A group of dancers from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, dressed in black robes, sits on the floor of the stage
The ensemble of Aszure Barton's BUSK, part of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's RE/TURN program at the Harris Theater in November Credit: Michelle Reid

Two events occurred toward the close of 2020 that suggested that life and art as we knew it (for better or for worse) might have a fighting chance of existing in 2021: the election in November and the emergency use authorization of COVID-19 vaccines in December. But more briefly than the duration of most resolutions, the first glint of hope fizzled fast on January 6. 

Members of the dance community convened just a day later on Zoom for “Dance in Chicago 2021: Collecting. Hibernating. Emerging.” Organized by Chicago Dancemakers Forum, Chicago Dancers United, The Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago, Harris Theater for Music and Dance, High Concept Labs, Links Hall, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Pivot Arts, and See Chicago Dance, the event these institutions “peer-produced” to share resources with artists became a public discussion in which artists questioned institutions about what is being shared—and by and for whom. The conversation was tense at times and the grievances expressed were not new. Perhaps most worth remembering is the courage to speak and the courage to listen. 

Lockdown was a day and a time and a place; vaccination a perpetually shifting oasis in our ever unattainable halcyon utopia. Briefly a synonym for freedom, once a fantasy, then a reality, then reality: for many, imagined illness was worse than a disease killing family, friends, neighbors, and frontline workers (12,306 dead in Cook County, 806,335 in the country, 5,372,362 in the world at time of writing). (Why should vaccination have been different from any other solution that has ever been presented to humans for our collective benefit? And who is profiting from our collective distrust?)

While independent artists have been creating every day of this pandemic, in 2021, larger organizations followed. In late spring, Pivot Arts presented a hybrid festival, indoor and outdoor, in-person and online, with performances by Ishti Collective and Danielle Ross, one together with the audience onstage at the Edge Theater, the other inside the lobby and on the sidewalk outside, that acknowledged an altered relationship to theatrical spaces. 

In the summer, dancing returned to Chicago parks and public spaces through programs produced by DCASE and See Chicago Dance. The largest of these outdoor performances, Dance for Life, produced by Chicago Dancers United, was presented at Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park on a warm night in late August to an audience comprised not only of donors, but also to fellow dancers and members of the public who, for the first time in 30 years, could attend for free. The atmosphere was jubilant, with friends and colleagues mingling again after long distancing, and Chicagoans gathering again to witness the art that lives in this city—a necessary reminder that, while dancers can and will and must and do show up for each other, for the city of Chicago to show up for dancers, the city must be included in the dance. 

As theaters reopened for performances, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and the Joffrey Ballet presented their first live performances in over a year in early autumn to exhilarated audiences at the Harris Theater and the Lyric Opera. Both companies observed generous intermissions—for audiences grown unaccustomed to gathering in large numbers indoors in person, a necessary reintroduction to the essence of live performance: each other. 

Online presentations have continued throughout, as necessary exploration and the continuity of living art to exist as we do, somewhere between the world and imagination.

We began the year with theaters dark, and they are darkening once more as cold weather and new variants combine to produce breakthrough infections and performance cancellations. At the largest scale, the Joffrey Ballet canceled three Nutcracker performances on December 17 and 18 at the Lyric Opera House, which seats 3,276. They resumed performances December 19 in masks, committed to finishing a run scheduled through December 26. [UPDATE: As of December 23, the Joffrey announced they were canceling all remaining performances of The Nutcracker.]

The fatigue of 2021 is that of the second part of trilogies—the part where we wander through a desert, meeting strangers and difficulties for reasons we cannot yet comprehend. The moment lacks the novelty of fresh adventure, the urgency of final battle. We are mired in the slog part of our collective quest, and we don’t get to give up now.

There’s a section in Nora Sharp’s The Real Dance: A Micro Reality TV Show (full disclosure: I appear in it) in which Jenn Freeman says, “Dance is hard . . . It’s hard right now. I’m like, I don’t even know if I like . . . dancing! . . . I’m searching for this particular feeling . . . it’s like catching the holy ghost . . . I can’t even remember when I last had that feeling. It’s been over a year.” But Freeman transmits that feeling in her dancing despite not sensing its being. 

Just one question for all of us as we move into 2022: what does it mean to really be present for each other?