This month we hear from dancer and arts administrator Efren Corado. Many readers will remember Efren from his six seasons as a performer with Repertory Dance Theater or his independent work as choreographer (including several appearances in loveDANCEmore events). Efren now works for Salt Lake County. This spring, his job in arts administration shifted to the role of a front-line health worker. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
— Samuel Hanson, editor loveDANCEmore
loveDANCEmore: You contacted me after reading an email I sent to past contributors. I was looking for writers to cover some upcoming performances — both in-person and digital — planned for the next few weeks here in Salt Lake, Ogden and elsewhere around the state.
Efren Corado: Yes, looking at artists in the community presenting work in the middle of a pandemic — I perceive it as a concerning trend — as concerning period. I don’t see how it’s different than those trying to expedite the reopening of schools and those looking to expedite the reopening of other community resources, that, ultimately push for larger group gatherings when there are simply greater needs at this point — the need to contain the virus.
When I think about supporting performances right now, I think about one question: Is this necessary right now?
And then I follow that up with a second question: What are you trying to say in the middle of a pandemic?
And I know that there are so many other social factors — the political climate and the social change. But, when we really focus on the idea that artists in the community are investing in providing live shows, who is it for? It’s for their friends — because let’s be real —when you’re looking at young artists or artists in general right now — as has always been the case — you always perform for your friends or for people who are like-minded. You hardly ever see opportunities for these shows to be disseminated to underserved communities aside from arts-outreach programs.
So, having been in the front lines of this COVID-effort, I wonder if that really is the best option right now for us as a community. And, do you really want to be a part of a system that begins to normalize the situation we are in right now? I would say, right now, maybe your show is not the best option.
Maybe the best option is to reach out to those organizations that are serving the communities that are impoverished, that are distributing food to families on a daily basis, who are looking at providing health care resources like COVID-19 hotspot testing to underserved communities. I think that if we were looking at artists wanting to participate in public health, for the time being, a show is the most pretentious thing to undertake. Especially when you’re looking at live performances where you’re asking people to gather. You see other organizations that are trying to do a digital component where performances are live-streamed and I feel like that is a better outlet than trying to have people come in and perform live.
I just don’t see the need for it right now.
lDm: Do you want to talk a little about what you’ve been doing since the pandemic began and what you were doing before? The last time loveDANCEmore spoke to you, you were finishing your last season with RDT.
EC: Towards the end of March, I was concluding my hours as a program coordinator for the county. I was redeployed to work with the Health Department to support a first responders’ program for homeless community members who needed to quarantine, either because they were COVID-positive or as their results were pending. I’ve been doing that for the last four or five months now. It hasn’t been one of the best choices that I’ve ever made. It has informed me so much about the job I was doing before, which was to reach underserved communities and give them tickets to go see shows for free.
Now, I am looking at all of these individuals eye-to-eye and it has become more apparent to me as an arts advocate that in order for the community-at-large to see the arts as a part of public health, that artists need to be at the front line. Artists need to see and hear the stories themselves, especially if they are creating work claiming that it’s “for the community.” Right now, the community has much greater needs.
And I understand that there’s always the argument that the arts help lift spirits and make you feel that there’s hope in the world. There’s also hope when you see people out there volunteering and lending a helping hand.
lDm: Do you think this will change your work as an artist or an administrator even after the pandemic?
EC: Yes, I am making a shift from being an active artist and creative to doing more arts administration. For me, it has provided the opportunity to see that when I am speaking to administrators around the county, or city council members, or anybody else who has any authority over the programs I run, there is a different system we can use to integrate live performance into public health.
I am no longer interested in seeing the arts as just “arts and culture.” How can we see the arts as a part of the public health system? Art is not just about individual personality or creative processes or teaching adults, or teaching children.
How can we look at the organizations that are currently running in Salt Lake City — including those that have been going for as much as fifty years — and find a way of incorporating live performance as a part of social rehabilitation and social integration for communities that — I wouldn’t identify them as “vulnerable,” any more, but rather “excluded” — you know, rehabilitations services to those with addiction, mental health disorders etcetera.
So, for me, I am trying to connect the two. It’s no longer enough to say that “I am offering somebody a master class.” It’s no longer enough to offer a ticket to a free show. It’s about how to listen to the mission of these aid organizations and see how they could be supported by the work I do while still also centering the arts. It’s drawing a different connection.
lDm: What would you like to see your peers doing besides the trend toward performances that seems to concern you?
EC: I work with all these public health professionals and all of these students that are using COVID-response as a way of finishing their studies. We have other employees coming from public library programs, parks and rec, arts and culture — together we’re serving this larger community that is often neglected as a part of public health services. We are now making much greater connections about how all these things intertwine. Presenting yourself is vital — I would recommend spending the twenty or thirty hours you’d spend making these dance pieces that are being performed now volunteering serving the larger community instead.
Even institutions like Repertory Dance Theater, Ririe-Woodbury, the Symphony, they’re not out there creating performances right now. [Editor’s note: This information was correct on the date this interview was conducted. Since then, Utah Symphony and Opera, RDT and Ririe-Woodbury have all announced in-person seasons for the fall.] They’re kind of at a standstill because they see the need for a hold. So, I know that there is probably a need for younger artists to feel that they have a voice in the social changes that are going on, and it’s not that there shouldn’t be room for that — just maybe not right now. I think that it matters that we see artists be a part of this public heath effort — a part of trying to make the situation better — distributing meals or trying to figure out how community members are being unfairly treated.
We’re about to see a wave of evictions and even greater levels of poverty rising around the community. I don’t know if putting on a show in the backyard for two hundred of your closest friends is one of the things that is going to make community members feel like there is a better tomorrow.
ldM: Of course, many artists themselves might be at risk for eviction. Do you think there are ways for artists to get paid to do some of that work right now? Is that even the right question to be asking?
EC: There are opportunities for that to take place. There are a lot of county resources. There are a lot of minority-advocacy groups that are looking for public health employees, looking to reach out to diverse communities — whether we’re talking about ethnicity or another way of identifying differently than the norm. Artists should reach out and see how they can be a part of that. A lot of the students that are a part of this right now, some of them started because they needed volunteer hours and now they’re hired — newly employed in the midst of the pandemic.
So even though we have these needs for artists too — because they may also be at risk for being booted out of their homes — how can we be a part of a system of support? You know, and it’s obviously complicated, but you can reach out to those public health organizations. They need our help. Even if it’s a matter of starting off as a volunteer, you’re still fighting for your own cause — not being booted from your home, figuring out how to make systemic change. Maybe people are already doing it. But I just see all these shows popping up and I just say, why? What do you have to say right now?
I post on my social media whenever I volunteer for hotspot testing. Nobody’s replying. Nobody’s saying, “Yeah, I’ll help the community I am trying to represent as an artist.” It’s not just because they don’t like me! Its because they don’t want to do it.
lDm: Who would you call first, if you were a dancer looking to volunteer?
EC: Neighborhood Partners, Communidades Unidas . . . The County Health department is working with the Asian-Pacific Coalition, the African American Caucus — all of these different organizations are playing a role. The list goes on.
Can we do more that just giving a “like” or a “share”? Can we step up and actually volunteer, even if it’s just one day? These people are working fifty to ninety hours a week! Fifty to ninety hours a week is a lot for any individual. They’re struggling because no one is stepping up to help. And if we have all of these artists in the community that are saying “Let me help change in the community” This is an opportunity to say, “I was a part of the change and I continue to be a part of the change” — even as an artist, even if you’re not a social worker or a public health administrator.
This article is published in collaboration with loveDANCEmore.org