Park Ave. Armory, Wade Thompson Drill Hall
643 Park Ave. at 67th St.
April 9-22, $45 ($35 standby tickets available)
Twister is the most physical of board games. The more people come into contact with one another on the plastic mat — which contains colored circles that participants must touch with one of their hands or feet depending on what the spinner tells them to do — the more fun it is to play and to watch. The same can be said for dancing, a social activity that brings people together in numerous ways. In a 2015 study, Bronwyn Tarr, Jacques Launay, Emma Cohen, and Robin Dunbar explained, “All human cultures perform and enjoy forms of music and dance in a group setting. Dancing involves people synchronizing their movements to a predictable, rhythmic beat (usually provided by music) and to each other. In this manner, dance is fundamentally cooperative in nature, and may have served the evolutionary function of encouraging social bonds, cooperation, and prosocial behaviors between group members. To date, empirical support for this social bonding hypothesis is based mainly on a link between synchrony (i.e. performing the same movement at the same time) and bonding.” In a twist on both Twister and dancing, the Park Ave. Armory commission Social! the social distance dance club incorporates people, colorful circles on the floor, and synchronous bonding in an immensely boisterous evening of interaction that features no touching whatsoever.
The armory was supposed to kick off its Social Distance Hall series with Bill T. Jones’s Afterwardsness, but several positive Covid tests in the company led to its postponement until May, after Party in the Bardo, a collaboration between Laurie Anderson and Jason Moran running May 5-9. Conceived by choreographer Steven Hoggett (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), Tony-winning set designer and solo show specialist Christine Jones (American Idiot, Here We Are: Theatre for One), and multidisciplinary artist David Byrne (Talking Heads, American Utopia), Social! takes place in the fifty-five-thousand-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill, where nearly one hundred ticket holders spend fifty-five minutes moving and grooving in their own private circle.
Audience members must arrive about an hour before showtime to have a Covid-19 shallow-swab rapid response test. While waiting for the results — anyone who comes up positive will need to immediately leave the building with the rest of their party (and will be refunded the $45 ticket price) — groups of about twenty-four waited in different locations in the historic armory, where monitors displayed quotes about dancing from a March 2021 Financial Times article, “Covid will not squash our deep-seated need to dance,” by Will Coldwell, who references the above study in his piece, along with YouTube videos of men, women, and children from around the world dancing with joy. (For example, “Dance provides us with a universal language — one deeper and more emotional than words — that helps us to bond with other, often unfamiliar, people.”) Eventually we audience members were marched into the drill hall in formation, and each was sent to an assigned spotlight, spaced at twelve-to-fifteen-foot intervals. (The lighting design, which includes the projection of abstract shapes and a disco ball, is by Kevin Adams; the above videos are © DBOX.) In the center, on a slowly revolving raised platform, is DJ Mad Love (Tony nominee Karine Plantadit), who spins tunes on two computers (mixed by DJ Natasha Diggs) while Byrne’s disembodied voice guides us, suggesting specific movements and encouraging self-expression. (His instructions were done in conjunction with choreographer Yasmine Lee.)
To songs by D-Train, Daft Punk, James Brown, Benny Goodman, Olivia Newton-John, Fatback, Byrne, and others, the former Talking Heads leader prompts us through various scenarios (hands waving in the air, weaving through a subway car, balancing at the edge of your circle, swaying slowly, etc., although some of it is hard to hear amid the thumping beats) before leading up to the grand finale, a unified dance that we were advised to rehearse in advance via a video in which Byrne demonstrates the moves.
The drill hall is a judgment-free space; no one is going to laugh at your dancing, and you’re not going to laugh at anyone else’s. It’s a time to kick loose and let it all go, immerse yourself in a worry-free hour of nonstop exhilaration. It’s not always easy — several people in my vicinity had to take rests, and one woman spent much of the show sitting in her circle — but the more you are able to put into it, the more you will get out of it. (Coldwell explains, “As we now know so well, it’s far easier to start dancing than it is to stop.”) And when you are taken back to your seat, a small, relevant little gift is waiting for you, one last reminder that even if we can’t be together in a physical way — Twister might not be on the menu for a bit longer — we can now gather safely and bond, as long as we’re tested, masked, socially distanced, and ready to have a blast.