One Dancer’s Experience of Life in Lockdown in New York City
Interview with Hannah Russell
Interview and article by Heather Clements
Twelve months ago we published a Hot Talent Watch profile interview on Hannah Russell, her successes and her desire to return to New York city to embark on her dance career in the city that never sleeps. Determined and talented, Hannah achieved this goal and has been living and working in New York since September 2019. She has been living her dream out of her apartment on the upper west side, which she shares with three fellow dancers, taking classes at Broadway Dance Center and Steps On Broadway, teaching classes and preparing for auditions. In fact, she had just finished performing a show with ALMA NYC in January this year when the alarm bells about a novel coronavirus (COVID-19) starting chiming through the world.
The cherry blossoms are blooming in Central Park as New York heads into Spring, but few can appreciate them now. In just a few short weeks life in the world’s most dynamic and bustling city, and the USA’s most populated with over 8 million residents, has come to an abrupt and gruesome halt as the virus has spread rapidly through the city infecting over 88,000 people and seeing more than 5,000 deaths (as at 9 April 2020).
I decided to give Hannah a call and get her personal first hand experience of this unfolding health tragedy, and how it has affected her as a performer, as she bunkers down in her apartment in New York in the wake of COVID-19.
BELOW: Watch the 7pm daily claps from Hannah’s NY apartment via her Instagram page.
What was your routine and work life before this happened a few weeks ago?
I was dancing with ALMA NYC. We did a show in January, had a few weeks off and had just started going back into rehearsals for the next production. I was teaching a couple of nights a week as well as training everyday at Broadway Dance Center (BDC) and Steps On Broadway. Also, the virus hit right in the middle of audition season here in New York.
About 3 and a half weeks ago it all came to a grinding halt. We knew about COVID-19 but it just happened really suddenly. It was about a week after the toilet paper hoarding saga in Australia… and I was watching that happen from here and talking to my parents back home wondering why everyone was stressing over loo paper! Because no one was stressing here at that time… then I remember getting out of class one day and getting all these messages on my phone from friends asking if I was okay.
We sensed something was happening, so my friend and I decided we had better go Trader Joes to get groceries, and there we were for an hour in line trying to get supplies. As that week went on every two days more and more things were being shut down … all dance schools were shut down, then all restaurants … it just happened really quickly.
As I mentioned, it was audition season here in New York when all this happened. Audition season is seven days a week over the months of March and April so everyone in the dance and theatre world is ready to go. So, for me, I was attending auditions five or six days a week and it was during that last week before things shut down that everyone was signing up for auditions, being stuck in small holding rooms full of people for an audition only to be told it was cancelled on the spot… then suddenly one by one auditions were being cancelled day after day.
Are you just staying at home in your apartment? Do you get out at all?
I’m the only one here right now because the three girls I share the apartment with all went back to their homes in other parts of the States. So I’ve got the place to myself. Everyone lost their jobs and they had no need to be in New York, and it’s not the nicest city to be stuck in doors … cause there are no backyards … So they fled!
I do get out, as it’s actually probably not as strict here as it is in Australia. No one is going out unless they need to, but it’s just different here because everyone relies on the subway to get around … you can’t just jump in your car to go get groceries … so if you can’t walk it’s either the subway or get a cab or an Uber… and also everyone does their laundry at Laundromats so we need to get out to do that. So there are a lot of reasons that makes New York a really hard city to completely shut down. But they have started breaking up groups of people in parks now.
How has it affected you personally?
Aside from losing most of my work, I have three dancer friends who have caught COVID-19. They had a fairly mild case and didn’t need to go to hospital but they said it wasn’t nice.
I’m not personally worried for myself. Everyone is dealing with this differently and I have a lot of friends who are very anxious but I am just trying to stay healthy and keeping in contact with people and doing what I can from inside. I am okay right now. I am a pretty healthy twenty-something, and I know that’s not a guarantee, but I’m fine. I try not to watch too much news.
How are you continuing to dance from home?
My company, ALMA, is still meeting on Tuesday nights via Zoom to dance together in rehearsals. For the last two weeks we danced on Zoom together, but tonight – just before I spoke to you – we had a ‘happy hour’ because part of our company’s aim is to serve the NY performing arts industry as well and we always have discussions on how we can support each other. So we decided that because there are so many virtual classes online at the moment that the best thing we could do right now was set aside a time just to chill out. So we planned a happy hour online instead, where anyone who wanted to join in could with a cocktail or drink of their choice and we just shared our experiences and thoughts to help each other at this time.
What are your thoughts on the rise of virtual dance classes because of COVID-19?
Online dance classes are definitely temporary, however, it has proven to me that digital content is possible and does work for certain things and dance classes. I’m teaching at two schools online via Zoom and I notice different things that I wouldn’t in the studio. It works really well for ballet. I can see everything on Zoom when I teach ballet, and also it’s funny because students are not watching each another… so it’s interesting for me as a teacher to watch each individual student.
I’m still training online via Zoom with my teacher from BDC as well… the thing that makes it easy is that I know her style well so it’s fine for now.
Did you consider coming home to Australia?
I was considering coming back home a few weeks ago, when the Australian government put out the call for all citizens to return by a certain deadline. But I do have some teaching work here and no one knows how long this is going to last, so I just imagine that as soon as things start to open up again I will be here and ready to dive straight back in because I did have the momentum going.
What are you doing for fitness and to pass the time?
I’ve been rolling out the mat in my living room, doing class with my teacher online twice a week, and then I do my own workouts inside. I do have a bike so I have been outside riding and also running.
I’ve also taken a couple of virtual dance classes (which America has a lot of online for free), such as one from the Radio City Rockettes which I did via their Instagram Live … and they’ve never given free classes before! [NB. Being a Rockette is on Hannah’s bucket list!]
Also, BDC has taken their classes online at a cheaper rate now and Steps On Broadway has a lot of free classes online now. Plus Tiler Peck (New York City Ballet principal dancer) does a really great ballet barre class every day.
I have started binge-watching GLEE from the beginning… from the original episode where they sang Don’t Stop Believing… it is brilliant!
Can you see positives for dance out of this crisis?
I guess we still get to be creative, even though we don’t get paid for it. But I totally think there will be positives out of this crisis. I’ve already choreographed a bunch of things from my living room, and it’s a good time to hone in on your own training and career…. Things you can work on to move forward. I’ve been developing myself in other areas as well; such as music and learning guitar … it’s good that I’m on my own for that!
How does the city feel there now?
It is 100 per cent different. I don’t think New York has ever felt this way before … to see the streets, avenues and Times Square empty and all the shops closed down … it’s very odd. Only essential grocery stores and laundromats are open, although I did see that Crispy Creme in Chelsea was open the other day! And of course the subway is still working because it has to. Everyone is wearing masks and gloves and they are all over the sidewalks because people don’t put them in the trash. It’s a very funny feeling to walk outside here now in such a usually vibrant city. Maybe I should have gone home, but I am living through this incredible historical event in New York by choice… and it’s all part of the adventure, right?
Read our 2019 interview with Hannah Russell here: www.dancelife.com.au/htw-hannah-russell