Last summer, Jonathan Stafford, artistic director of the New York City Ballet, felt isolated and fearful. It was a few months after the pandemic and the weirdness of the lockdown and riot and urgency of the protests against Black Lives Matter were on his mind.

City Ballet’s performances, programs, and plans had come to an abrupt halt – as had performing arts organizations across the country. Nobody knew when and how the theaters would reopen. Many dancers had fled to relatives or friends outside the city; most did not have enough space to maintain the vigorous exercise required to keep in shape for performance.

The artistic director of a dance company promotes dancers, designs and plans seasons and tours and maintains close contact with all departments, from fundraising to marketing to costume construction. Now what was the role of an artistic director?

Stafford called Robert Battle, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, for a chat. “That’s great,” said Battle after they had spoken for a while. “I wish we would speak to other art directors.”

Battle named Eduardo Vilaro from the Ballet Hispanico. City Ballet’s assistant director, Stafford and Wendy Whelan, named Virginia Johnson of the Dance Theater of Harlem and Kevin McKenzie of the American Ballet Theater. On August 7th last year, the six directors of some of New York’s most famous dance groups had their first online meeting, and they have met almost every Friday since then.

As new close colleagues and friends, they exchanged ideas, problems, strategies and solutions and will present a series of performances together for the first time – the BAAND Together Dance Festival, free shows starting Tuesday on the open-air stage of Lincoln Center in Damrosch Park.

“There was a light at the end of our tunnel,” Johnson said in a recent video interview with the other directors. “It’s not a marketing initiative. It’s something real that emerged from the time we spent together and want to give something back to the city. “

In a broad discussion, punctuated by laughter and a bit of teasing, the directors spoke about their pandemic concerns and the Black Lives Matter movement, and how they think the dance world has changed. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation and follow-up emails.

When you first started meeting online, a lot was still unknown about Covid-19. What were your worries then?

KEVIN MCKENZIE At first we just tried to take the pulse: is that as bad as I think? Each of us had plans that screeched to a halt, and we were all in a triage state. We asked ourselves: How do you deal with your artists? With instructions from the Center for Disease Control? With reinventing the way we could perform?

JONATHAN STAFFORD Eduardo organized us; he made agendas and gave us homework. We realized early on that the purpose of talking is to evoke action. We asked ourselves what is our goal for this group? How can we use our collective power to make a real change in the whole dance field?

What were some of the strategies or approaches that emerged from the meetings? How did they help you

WENDY WHELAN Learn how to create bubbles so that a group of dancers can work together in isolation and then perform. Kevin did a lot of it because he’s Mr. Kaatsbaan [McKenzie was a founder of the Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in upstate New York, in 1990], and we had no experience with it.

EMPLOYEES That kicked our butts a bit and we thought, OK, we have to do this. We also talked a lot about tests and vaccinations. City Ballet mandates vaccinations for our staff and it has helped us get support from other dance companies and know that we weren’t an outlier. There won’t be a single guideline here, but it was very helpful to share.

EDUARDO VILARO One special thing was that we joined forces during the elections. We have written a message about the importance of choosing and the importance of choice to our community. It was the first time that the five organizations brought something out together, and we left out the word “participation”!

VIRGINIA JOHNSON The biggest concrete result is of course the BAAND Together festival. It was so much fun programming with other Artistic Directors; Usually you are on an island with this assignment!

ROBERT BATTLE As well as specific outcomes like electoral politics or these performances, I feel that the meetings really helped by giving us a space in which to say, “I have no answers”. This can be terrifying when you’re the one who’s supposed to know what to do. It was good to take the pressure off that and discover that if you ask the right questions, you might have answers.

The death of George Floyd and the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement came as their organizations closed and dancers dispersed. What were your conversations about at the time?

VILARO We understand that we are very different organizations and that we need to approach these issues differently. But we were able to talk openly with each other and that was very helpful in deciding which approaches to take.

EMPLOYEES We asked ourselves how do we talk about it? It wasn’t about being colored or not, it was about having the difficult conversations we’ve never had before about becoming an inclusive art form. We have to do better: how are we going to do this?

JOHNSON We could be completely honest with each other. There were a lot of conversations that were very nice.

Have you changed in the way you approached the lockdown and the challenges it posed for you and the dancers?

JOHNSON We are different types of institutions and different sizes. I think Dance Theater of Harlem is the only non-union company in this group so it was interesting for me to hear how the unions approach things.

But there was a lot in common: We were basically all in a situation where our income was being destroyed and we had to ask ourselves how we keep our dancers motivated and in shape, how do we keep our art going, how do we keep ourselves healthy? It was helpful to collect different approaches to hear what is possible.

ROBERT BATTLE When dancers are devastated, as a director you sort of take on that. That kind of situation, when psychologically trying to fly the plane, was a common experience.

Let’s face it, you can talk to other people in your organization, but there’s nothing like sitting in that particular seat. These meetings allowed us to say, okay, we’re a little scared and gave us the space to breathe and do the work we had to do. For me, the mental health part was so important: it was like therapy.

What was your take on streaming appearances? Did any of you have any reservations about publishing free content or were you discussing how to make money from it?

MCKENZIE I would say it was very important for us to develop a digital content strategy when we were still a little shocked by the extent of our situation. At some point we understood that it was the only medium we could rely on for the foreseeable future.

WENDY WHELAN We knew we had no choice and we discussed it a lot. At City Ballet, we’ve been very fortunate that we’ve been capturing ballets on film every year for nearly a decade to get clips for marketing purposes. But we also knew that we had to stay creative and find ways to film our dancers in the current time.

We hope to keep some form of streaming and digital creativity alive; We know how important this year was in developing and building a wider global reach for City Ballet.

JOHNSON Digital was definitely a departure from the live performance focus of our normal lives. I think this group wasn’t about monetizing online content. It was about keeping the dancers dancing, strong, beautiful and challenged, without being in the studio.

There was a moment when everyone in other places was having endless conversations about budgets and payrolls and I thought, wait a minute, we’re artists. That has to move us forward.

Has the dance landscape in New York and beyond changed irrevocably as a result of the pandemic?

MCKENZIE I would say we don’t know yet. What we do know is that each organization will come back as a very different entity. For Ballet Theater, we learned a lot about digital delivery and how important it will be. But the experience also underscored the thirst and gratitude for performing live. So far it has only been outside, we haven’t been with strangers in the dark again. We don’t know how this will feel.

JOHNSON Yes, we cannot assume that this work is possible. You think things are going to go on forever and that made us realize that sometimes they can’t or can’t. We can now measure the sheer joy of doing this work and creating something magical and beautiful.

BATTLE Maybe innocence has been lost. The wonderful thing about being a dancer is creating that magic outside of the realities we have to face. The pandemic has made it clear what can go wrong, what can be lost. Not sure if you can just turn things on again and everyone will be fine all of a sudden.

WHELAN With our group it feels like a hardened shell has been cracked by our organizations and a new flexibility and energy has emerged. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve looked at ballet culture – so many dusty, old habits and outdated traditions that held us back. Bad habits and unhealthy power dynamics built into the system and passed down from generation to generation have not been effectively addressed until recently.

We still have a lot to do, but we’ve made progress over that time. Most importantly, we are mutually committed to moving forward and advancing our art form – together.

VILARO The gift of this group was the alliance that has developed between us and will help bring about change in our field. We have broken down silos that were hierarchical structures in the past. We don’t hoard information, we share.

So are you planning to continue meeting?

JOHNSON Naturally. It is so much fun.

WHELAN And we do that on Fridays and talk about cocktails.

Have you already met in person with cocktails?

WHELAN Eduardo is working on it.

EMPLOYEES It’s been a year. We really need these cocktails.