, students couldn’t meet together and communicate through music. When you’re used to making your art as an ensemble, it really took its toll,” he said.

Taylor Dixon is a senior from Las Vegas majoring in music education and this is one of her last semesters in the school’s orchestra.

“Not being able to work with my colleagues and other people in the major is kind of frustrating,” she said. “I want to be able to share my passion for music with other people. Because we can’t gather in groups, it’s harder to express that.”

Another challenge arises from practicing on your own. Dixon explained that when you listen to a recording to learn music, you don’t know exactly how your director is going to want it. There are certain “musical nuances” that each director might want to include.

An empty audience will also make performances different because seeing audience reactions and having applause is part of the experience, Dixon said.

Live-streamed performances from each school and department will be available to the public.

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