Performing Arts Make a Cautious Return in New York
The days are getting longer. The sun is shining. The number of New Yorkers vaccinated continues to grow every day.
And now, more than a year after the coronavirus pandemic suddenly dropped the curtains on theaters and concert halls across town and blacked out Broadway and comedy clubs alike, the performing arts are starting to bounce back.
Like budding flowers awakening just in time for spring, music, dance, theater and comedy returned cautiously over the past week as the venues were allowed to reopen with limited capacity – in most cases for the first time since March 2020.
But the pandemic remains unwieldy in New York and across the country. New York City is still a coronavirus hotspot. New cases persist at around 25,000 per week. In addition to the rush for vaccination, variants remain. And at least a number of appearances have already been postponed due to positive tests.
All of this leaves art institutions struggling to strike a delicate balance between ongoing public health concerns and a desire to serve weary New Yorkers seeking a sense of normalcy.
New York Times reporters visited some of the earliest indoor performances and spoke to the seminal viewers and staff who recorded them. Here is what they saw.
Dance in the Guggenheim
25-year-old Isaac Alexander went to the Guggenheim Museum with headphones on on a drizzly Wednesday evening and danced to the beat of Byrell the Great’s “Vogue Workout Pt. 5 ”and casually fashionable as he passed residential buildings on the Upper East Side.
He was en route to helping a friend in Masterz at Work Dance Family, a performance group led by Courtney ToPanga Washington, a transfemme choreographer from the ballroom scene. When Alexander reached the museum, he was escorted into the rotunda of the Guggenheim and pointed to a place along its spiral ramp. Like other viewers, he was masked and asked to leave immediately after the show for safety reasons.
“You can take any venue, set up a stage, invite people and turn it into a ball,” said Alexander, an artist who dances in the ballroom scene himself.
The show – a fusion of street dance, ballroom, and hip-hop – was allowed in the rotunda after the state inspected it and granted the Works & Process series special arrangements to hold socially distant performances there. The nine-person cast had spent two weeks with Washington in a quarantine bubble in New York State, whose accommodation, meals and coronavirus tests were paid for during rehearsals.
With a throbbing thump in the background, the dancers moved through intricate formations, some of which waited on the outskirts while solos and duets were in the spotlight. There were bangs and locks, pirouetting, somersaults, ducks running (a quiet, hopping walk) and cat running (a stylized walk with hips open and shoulders lowered) in exact synchronicity.
Alexander looked down from his seat and cheered the dancers during the 30-minute work. He said he hadn’t seen a show since January 2020 before the pandemic shutdown. As an artist who gets ideas when he watches his colleagues, he was happy to see a live performance.
“Now that we’re opening up again, I can feel my wings coming back,” he said. “The inspiration comes back.” JULIA JACOBS
2nd of April
A sound show on Broadway
It was the middle of the afternoon on a Friday, an unusual time for a show, but still the opening of “Blindness” at the Daryl Roth Theater. Only about 60 people were allowed to participate. Bundled in their parkas, they stood on the sidewalk along East 15th Street and stood on green dots.
Mayor Bill de Blasio arrived and added a pompous element to the otherwise Off Broadway soundshow. The theater staff put on emerald green jackets and matching green face coverings – “Green for go!” One employee said – that hid the smile their eyes had betrayed. For about 10 minutes, the scene near Union Square felt like a cross between a political campaign event and a Hollywood premiere.
“This is a really powerful moment,” said de Blasio on the steps of Daryl Roth’s entrance. “The theater is returning to New York City. The curtain rises again and something amazing happens. “
April 5, 2021, 12:58 a.m. ET
He and producer Daryl Roth, who gave the theater its name, greeted the guests waiting to be let inside. Some thanked the mayor for helping the performing arts return. Some asked for a selfie; others exchanged wrist and elbow bumps. There were theater-goers celebrating birthdays, people eager to post on social media, and a San Francisco artistic director who’d come to do a safety research every time his playhouse reopened.
As the audience entered the theater, they put their wrists to a machine that checked their temperatures. An usher led them to their seats, which came in pods and were spread out under a labyrinth of fluorescent tubes. As soon as everyone was settled in, a welcome message rang out over the speakers. it was greeted with cheers.
The small crowd took out headphones from sealed bags hanging from their chairs and tucked them over their ears. A couple held hands. A man closed his eyes. And “Blindness”, a haunting audio adaptation of the dystopian novel by Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, began.
For the next 75 minutes, viewers heard of a city ravaged by an epidemic of blindness. For a long time people were plunged into complete darkness in their seats; but towards the end of the show there was a glimmer of light.
“It was very familiar,” said Dean Leslie, 58, after the show. “One of the moments that really spoke to me is now – when I was back on the road.”
“It’s poetic,” he added. “It’s something we’ve all lived. We have now shared that. “MATT STEVENS
2nd of April
Sets in the comedy basement
“Make Sure They Practice Social Distancing!” One guard called another as people descended into the dimly lit basement of the comedy basement.
About 50 spectators – a crowd of mostly 20 people smart enough to buy tickets online – sat at their tables for the club’s first live show in over a year.
Outside, two 23-year-olds were waiting on the sidewalk, hoping for the waiting list. They’d moved to New York City in the fall and decided to live together in the West Village because of the nearby music venues and comedy clubs that they couldn’t go to until Friday.
John Touhey, 27, who was lucky enough to get tickets to this first show, said his reason for coming was simple: “Just to feel something again.”
Downstairs in the club, the host of the show, Jon Laster, jumped onto the stage with a triumphant cry: “Comedy Cellar, how are you feeling?” Some of the spectators had taken off their masks as soon as they reached their tables; others waited for their food and drinks to arrive.
The pandemic was an inevitable theme of the night: it had dominated the lives of everyone in the room for the past year. Vices interviewed the mostly white crowd about where they had fled to during the pandemic months (Kansas City, Mo., Savannah, Ga., Atlanta). When he put each comic on stage, he unplugged the socket and allowed the cast to use their clean microphones, the spherical tops of which had disposable covers that looked like miniature shower caps.
Only a third of the room’s capacity was allowed, but the small crowd’s laughter filled the room. And the comedians talked to the audience as if they were old friends who were catching up after a year. Gary Vider joked about his new baby; Tom Thakkar recounted his drunken celebrations when President Biden won the election; Colin Quinn wondered why the subway still stank without the crowds. and Jackie Fabulous was telling stories about living with her mother for the first time in 20 years.
Halfway through her set, Fabulous paused and took a breath.
“I feel the adrenaline,” she said. “It’s finally settling down.” JULIA JACOBS
2nd of April
Music in the shed
Towards the end of the last third of a performance with mixed ambient sound, classical cello, opera singing, pop music and much more, Kelsey Lu appeared in a pink floral costume and proclaimed: “Spring has sprung.”
The crowd of about 150 in the airy McCourt room of the shed giggled. And when Lu’s performance was over, the audience did something they hadn’t been able to do indoors for more than a year: They gave a standing ovation.
“You could feel it,” said Gil Perez, the Shed’s chief visitor experience officer. “The excitement, the fun, the energy of a live show – there’s nothing like it.”
The McCourt, the Shed’s flexible indoor and outdoor area, is cavernous in size (17,000 square feet) and has a high quality air filtration system. Participants entered through doors that led directly into the room and their temperatures were checked immediately. Digital programs were accessed on smartphones using a bar code on the arm of the seats, which were individually and in pairs, approximately 12 feet from the stage and six feet or more apart.
The staff checked in the audience with tablets. Ticket holders had to provide proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test. They flipped through their phones to bring it up. As soon as they were cleared, they entered a timed entry line: one for 7:40 p.m. and one for 10 minutes later.
“I’m an important worker,” said Roxxann Dobbs, a 37-year-old postman as she waited to be let in and had fun. “
Ian Plowman, her husband, added, “I feel on the verge of next time in New York, the next period.”
Before and after the show, people got the looks of old friends and stood in their seats to chat. One woman congratulated another on a coronavirus vaccine. One person leaned over to a friend and remarked, “This is so beautiful!”
Alex Poots, the Shed’s artistic director and general manager, said he got “quite emotional” as the evening ended and he pondered Lu’s description of a spring awakening.
“Very nice,” he said. “I missed that so much.” MATT STEVENS