Stories of Resilience: Duke Performances

As we approach and pass the one-year mark since the COVID-19 pandemic caused nationwide lockdowns, South Arts is reflecting on our constituents who have worked tirelessly to overcome new challenges and reimagine their work. Throughout March 2021, South Arts will be running a series of articles penned by our program participants and grant recipients exploring how their work has changed in response to the pandemic.

Duke Performances, the professional performing arts presenting organization at Duke University in Durham, NC, received Performing Arts Touring and Dance Touring Initiative support from South Arts to engage guest artists. As the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted their planned 2020-21 season, they pivoted to a new model that continued to support their community and the artists through commissioning new work, immersive virtual residencies, and innovative programming.

The following article was written by Brian Valentyn, PhD, Manager of Campus & Community Initiatives with Duke Performances at Duke University

[T]he answers were connected to our core mission: bringing joy and beauty into people’s lives through performance, and supplementing learning through direct connection to art and artists, work made possible through the funding, flexibility, and support of South Arts.

Duke Performances: The Show Must Go Online.

By late March of 2020, Duke Performances faced a challenge shared by arts and cultural institutions around the world: how can we remain relevant, visible, and connected to the communities we serve throughout the COVID-19 crisis? More specifically, what do our stakeholders need, and how can a university-based arts presenter provide it? In Duke Performances’ case, the answers were connected to our core mission: bringing joy and beauty into people’s lives through performance, and supplementing learning through direct connection to art and artists, work made possible through the funding, flexibility, and support of South Arts.

Duke Performances quickly adopted an all-virtual presenting model, reimagining our annual Summer in the Gardens concert series as a weekly streaming series featuring local and regional talent. Since that time, we’ve continued to work closely with national touring artists and filmmakers in their home cities to produce high-quality pre-recorded (and socially distanced) performances tailored to Duke and Durham audiences. Despite the logistical challenges of moving our work online and our desire to return to in-person presenting as soon as safety permits, this shift to virtual presenting has had some unforeseen benefits — for both the organization and for the communities we serve.

Most immediately, this has allowed Duke Performances to extend its impact within the Durham Public Schools system through Virtual Field Trips: free online performances recorded by artists from around the world and made available district-wide to be streamed into virtual classrooms. These performances reached over 3,000 students and their teachers in the Fall 2020 semester, and will continue throughout the spring and summer.

Alongside these presentations, Duke Performances has continued to offer robust artist engagement programs through Zoom-based class visits with both Duke University and Durham Public Schools students, including workshops, master classes, and public talks that connect visiting artists directly with the local community and supplement learning in classrooms from kindergarten to college. Artists have been enthusiastic and resourceful partners in these efforts, joining virtual gatherings from remote locations, and coaching students on everything from the classical repertoire to jazz improvisation.

Through their Performing Arts Touring and Dance Touring Initiative funding programs, South Arts supported two weeklong residencies in Fall 2020, the first with GRAMMY-winning Charleston-based Gullah band Ranky Tanky, the second with intrepid Brooklyn-based dance ensemble Urban Bush Women.

Ranky Tanky kicked off their virtual residency with a filmed performance in Duke Performances’ virtual season, The Show Must Go Online, then visited the virtual classrooms of the high school jazz band and middle school band at Durham School of the Arts. Duke Performances worked closely with Durham Public Schools K-12 Arts Education Director, Jeremy Tucker, to make free matinee screenings of Ranky Tanky's performance available district-wide. Ranky Tanky’s residency culminated in a free virtual public conversation featuring founding members Clay Ross and Charlton Singleton. Moderated by noted Caribbean and Black Atlantic scholar Laurent Dubois, the conversation focused on the band’s Gullah roots and influences, delving into the connections between Gullah traditions, jazz improvisation, and US popular culture more broadly.

In a similar vein, Urban Bush Women’s virtual engagement adapted Duke Performances’ traditional weeklong immersive residency model by offering a series of on- and off-campus events that engaged Duke students, faculty, and members of the Durham dance and movement artist community, especially BIPOC artists. Urban Bush Women’s BOLD (Builders, Organizers, and Leaders through Dance) educational engagement platform — which aligns with the Duke and Durham dance community’s investment in socially engaged performance work — was the basis for these learning sessions.

Urban Bush Women company members and BOLD facilitators offered a guest lecture in Duke Dance faculty member Purnima Shah’s “Gender Performance in Dance & Theatre” course as well as a public workshop, targeted toward Duke Dance MFA students and local dance artists and educators, on “Building Trust through Process.” Co-Artistic Directors Chanon Judson and Samantha Speis also joined Chair of the Duke Dance Program Andrea Woods Valdes for a free public conversation, part of Duke Performances’ and Duke Arts’ weekly Zoom-based ‘In Conversation’ series, about Urban Bush Women’s research and composition process for the virtual ‘Artist Journal.’ As Duke Performances’ only truly “live” performance event last fall, the Zoom-based, participatory ‘Artist Journal’ represented a timely and creative answer to the restraints on live performance imposed by COVID — and to the ways in which art and social life, for many of us, have become something experienced only in a virtual, digitally mediated space.

We continue to believe that the arts, and Duke Performances, can serve as a conduit for connection, support, and education within the Durham community and beyond. And we are grateful for the generosity of South Arts, which has helped sustain the organization’s work through this unprecedented and unimaginable time.

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