‘We’ve been very creative’: arts companies’ race to outrun restrictions

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That rapid reaction response has only intensified in recent times. Moulin Rouge! The Musical secured last-minute travel exemptions allowing its cast and crew to make a dash from locked-down Sydney – only to be frustrated by the snap lockdown in Melbourne.

Opera Australia was two days away from packing the 100 musicians, cast and crew of Ring Cycle on buses to Orange before a positive COVID-19 case in central NSW smashed its plans. This was after snap lockdowns ruled out rehearsal bubbles in Brisbane and Cairns. A final decision on the fate of Ring Cycle is to be made this week. Quarantine at Howard Springs was under active discussion even before a new case of COVID-19 triggered a snap three-day lockdown in Darwin.

Bangarra’s executive director Lissa Twomey mapped countless scenarios to bring SandSong: Stories of the Great Sandy Desert to Brisbane after its acclaimed Sydney Opera House season was cut short by two weeks. The Indigenous dance company had only just returned to the stage at this year’s Sydney Festival after a COVID-19-enforced 10-month layoff and was devastated to lose more than half its Sydney season.

Twomey secured an exemption to perform in Canberra, “what’s called a strict quarantine between the hotel and the venue,” she said. “We went ahead with our season, completely sold out. It was a terrific success and at that stage we came back to Sydney.”

Snap lockdowns foiled plans for the company to quarantine in various locations in Queensland, forcing them to go back to the drawing board each time. Until the past couple of days, Twomey wasn’t sure the Howard Springs gamble would pay off.

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“The outdoor decks enabled the dancers to keep their fitness,” she said. “They did ballet barre, yoga and cardio, they could see one another in a way that was constructive and much better than sitting in a hotel room on the 21st floor.” Counting the extra cost of quarantine and flights, Twomey says that the model is not sustainable.

As to whether Bangarra can continue to Melbourne after Brisbane, Twomey says the company has “been taking every week as it comes, but with the announcement of the two-week lockdown extension, cancellation is likely”.

It would be easier, Twomey says, to “shut up shop for the rest of the year than trying to deal with the complexities of cancelling and unpicking tours or looking at rescheduling under different scenarios”.

She persists out of the artistic instinct to perform. It’s a rare joy for dancers and artists alike when 60 per cent of the country is locked down, even if Brisbane audiences were at half capacity.

“We do what we do to connect with audiences and show our powerful stories. But everything is changing day by day. The situation has changed quite dramatically since we left the Northern Territory. We’ve been very creative to find solutions but, ultimately, we can’t fly above COVID-19 and the safety of our company is paramount.”

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Sims says COVID-19 and the extreme logistics tricks it has triggered have underscored the inter-connectivity of the arts sector across Australia. Both Twomey and Sims paid tribute to the dedication of their artists willing to put themselves through quarantine.

Sims has two national tours left on his books and is looking forward to the time when vaccination rates might allow for a partial reopening. “We are so close to being back to something approaching what normality will be – so what I spend a lot of time doing is trying to give the people around me and the musicians some hope.

“It’s important not to lose sight of hope. That’s sometimes difficult to see, I must admit. I am amazed at the resilience of people. There are limits, even for the most ambitious performance companies,” he said.

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