A few days ago, I attended the premiere of an hourlong dance performance. In New York City. Indoors. With more than 100 other people.
Let me rephrase that. A few days ago, 98 volunteers, including me — all pretested for Covid-19, all masked, all following strict rules of social distancing — played the role of audience members for an indoor filming of an hourlong dance performance.
The Park Avenue Armory, where the filming took place, is part of a coalition of theaters that are lobbying New York State for special permission to present ticketed performances to reduced capacity, socially distanced audiences. Because of their open spaces and flexible designs, these theaters argue that they can safely return to business now or soon, before standard theaters do. At present, though, only rehearsals, gallery exhibitions and film shoots are allowed.
So, officially, I was a participant in a filming. And while the Armory intends to broadcast the results, some day, in a yet-to-be-determined way, the filming was a bit of a fig leaf. The other volunteers and I weren’t merely pretending to be audience members at a live performance. The experience was real, a feast after famine — and a taste of what going to the theater in New York could be like in coming months.
Since August, the Armory has been the site of rehearsals and workshops, as several artists experiment with the building’s most distinct feature, its barrel-roofed Drill Hall. The room is like an airplane hanger, with 40,000 square feet of open space to spread out in and an enormous volume of air circulating above.
How to take advantage of such a space? What kind of performance suits it and the moment? What do audiences want now? How to make them feel safe?
Different projects have come up with very different answers to those questions. The one being filmed that day was “Afterwardness,” a new work by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company. The next closest to being ready is “Social!” — billed as “the social distance dance club” — which is not a performance but an experience featuring the voice and spirit of David Byrne.
At “Afterwardness,” you sit in a chair at least 11 feet away from any other viewer. Nine dancers, young and beautiful even with their faces partially obscured by masks, move all around you — in an empty center space and in wide, tape-demarcated lanes between the chairs. They are far away in the distance or as close as six feet. They don’t touch each other, not even when the choreography calls on them to do the patty-cake.
The music is live and largely elegiac, the dancing virtuosic and mostly abstract though flecked with gestures of vulnerability, pain and anger. From the start — through a journal-entry audio installation before you enter the Drill Hall — you confront the traumas of recent months: the pandemic, the protests. Throughout, voices periodically intone calendar dates in chronological order, starting with March.
In “Social!” — at least as experienced during a late-September workshop — instead of a chair, you have a circle on the floor, six feet in diameter, just for you. The music is a 55-minute D.J. set, a flow of dance tracks designed to be irresistible. There are no dancers, though. Or rather the dancers are you and another 100 or so masked people in their own individual circles, responding to movement suggestions from the recorded voice of Mr. Byrne.
And while Mr. Byrne’s instructions acknowledge the current situation and the strangeness of being inside with so many other people, the dominant tone is of reassurance and permission giving. It’s an invitation to let go, to find your groove, to move together with strangers and see how that feels.
Rebecca Robertson, the Armory’s president and executive director, said she hoped that both “Social!” and “Afterwardness” could open this year, perhaps as soon as November.
These projects, though, are “a march into the unknown,” Ms. Robertson said. “We could fall off a cliff, but going forward is better than sitting around with your hands in your lap and no artists working and nothing to tell your donors. When I go into that room and see artists at full tilt, it makes me cry.”
Before the pandemic, Bill T. Jones had a show in mind for the Armory, but “Afterwardness” was not it. “Deep Blue Sea” — a big work for a big space, featuring 100 performers and lots of physical contact — was scheduled to premiere there on April 14.
When rehearsals were shut down, Mr. Jones was stunned. “I couldn’t believe it would go on for longer than a month or two,” he said in an interview. “But then the Armory told us they were going to have to postpone longer, and I thought, ‘There goes another gig.’”
“I was despairing, actually,” he continued. “I was thinking, ‘Is this the end of the company?’”
Janet Wong, the company’s associate artistic director, insisted on weekly virtual company meetings. She gave the isolated dancers an assignment to learn bits of old repertory from archival videos. And when the Armory invited Mr. Jones to create a new, socially distanced production, these choreographic fragments became the basis for that work.
Rehearsals at the Armory began in mid-August, the first time in months that Mr. Jones had seen his dancers in person. “They were free,” he said, “and it was profound, and I thought, ‘This is what we do.’”
Still, when he learned exactly what the Armory meant by “socially distanced,” he was skeptical: “‘This is going to kill the theatrical experience,’ I thought.” Yet with every day of rehearsal, he became more convinced that it could work, he said — that intimacy was possible in the vast space, even with all the rules. He quoted Stravinsky: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself.”
The project’s music director, Pauline Kim Harris, created a score with the composer and vocalist Holland Andrews. It includes the folk song “Another Man Done Gone” and ethereal and cacophonous passages from Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” written and first performed in a World War II prisoner-of-war camp. Sounds of protest fade in and out. Ms. Kim Harris, on violin, plays her own “8:46,” a homage to George Floyd that sounds like a slow suffocation over that many minutes and seconds.
But the most potent sounds might be the calendar dates, steadily advancing. “Afterwardness” is a psychoanalytic term for a belated understanding of trauma. Mr. Jones intends it ironically. “We would like to believe that we’re putting this behind us, that we’ve earned the truth that comes with distance,” he said. “But it is not behind us. We’re going to have to behave as if we are in a state that is never going to end.”
So you want to dance like David Byrne?
Before the pandemic, when the scenic designer Christine Jones became an artist in residence at the Armory, she was already imagining using the Drill Hall for a communal dance event. She discussed the idea with another artist in residence, the choreographer Steven Hoggett.
Later, in the lockdown of March and April, as all of her other projects disappeared, she thought about it more. “We were hearing ‘social distance’ so much,” she recalled in an interview. “But ‘social’ is also a word for a dance party, and it occurred to me that social dancing is the antidote to social distancing.”
As Ms. Jones and Mr. Hoggett conceived the event, it would build to a moment of unison, with all the participants doing a simple bit of choreography they had learned from a video before arriving. And Mr. Hoggett knew who should do the demonstrating: Mr. Byrne.
“David is so in his body, and yet every rule of dance is crushed by him,” Mr. Hoggett said. Or, as Mr. Byrne put it: “You see a white guy of a certain age dancing around fearlessly and you don’t have to be intimidated. If I can do this, you can do this.”
At the Armory, Mr. Byrne would not appear in person or on video. He would draw too much of the participants’ focus. But the sense of permission comes through his voice, giving friendly prompts like a philosophical Zumba instructor, reminding New Yorkers how they used to move. Again and again, he tells you not to worry.
In its sincerity and hope and vision of civic engagement as a dance party, “Social!” shares an ethos with “American Utopia,” Mr. Byrne’s recent Broadway show (and the Spike Lee film of it now streaming on HBO).
“That is where I’m at,” Mr. Byrne said, “finding a way to be engaged with the wider world and have it be joyous. This seems to be a way to do that.”
During the September workshops, the three collaborators fine-tuned the playlist and script with volunteers who had been tested for Covid-19. What they learned above all is that people, of many ages and backgrounds, are ready for this. One participant, in tears, said, “This is what dance clubs should always be like.”
The New Drill
Mr. Byrne said that his “touring brain” envisioned franchises: “Social!” in Seattle, Chicago, London. The Armory is the best chance, though, and it remains a maybe.
In the meantime, the filming of “Afterwardness” did happen, like a phase in a clinical trial. When the dancers were finished, they each thanked the audience for coming, and that taken-for-granted exchange was moving.
But it wasn’t the end, as we might have assumed in pre-pandemic days. The audience still had to be shepherded out of the building, one by one, like well-behaved children in a fire drill. That’s the kind of choreography that will be most crucial if such events are to become regular again.