A Choreographed Return to Theaters
Dance is back in theaters. The productions are better than ever, but the real choreography is happening in the audience. As we navigate a safe return to indoor space, how do we hold on to the pleasures of attending a show?
SOCIAL! the social distance dance club
April 9 – 22, 2021
New York Is Burning
May 4, 2021
The Motherboard Suite
May 13 – 15, 2021
Dance venues are producing a new kind of choreography: COVID safety protocols. These innovations are momentous and necessary, but the more they try to emulate casual socializing, the harder they fail. Improvising your way through a venue (conversing with an acquaintance, eavesdropping on strangers) is still out of reach in this stage of the pandemic.
SOCIAL! the social distance dance club advertised a COVID-conscious rave this spring, where people were free to let loose together in the Park Avenue Armory’s Drill Hall. David Byrne MC’d the evening’s festivities, but the real dance happened before the party. The choreography was as follows.
Wait in line on the sidewalk six feet apart. Turn the corner and step into the building. Temperature check, then ticket scan. Receive a number and a lanyard, then continue down the basement hall to get rapid tested. Sit in a curtained cubicle, take a Q-tip up the nose, then walk past the partitioned area full of nurses. Emerge from the basement into the lobby space, wave at the armada of ushers with airport runway light sticks. Follow the yellow floor arrows to a side room with spaced out chairs, find the seat number that matches your lanyard. Wait as the room slowly fills up, then listen to a presentation from the Ground Crew on the order of entrances and exits (farthest row on the right goes first, next row follows after, maintain six feet of distance at all times).
SOCIAL! was a feat of logistical genius, but it mostly served to highlight everything still missing from in-person gatherings. All of that build up led to a bittersweet hour of awkward dancing, as we reminisced about how parties used to be. The DJ led us through the “Bus Stop” line dance, but without the instructive support of nearby neighbors, most dancers lapsed into a hesitant two-step as they caught their breath and waited for the next instruction. The whole production revolved around the sentiment that “we’re distancing because we care about each other.” Still, as I left the building, I made sure to stay six feet away from the other guests.
The Guggenheim’s Works in Process show also tried to recreate social dance, with varied success. Omari Wiles’s New York is Burning, performed by Les Ballets Afrik, remixed voguing and ballroom culture into concert dance. Spectators leaned over the balcony at numbered positions around the spiraling hallway, turning the Guggenheim into a massive three-dimensional cypher. The show began with an attempt at audience participation, as Wiles gestured from the ground floor up into the crowd. But, it’s difficult to interact with someone two stories above you in the world’s most echoey museum.
A series of low-stakes voguing competitions ensued, with raucous support from the other dancers, and tentative cheers from the audience. Everyone visibly relaxed once the dancers fell in line. West African back pops blended with sharp house footwork as the company arranged themselves in kaleidoscopic formations. They ripped through explosive unison choreography in the finale, and the audience settled into passive observation. The one queue we could all hit was applauding at the end.
New York Live Arts limited their audience to 34 people, sacrificing their body count to preserve their traditional set-up. The ushers thanked us for enduring the new COVID guidelines, but it was as close to a regular theater-going experience as you can get.
Taped up seats filled the theater, with dispersed pairs left open to mark safe spots. Ushers filled the seats from the front to the back to prevent audience members from brushing past each other. One uncooperative couple tried to pick their own spot and were politely told to take their assigned place at the edge of the house.
The performance itself made no compromises. Saul Williams’s The Motherboard Suite rounded out the 2021 Live Ideas Festival, focusing around today’s second wave of Afrofuturism. The roster of performers was a riot of talent: Maria Bauman, Kayla Farrish, Marjani Forté-Saunders, d. Sabela grimes, Jasmine Hearn, and Shamel Pitts. These dance world heavy-hitters would have drawn crowds under regular circumstances, but they performed at full-force for a pared-down crowd. Even the smallest gestures—a smile from Hearn, a hip circle from Bauman, an improvised moment after Saunders dropped her hat—held enough power to burn down the building. The show ended with a call and response, continuing all through the bows. As we cheered and clapped and shouted, I imagined how long the standing ovation would have lasted with a packed house.