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Three people dance in an illustrative photographic image with lines drawn over their movements.

Students perform in Dance Like Nobody’s Watching: Student Experiences of COVID-19 in Canada.

Pandemic performance

June 24, 2021 — 

Brenda Cantelo, senior instructor with the department of religion in the Faculty of Arts, and Gordon Fitzell, professor in the Desautels Faculty of Music, are accustomed to collaborating.

In 2015, they brought students from Cantelo’s Religion and Dance course together with students in Fitzell’s eXperimental Improv Ensemble (XIE) to create a 45-minute performance titled Bodies of Water.

Choreographed by the award-winning dance educator and choreographer Stephanie Ballard, their live performance attracted a capacity crowd to the St. John’s College Chapel. In 2017, a video of the performance was shown at the internationally acclaimed Centro Mexicano para la Música y las Artes Sonoras (CMMAS) in Mexico, where Cantelo was doing her study leave.

Last fall, Cantelo, Fitzell and Ballard all came together once again–this time to create a dance-music piece on the theme of living through the COVID-19 pandemic. “We always intended to reunite when the right project came along,” explains Fitzell. “As the pandemic descended upon us, we, like many other artists and educators, sought creative ways to meet the challenge.”

“As the pandemic descended upon us, we, like many other artists and educators, sought creative ways to meet the challenge.”

Cantelo and Fitzell began by setting up joint Zoom sessions with their students to discuss their collective vision for the project. They brainstormed and came up with the idea of four movements–each with a unique character.

The first movement explored the idea of being pushed “up against the wall.” The second used an umbrella to symbolize the need for protection, opening and closing to simulate the effect of the virus on breathing. The third used tight angles to explore the abrupt changes to students’ lives, and the stop-and-start nature of pandemic regulations. The final movement, titled “Mantra,” took on a more contemplative tone of gratitude, caring and hope.

The performances were done individually, and composed together into one cohesive piece.

The performances were done individually, and composed together into one cohesive piece.

Initially, the musicians worked in-person, physically distanced and wore masks, but they were soon faced with a lockdown, so everyone had to move online.

For the dance component, Cantelo used Zoom to deliver lectures and record rehearsals with Ballard. They had Winnipeg-based solo dance artist Kathleen Hiley demonstrate the choreography and made it available on the UM Learn, the UM learning management website, so the students could review it and practice at home. Students videotaped themselves in their home performing the choreography and sent their videos to Cantelo.

Barjinder Kainth, who completed her B.A. with a minor in Religion, was one of Cantelo’s students participating in the collaboration.

“It was hard to watch Zoom and dance at the same time, but overall it was a great experience and so different from our daily activities,” says Kainth. “Instead of just sitting in front of a screen, we were able to participate physically. With all of the challenges of COVID going on, it was something that really made me feel alive. It gave me a sense of hope–that we can still enjoy regular things such as dance.”

“Instead of just sitting in front of a screen, we were able to participate physically. With all of the challenges of COVID going on, it was something that really made me feel alive. It gave me a sense of hope–that we can still enjoy regular things such as dance.”
Barjinder Kainth, B.A.

To create the soundtrack, one of Fitzell’s students would record a track inspired by the dance, then a second would record their track while listening to the first student’s, and so on. Once Fitzell had all the students’ tracks, he worked with them to mix the soundtrack collectively online.

Desautels Faculty of Music students perform the soundtrack.

Desautels Faculty of Music students perform the soundtrack.

Collaboration is part of the mandate of Fitzell’s eXperimental Improv Ensemble (XIE). Past partnerships include the Winnipeg New Music Festival, the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. But this was different.

“Moving collaborative creative work to an online environment presented an enormous challenge,” explains Fitzell. “We experimented with various online platforms for real-time performance, but soon discovered that not everyone’s technology was sufficient.”

Over the winter, Cantelo and Fitzell edited the video with the assistance of Christopher Ellis from the Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning (CATL) who, among other things, assists with teaching remotely. In February, Cantelo and Fitzell presented a trailer at the CATL teaching café.

The final piece, titled Dance Like Nobody’s Watching: Student Experiences of COVID-19 in Canada, will premiere online at the University of Manitoba in June 2021. It will also be screened as part of Visiones Sonoras, Festival Internacional de Música y Nuevas Tecnologias, at the CMMAS in Mexico in September 2021.

According to Fitzell, “Despite the need for novel approaches, the process ultimately provided many standard elements of a meaningful creative learning experience–exploration, collaboration, planning, problem solving, and so on. At the same time, the situation led to the development of new skills, ones that I believe will become more and more valuable over time.”

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