Last Tuesday evening, inside the Wade Thompson Drill Hall at the Park Avenue Armory, the opening bars of Christine and the Queen’s “Tilted” pulsed through the air. “We’re going to leave the outside behind now,” a voice boomed over the God mic. The God, in this case, was David Byrne, the former Talking Heads frontman, and he was about to lead us through an hour-long event called SOCIAL! the social distance dance club. The room—55,000 square feet of cavernous sprawl—resembled a game of Twister for giants: a grid of 100 colorful dots, each measuring six feet in diameter. Here, though, there would be no crisscrossing of arms and legs in awkward amusement. All the moves to follow—backstrokes and hip shakes and a frenetic, relatable gesture called “vibrating palms,” all set to a genre-hopping playlist—would be self-contained within those spotlighted circles. God piped back in. “As Louis Armstrong used to say, ‘Leave it all behind ya,’ but he was talking about a laxative,” Byrne said, unspooling a bit of trivia, odd if apt. After a year of pent-up emotion, it was time for a release.
The concept of the work is embedded right there in the name SOCIAL! It simultaneously evokes and implements a public-health practice that has dominated routine life over the past year, at the grocery store or on the sidewalk. Even without its caboose, distance, the word calls to mind a wingspan’s cushion of air—a safety-first approach that the Armory takes very seriously. (The show, which opened last Tuesday and ends its sold-out run on April 22, is expected to travel to other cities.) Each of the attendees submits a screening form in advance and undergoes a COVID rapid test on-site, in an ivory-walled corridor that suggests a 1940s hospital on a Ryan Murphy set. Face masks are mandatory; wearable “passports” reflect row assignments, and the “Social Distance Ground Crew” lights the way with tarmac-style batons. To me—effectively a pandemic-era shut-in, having spent the year working from home—the protocols married the politeness of a school field trip with the novelty of an intergalactic mission. The goal was not just to be merely transported. It was akin to re-entry—back into the atmosphere, back into livable life, back into a world of performances and strangers and dancing IRL, even if barely within earshot.
The piece—created by two Park Avenue Armory artists-in-residence, Christine Jones and Steven Hoggett, together with Byrne—had an ample gestation period, one of the few things both occasioned by and stalled by the pandemic. Last spring, as dots appeared underfoot in pharmacy queues and on subway platforms, Jones had a realization. “Oh yes, footprints: They tell you where to stand, but sometimes you mix them up and they show you how to do a dance,” she said over Zoom a couple days after the premiere. A social, in vintage parlance, is also a dance. The three artists set to work brainstorming, populating an open Spotify playlist with tracks that get them out of the chair. (It was less about consensus, more about braiding together individual vantage points.) Video clips of movement volleyed back and forth by email. “David, at one point, sent footage of a guy in India who was directing traffic, and also some of the guys on an airstrip with the light batons,” said Hoggett, describing the blend of universal gestures they envisioned for the piece. But all the usual particulars were up in the air. “From the start, meeting one was like, This is a hypothetical date, set to a hypothetical month, with a hypothetical number of people,” said Hoggett. “It was everything theater process is not.”
Byrne recorded a new song for SOCIAL! by special request, in part to bridge the differing BPMs of two adjacent tracks. “I keep a distance with the one that I love. In the circle, in the circle of love,” he sings.
By Stephanie Berger Photography/Park Avenue Armory.
Inside the Armory, I followed the ground crew with the light batons and took my place inside a bright pink circle, near the center of the Twister grid. DJ Mad Love (Karine Plantadit), wearing a black corset and long platinum braids, was holding court in the dot in front of me, behind dueling laptops. Bathed in a taffylike sonic drone—the aural equivalent to incense—I meditated on the unknown: Would it be cathartic or tame? A religious experience, a workout, a liberation? I was suddenly reminded of a time, a couple years ago, when I took myself to a Brooklyn club to shake off a breakup. When a sketchy guy asked me to dance, I looked him in the eye and answered simply: “Sorry, I am here for a private exorcism.”
Maybe the same was once again true—different demons, same release. Byrne’s voice started up, coaxing my 99 fellow participants and I through warmup head rolls as he gave a primer on the Armory’s history. (In 1849, the in-house regiment, dispatched to stop a skirmish outside a downtown theater, escalated the situation to the extent that 31 people were killed. “The cure ended up being worse than the cause,” Byrne pointed out, his words finding extra resonance in the midst of the Derek Chauvin trial.) The first quotidian gesture we were told to pantomime was hand sanitizer: both sides, between the fingers. “You’ve got too much! Flick it front, flick it behind,” Byrne coached, shouting praise to his unseen acolytes, like a Peloton instructor encouraging the void. It was a paradox of anonymity, to occupy a spotlight while your identity is obstructed by a mask, to dance like not-quite-nobody is watching. As Daft Punk hit the sound system, Byrne mentioned the duo’s recent split and added that “they’re known for wearing helmets to hide their true identity.” He told us to get lost—”in a good way.”
Over the course of the hour, the cues seemed to draw on various modalities of group movement. We subway-surfed and mock-threaded through crowds; floated as if in a Gaga class; pretended to double-dutch; line-danced; did the backstroke in an infinity pool. Partway through, after a long groove through James Brown, Jamiroquai, and D Train, the tempo ebbed, slipping into a Jane Siberry-k.d. lang ballad. We extended an arm to the rafters like, hmm, megachurchgoers, and Byrne preached softly: “Maybe you’re raising your hand in praise or to feel the light or to represent—or because you have a question. Is anybody answering your question? So much uncertainty these days.”
A post-performance email collects participants’ feelings about safety, on a scale of 1 to 5. “We’re at 5, which is great,” Rebecca Robertson, the Park Avenue Armory’s founding president and executive producer, said in an interview. The survey has also come back with unexpected notes. “They say things like, ‘It was a fabulous, joyous dance party.’ ‘Please keep this going because I’m going to come back every week.’ ‘Hey, I fucking loved it,’” Robertson added with a laugh. “Okay, good, good!”
By Stephanie Berger Photography/Park Avenue Armory.
There’s a lot of talk about being present: in the meditation apps I’ve forgotten about and, less overtly, in all the on-camera virtual meetings I attend, feeling more exposed than under a spotlight in a crowd. But showing up for a performance, marked present in the attendance rolls, is the only way I’ve ever found a mental escape. In the dark, attention can remain focused while your subconscious does mental housekeeping. The absence of the theater for so many months is a privileged concern but a shared one; ditto the loss of communal rhythms, by way of a formal dance class, a thrumming party, or the old hustled commute.
During the Zoom with the creative team, Jones credited the Armory’s innate choreography. “From the moment you walk into that space, on some level, you start thinking about bodies moving in unison,” she said, referencing early artillery drills. There’s a cohesive effect when people march and swivel together; it makes me think of a favorite scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, when a couple dozen Chicagoans, hearing “Twist and Shout” over the loudspeaker, break into dance on the plaza steps. “I’m aware from my own experience of moving together, moving in sync, what it feels like as a performer and a participant, and it’s transcendent,” said Byrne, who created a new song for SOCIAL!, inspired by ideas of distance and love. “You lose a part of yourself, but you gain this kind of membership in this larger community.”
As I filed out of the drill hall, dewy with exertion, drained of the usual brain chatter, I returned to the pre-show waiting room, where I’d left my copy of New York magazine under a chair. I had been reading about the mental-health crisis that unfolded during the pandemic, countered by a glut of online services promising virtual relief. I’d canceled my own phone therapy session that night in favor of the show. Where does experiential performance end and wellness begin? A study published last spring in the International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being surveyed the existing research on those who recreationally engage in music and dance. The conclusion could have been stamped on the back of my SOCIAL! passport: “Performing arts participation crucially relates to social determinants of health, particularly from the perspective of building social and cultural capital, encouraging healthy behaviors such as physical exercise and management of stress and mental health, and reducing social isolation.”
Byrne—whose mental outlook is reflected in his online magazine Reasons to Be Cheerful, along with his Broadway show, American Utopia—doesn’t shy away from purposeful art. His collaborators echoed the point over Zoom. “We know that unison rhythms, unison movement, unison sound actually does affect humans and animals on a neurobiological level,” said Jones, who has spent the past months doing TikTok dances with her kids. Maybe it’s more than a frivolity, whatever means by which we manage to shake a leg. Byrne’s voice boomed through the God mic: “This dance is serious. This dance is necessary. Do you feel that change?” he asked, as a track by SAULT downshifted. “Things are gonna change.”
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