With exuberant choreography, beautiful outdoor scenery and an uplifting musical score, “Spaces and Places,” a new dance production by Professor Gary Galbraith and students in the Department of Dance, spreads a message of hope in a world in which COVID-19, social unrest and political discontent continue to dominate headlines.

The dance, captured in a 10-minute video, features 14 students performing on three continents. Locally, students dance across various areas of campus, including Mather Quad and East Bell Commons. Overseas, students from Ghana and China perform with the ocean, groves of trees and other natural settings as their stages.

Through achievements in video editing, as well as choreography that appears both expertly timed and spontaneous, the students are united in dance, even though the pandemic has kept them oceans apart.

“Spaces and Places” is the brainchild of Galbraith, who felt stymied earlier this year by the creative and technical learning constraints that COVID-19 had placed on students. He wanted to create a project that would help them learn new skills and fine-tune existing ones, while abiding by social distance and, in the case of international students, overcoming the additional challenges of physical distance.

“Our students missed dancing together so much. Once COVID hit, they felt like they were working in a vacuum. They were so hungry for something like this. We wanted to give them the opportunity to perform outside of the Zoom ‘boxes,’” Galbraith said.

For local students, Galbraith used a 360-degree, fully spherical camera, hoisted on a selfie stick, to capture the choreography and scenery from above, around and below the students. Knowing that Cleveland weather could provide challenges in the fall, he and the students began working early in the semester to rehearse and film their performances. For the most part, Mother Nature cooperated.

“We have had some amazing weather in Cleveland this fall, making the rehearsal process sheer fun,” said Katie Nabors, a third-year Master of Fine Arts (MFA) student in the Department of Dance. “[Professor Galbraith] is extremely innovative and forward thinking in regards to dance on the traditional stage. Getting to see how his mind worked when we had the sculptures and outdoors as our stage was really fascinating. He shaped the quality of movement within the piece, by giving us directives to accelerate or suspend, to soften or explode. This gave the piece vitality and a unique heartbeat.”

For international students, Galbraith contended with long distance and vastly different time zones that made communications more complex. He scouted possible locations near students’ homes in China and Ghana using Google Earth as a guide, then worked long distance to choreograph scenes with the students, who used cell phone cameras to record their performances.

El-drick Aboagye, a first-year MFA dance student from Ghana, said Galbraith’s consistent guidance helped overcome any real or perceived challenges. “He was very clear on his expectations as well as getting the best out of every situation. His tech-savvy ingenuity was key in rectifying most issues regarding technological aspects. It was truly a great experience being a part of this remarkable project.”

Back in the studio, Galbraith completed video editing just two weeks after the final dance scenes were filmed. It was his first time working extensively with video editing technology. 

“He would find these magic moments where the dancers aligned,” said Karen Potter, chair of the Department of Dance. “Gary likes to keep the ‘wow factor’ in the dance, which he did here.”

Galbraith said he’s been astonished and gratified by feedback to “Spaces and Places.” “I’ve had people tell me that they cried tears of joy watching the video,” he said.