This article is part of a series reflecting on the anniversary of Stanford’s shutdown due to COVID-19. Click here to read the rest of the stories.
“People will complain if I dance at 3 a.m.”
Crystal Chen ’22 thought she would be giving up dance this year.
As an international student in Taiwan, Chen — who has also written for The Grind — was not able to continue her involvement in the K-pop dance team XTRM due to time zone differences after COVID sent Stanford students home last March.
“I live in an apartment and people downstairs will complain if I dance at 3 a.m. and they hear footsteps,” said Chen, a former copresident of the team. “I just thought this was an opportunity that was not available for people like me who are abroad.”
Chen eventually found another dance group — Legacy — whose practice times worked with her schedule. The community, she said, has provided “the type of support I didn’t even know I needed during the pandemic.”
Chen is one of many students who have found solace in Stanford’s dance scene during quarantine. Lanna Wang ’24, president of Stanford Chinese Dance and member of the hip-hop groups Common Origins and DV8, was “surprised — in a good way — that [she] was able to connect so well with the dance community.”
“My previous interactions with people via Zoom were pretty lackluster — I think people were tired of being on Zoom for extended periods of time,” she said. “But then, when I went to the first [Common Origins] meeting, everybody there was so energetic and so welcoming, so that instantly made me feel at home.”
However, dancing on Zoom is not without its challenges. With mirrored videos, distinguishing left from right can be confusing, and audio lag complicates dancers’ musicality.
“It’s very difficult to feel in unison with your other dancers,” Lanna Wang said.
The social experience is different as well, according to Lainey Wang ’23 and Caroline Zeng ’23, current co-directors of XTRM.
“In the past, we would always grab dinners after our workshops, and we would go out and get boba and TAP and Korean food at random spots,” Lainey Wang said. “I miss that.”
Now, after members leave the Zoom rehearsal room, any chance for interaction ends. To make up for these lost moments, Zeng said that XTRM has been holding weekly social events, as well as “more chill and spontaneous” study sessions.
And dancing itself can be a form of socializing. Caroline Kim ’21, executive director of Legacy, tried to replicate the energy of a freestyle session over Zoom by splitting the team into two groups, so one set of dancers could watch and support the other. Kim said it was “a really awesome experience because something I hadn’t realized was that, for the new members, they haven’t really seen each other dance.”
“For me, I’m like, ‘Oh, I know how everyone dances on Legacy because I’ve danced with them for two years,’” she added. “But for the new members, all they’ve seen is a Zoom screen with people.”
As Stanford begins to open up again, groups are wondering what the dance community will look like going forward. Chen, who hopes to return to Stanford from Taiwan this coming fall for her senior year, is excited to re-join XTRM once she’s on campus. However, she’s “worried that we won’t be able to have in-person practices or community bonding.”
Nicholas Gessner ’21, executive director of DV8, shared a similar sentiment. “Even if life returns to ‘normal’ next year … I don’t know what that will mean for artistic groups on campus,” he said.
Danielle Cruz ’21, one of Legacy’s artistic directors, cited another potential problem: Some students will have had the traditional, on-campus experience, while others won’t. For her, the challenge will be how to “instill the same sense of community” across these groups.
Lanna Wang, who has not been to campus yet as a student, is more optimistic. “I’m going to stay positive and say that there won’t be much trouble integrating into the dance community,” she said, “because I feel like if you’re able to connect with people online through Zoom, it will be even easier to connect with them in person.”
Most of all, dancers will be appreciating every moment they have in the studio together.
“I think that this time has reminded dancers of the passion they have for dance,” Gessner said. “Coming together and sharing this passion is a privilege, and not a guarantee.”
“Even the professional theater world is unsure about what to do”
Stanford’s theater community is vibrant. Back on campus, there were times when you could see a performance every week if you liked, and sometimes even two.
Of all the arts, though, theater is perhaps the most reliant on the body and physical expression: on people, together in the same room.
With the onset of COVID-19, Stanford’s theater groups have had to think creatively about how to adapt their productions to the virtual stage, as well as how to sustain their own tight-knit communities that rely so much on working and rehearsing together in-person. From Ram’s Head’s production of an online Gaieties to the Stanford Shakespeare Company’s winter show “The Tempest: A Radio Play,” each organization has taken its own approach to navigating this new world of digital theater.
When the pandemic first sent everyone home, the Asian American Theater Project (AATP) had to cancel its spring show.
“There was a lot of uncertainty that started there, and even continues to this day about what we would be offering to the Stanford community as a theater group,” said AnQi Yu ’21, AATP’s artistic committee head.
However, the limitations and uncertainties of the pandemic led theater companies to actually expand the scope of their organizations, whether creatively or otherwise. Earlier in February, the Shakespeare Company put on an adapted version of the play “Fortinbras” by Lee Blessing: the first time in 19 years that the company produced a play not written by Shakespeare.
“In my time in Shakes, we’ve talked a lot about whether or not we should do plays that are not by Shakespeare, and this year we just ripped off the band-aid,” said Audrey Senior ’22, artistic director of the Shakespeare Company.
Yu noticed another silver lining in being part of the theater world during COVID-19: Many theater groups are developing and producing original work.
“Even the professional theater world is unsure about what to do with regards to performance, so I’ve seen a lot more theater groups [produce original work],” Yu said. “Maybe because of the pandemic, students have more time to work on things like writing plays. I find that actually a really exciting development that maybe wouldn’t have happened before the pandemic.”
Whatever the reason for it, Yu is right — both AATP’s and Ram’s Head’s most recent productions were works by Stanford students. AATP’s 2021 New Works Festival featured three original plays. Yu noted that almost everyone involved in the Festival is someone new to theater or AATP. Ram’s Head’s original spring show, “La Llorona: A New Horror Musical,” played virtually on March 11-13.
Besides changes in repertoire, Ram’s Head and AATP both turned their attention to organizing more events for their members and the broader Stanford community.
Ram’s Head executive producer Kaitlyn Khayat ’21 said that although Ram’s Head considers itself a pre-professional student organization for theater, for the past few years, she felt that the group was missing explicit professional development.
The pandemic was a chance to change that. This year, Ram’s Head has hosted student-led workshops on topics like writing, producing and digital audio mixing, as well as panels featuring Stanford alumni and Broadway music director Charlie Alterman. AATP has also focused on pre-professional development for its members. In October, the two groups co-sponsored an event hosting renowned American playwright David Henry Hwang.
“Every time I hear that one of these events has been organized, I’m just in awe of people’s willingness to dedicate their time — often for free — just to come talk to college students about their work,” Khayat said. “I find that very inspiring and generous, and I don’t think that would have been possible without the pandemic.”
Despite all the ways these groups have adapted to the pandemic, they are still looking forward to resuming in-person club activities and performances when the time comes, with stronger communities and a heightened eagerness to return to theater on the stage.
”People will be so excited to be back together that I think it’ll be an unforgettable first year being in our company,” Senior said. “I’m really, really excited about that.”
“There’s nothing above singing in person”
When John Okhiulu ’21 became the director of a cappella group Talisman at the end of spring quarter, he inherited a group still reeling from the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic and Stanford’s sudden shutdown.
Talisman’s spring tour to Puerto Rico had been canceled, dashing months of planning and anticipation. The group’s members were suddenly spread out across the globe. Everything felt surreal: Normally, Talisman sings for Stanford’s commencement ceremony. That year, all they could do was send a recorded performance of “Amazing Grace” to play alongside the school’s virtual graduation video. The end of the academic year came with the chance for a fresh start, but COVID wasn’t going away.
“That was the point where a couple of us stepped up to try to see if we could take on the vision of directing the group during the pandemic,” Okhiulu said.
The vision started out as just survival: finding ways for Talisman to continue meeting and singing together in lockdown. But with creativity and determination, Okhiulu and his teammates pushed to do more. They still desperately miss the irreplaceable feeling of singing together — but Okhiulu is proud of a year where they threw a virtual concert, gave back to their community and learned to give group hugs over Zoom.
There’s a lot to learn about running an a cappella group. Talisman maintains an archive of instructions to guide new directors into the job. But they tell you how to book rehearsal venues or schedule gigs, not how to sing over Zoom in a global pandemic.
“The main challenge was not having a blueprint,” Okhiulu said. “All of that stuff kind of goes out the window.”
They changed their schedule, cutting six hours of rehearsal a week to avoid Zoom fatigue. There was still enough, though, for the group to realize that singing over Zoom can only go so far.
“There’s nothing above singing in person,” Okhiulu said. “There’s nothing above singing next to somebody else and hearing your voices together in space, and moving your bodies together and swaying together and keeping that sync. That experience is sort of transcendent.”
And it wasn’t just the musical experience. For Okhiulu, it was the little things that happened between Talisman rehearsals — the socializing and camaraderie — that he missed the most.
“There’ll be the jokes and the laughs and the hugging, all those things that are missing from the physical space of being with Talisman,” he said. “And then kicking it after rehearsals, we would have jam sessions and sing together and play piano together. All those little moments that are just boiled out of a Zoom rehearsal process.”
It took creativity to keep the community excited and recreate traditions online. At the end of every rehearsal, Okhiulu and the rest of the group used to lock arms and chant “Talisman!” Now, they end their Zoom calls with their arms outstretched towards the camera in a virtual group hug.
And, of course, they found projects to motivate them. Two quarters of work culminated in the group’s winter show, “Dwelling,” which premiered on YouTube in early March and raised funds for the East Oakland Collective. Behind the scenes, Okhiulu and his team spent weeks mailing microphones to singers, correcting acoustics from bedroom recordings and editing videos shot on iPhones.
“We all spent like a week missing a lot of sleep, focusing on getting these mixes and videos compiled together before the show went out,” he said. “I’m still recovering.”
Talisman members are looking towards spring quarter now, with the experience of a first virtual show under their belts. After a hectic rush to assemble their winter show, Okhiulu is proud — and eager to do more.
“To feel like we came together and did something together is all we can ask for,” Okhiulu said.
“Being able to iterate on that in spring quarter for a [new] show … I think it’ll come out with something even more beautiful.”
Nothing will replace the feeling of getting back together on campus, though.
“When we do get back together … and we get to play that first note in warm ups and sing together and feel that, it’s going to be emotional,” Okhiulu said. “People will be crying.”
If there are tears, Okhiulu’s not worried. Like they did when they faced a pandemic, they’ll keep going.
“We might have to take a break, pick each other back up and give each other hugs,” he said. “And then sing the next note.”