Column: No touching? No problem. Reimagining post-COVID choreography with the Rosin Box Project

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Sneaker ballets. Livestreaming world premieres. Masked dancers and socially distanced everything. For members of the Rosin Box Project dance collective, creating and performing during a pandemic means being even more flexible than usual. It also means firing on all artistic cylinders all the time, even if you don’t know where you’re going yet.

“When COVID hit, everything changed, and it was pretty overwhelming,” said Carly Topazio, founder and artistic director of the Rosin Box Project, which kicks off its 2020 season on Aug. 27. “But I can say very confidently that what we are doing now I am extremely excited about, and I don’t think we ever would have taken this many chances had COVID not been a major factor.”

Formed in 2018 as a creative outlet for City Ballet of San Diego dancers looking to expand their off-season horizons, the Rosin Box Project was a small collective that specialized in big leaps of faith. Topazio had faith that dancers could also be choreographers. That people with no experience running a dance company could, in fact, run a dance company. And that if this brand-new, experience-free dance company put on a show, audiences would come.

All of these things did come to pass, and the Rosin Box Project grew. The company’s 2019 program featured five new works, two more than the 2018 program. Their shows played to sold-out crowds. Thom Dancy came on board as managing director earlier this year, and Rosin Box assembled a board of directors and became a nonprofit organization. It looked like 2020 was going to be a big, boundary-expanding year, with two dance productions instead of one and plans to throw the group’s first fundraising gala.

These things did not come to pass, at least not in the way Topazio and company planned. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and in-person performances were shut down along with pretty much everything else, the Rosin Box Project had to pivot. And if anyone knows how to pivot, it is the Rosin Box Project.

Shortly after the shutdown, Rosin Box launched the “Frontline Performance” campaign to raise money to present free performances to first responders and essential workers in San Diego. Next week, they will be giving outdoor performances at two local hospitals, and they are providing free tickets to frontline to workers for upcoming streaming performances.

Then there was the fundraising gala, which was reimagined as the July 17 “Ghost Light Masquerade,” a virtual, immersive ballet performance that found attendees “following” the dancers through the corridors of the Tenth Avenue Arts Center from the comfort of their living rooms. And the two dance productions the Rosin Box Project envisioned for 2020? They are happening, too. Each in its own pandemic-informed way.

The company’s 2020 season premieres on Aug. 27 with “Critical Movements,” a four-night series featuring five world premieres, including a new solo work by Donnie Duncan Jr. of the Netherlands Dance Theater. The six performances — including two 5 p .m. shows to accommodate East Coast audiences — will be streamed live from the Tenth Avenue Arts Center. In keeping with COVID-19 safety measures, the dancers wore masks during rehearsals and will be wearing them during the performances, and the choreographers kept their dancers six feet apart.

Fortunately, there was still plenty of room for creativity.

Inspired by the off-kilter nature of our new normal, choreographer Katie Spagnoletti created “Corporeal,” a contemporary ballet with a 1960s vibe that will be performed by dancers wearing sneakers. With their collaborative “Sum Things,” Topazio and Bethany Green took their first-ever dive into comedic choreography. And Duncan choreographed his piece and worked with dancer Jeremy Zapanta from his home in the Netherlands via Zoom.

“For me, there was a lot of reticence at first,” Dancy said. “I didn’t know how the virtual stuff was going to work. I had no idea if our audience would follow us online. But it was one of those things where the reticence turned into the courage to say, ‘Actually, we have an opportunity here.’ This has all been crazy and a bit frightening, but I feel like we have moved mountains over the last five months.”

There is more innovation to come. The second Rosin Box Project program will be “In Focus,” a series of original films of Rosin Box dances created by three San Diego cinematographers and Topazio. The films will be available on the company’s new “Virtual Box” platform on Sept. 18 and 25 and Oct. 2 and 9.

None of this is what Topazio and the Rosin Box Project thought they would be doing, but there is no question that it is exactly what they are meant to be doing.

“The life force behind this company is the passion for this art form and for sharing it, and that has not changed,” Topazio said. “My belief is that the arts are essential. In a global pandemic, what do people turn to? Art. Whether it is a Netflix binge or listening to music or turning to a book, it is some form of art that society needs. It was clear to me that we can’t stop, because people need this.”

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