Dance in the time of COVID
Updated: Aug 13, 2020
We pulled into the parking lot at 6:37pm on a sleepy Saturday. Shelter in place had been going on for nearly four weeks. Although there were a few cars in the parking lot, the sidewalks and stoops we passed on our way to Safeway were empty. The sun was low in the sky, and we watched as masked pairs exited the grocery store, carts filled to the brim with non-perishables.
At 6:40pm, we received a text:
"Hi, this is A-----, your stage manager. This is the number to call if you get in trouble! You should be in the Westwood Safeway parking lot. Please listen to your first track now."
Excitedly, we hit play on the first of two tracks we had been sent. A voice smooth and caramelly as whiskey greeted us: "Hello, and welcome to your performance." she said. "In a few moments, I'm going to call you and send you on your way...But before then, I want to remind you of a few things." As we listened to our introduction, I found myself looking around the parking lot, trying to spy flamboyantly dressed creatures. For now, just NIMBYs. But it was exciting to think a performance might start right under my nose.
Shortly after the track had ended, my phone rang. We were greeted by the same voice who had spoken to us over our car speakers, calling as promised to pass on final instructions and safety precautions. "At exactly 6:50pm, you will press play on your second track and you will let it play in its entirety. The performance and soundtrack will last for approximately 90 minutes. Do not, for any reason, stop the track." We hung up. It was 6:46.
At 6:49 we checked our supplies: we had a box of fruit snacks, a nalgene of water, two fully charged phones, and kibble for our dog, who was attending from the backseat. All three of our bladders were empty. As the clock on the dash flipped to 6:50pm, we started the car, hit play, and let the voice coming from the speakers guide us to our first destination.
Conceived and created by Seattle-based company LanDforms (Leah Crosby and Danielle Doell), Cooped-Up is a performance of seven separate dances, performed in and around the homes of the participating dancers across the city of Seattle. To view the dances, the audience drives from house to house, parks outside a residence, and observes from the safe isolation of our car. To guide us, LanDforms sent a GoogleMaps route and a soundtrack that mixes pop songs, art songs, voicemails from faraway friends and family, original scores and guided meditations. By releasing the audience in small batches every 10 minutes, ideally no more than one car at a time is in front of any given house. From the Safeway to the final destination, the show runs a little under 90 minutes, taking the audience from Wedgewood all the way down to Beacon Hill.
L-R Andy Zacek and Kara Beadle in the second performance in Cooped-Up.
On the whole, the dances were rather whimsical, united by brightly colored clothing and a cheeky tone. The first pair (the dance company Tiffana ) created a cute, Lazzo-esque re-enactment of an elaborate brunch. The preparation of french press coffee, quiches, bloody maries and mimosas becomes an elaborate choreography, as the duo indulges in the small luxuries one can get in the comfort of one's home. The second pair of performers (Kara Beadle and Andy Zacek) darted playfully around their front doorway, a sun-porch book-ended by french doors. Through fleeting exits and entrances, and frequent crossings over the threshold, the two turn a now legally-enforced border into a liminal zone that engenders a ticklish, fidgety exploration, a nagging sense of boredom, and a resourcefulness for the absurd (at one point Andy's legs dance sideways out the window). Vignettes like this, as well as Hope Goldman's duet with her selfie stick on her balcony and Maia Veague's comical and committed indoor jazzercize routine performed in her ground-floor, street-facing window, offer levity and a kind of fun-house mirror to our daily lives, as we watch people like ourselves to come up against new physical limitations, and try to make something from their desperation for fun in a solitary new reality.
The piece is smartly paced, geographically and emotionally, and as the audience ventures further south, the performances turn introspective. Both Melissa Sanderson's performance, which came fourth, and Sophia Arnall's, which came fifth, held space for the expanse of stillness, contemplation, and longing this period of isolation has brought on. And without a single specific or topical reference (no face mask costumes or dances with hand sanitizers or toilet paper rolls) both hinted at the devastation that most of us know is happening, but never see. Perhaps it was the stillness: Sanderson sat on her porch, gently hugging her knee in contemplation for what seemed like an eternity. Whether we are working or not, whether we are at home or out in the world, we are all waiting, and we don't know how long. In Arnall's piece, she finds ersatz companionship in the form of a mannequin, which she caresses like a lover one moment and hauls around the yard like a prop the next.
For me, Arnall's piece crystallized our current moment: never totally convinced by her coping mechanism or intimacy with the mannequin, she never self-efaces or wholly rejects the comfort the mannequin brings either. At one especially moving moment, she abandoned the mannequin and stepped forward to the edge of her lawn, facing the street and us, and made sweeping carving motions in the air over and over and over again with her arms. With each repetition, it was as if she was drawing out the small scope of her control, and keeping it clean. As if to say, like a prayer, "I cannot do much more than this, but I am doing it. I am doing it every day." Regardless of what our days look like, I think this resonates for us all: Every morning we get up, we make coffee, we stay inside, and we pray and think of the people who are sick. We do our part, even though it is small. And we do it because, even though we feel alone, we are in this together.
The performance ended with a tender mise-en-scene, as our car approached a small orchard tucked down a small driveway. In the middle of the grass, dancer Danielle Doell lounged in a large, red stuffed chair. Everything glowed red-pink–the chair, the lamp beside it. Pretty soon, as Doell shifted and stretched from her position in the chair, the soundtrack turned to some all too familiar chords. Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" might have seemed like a strange end to this piece, as might the hot pink glow of Doell's furniture in the middle of a field. But right now a touch of pop brings immense comfort because it is something known and shared: it is common ground. And some bright, albeit artificial light shines and brings warmth, nonetheless. Hearing Neil Diamond sing words I'd heard in much better, clearer moments in my life was also a reminder to be gentle: whether it's Netflix or a pop song or an extra brownie before bed, this is the time for soft, plushy simplicity. It's not laziness, or stupidity: it's sweetness and sincerity that may be the key to emotionally surviving.
Melissa Sanderson in Cooped-Up.
Cooped Up comes on the heels of a wave of "immersive" performances, the most famous of which is undoubtedly Sleep No More. Set in a warehouse, Sleep No More reimagines Shakespeare's Macbeth in a five-floor warehouse, set up like an enormous fun-house in which the audience is free to roam for the duration of the show. Everyone is given a mask to provide anonymity, ground rules are set, and then you wander, sometimes getting pulled into intimate, risque encounters in bedrooms or joining a throbbing discoteque. Once an avant-garde darling, the show has become one of the hottest tickets to buy in New York, right up there with Hamilton! or The Lion King. But in all the hype, I wonder what kind of expectations are created for what a performance is, and who it is for. As a friend of mine once acerbically noted that the appeal of a show like Sleep No More is very much like that of a strip club: "Come in here," it says. "We've made this very special event just for you." Lady Macbeth may pull you into a room alone, and show you something very exciting, very secret, or even very sexy. Or you may stumble into a scene that was taking place behind closed doors before you walked in. It's ok though. You can watch. Because even though the performers pretend they have other business to attend to, it's also very clear the whole thing is made for you.
Cooped-Up gives a very different take on audience-performer relationship, one that's much more about mutual collaboration than it is about voyeurism. It's evident that they've chosen this form not just out of necessity, but as the right vehicle (oh yes, pun intended) for a conversation about intimacy, health, and community. Even though we were often the only car present, and the dancers performed in their homes (in one case in her bedroom), LanDforms avoided a feeling like a peep show, and instead left me with feelings of togetherness and generosity. The soundtrack has a big hand in this. Over and over the voice on the recording reiterates "Are you a little turned around? It's ok. It's really ok. No need to rush–you'll get there." Destinations and directions are also described in detail: "You're looking for a big orange house" or "GoogleMaps will tell you to go down an alley; instead, go to the next street and make three rights." Most of these directions are repeated at least twice to help you arrive. In between, the recording is peppered with little vignettes or songs about health, or clips of voicemails from friends and family, "just checking into say hi." A favorite of mine was a voicemail left by "the skin on your hand," who called because they were feeling confused and a little hurt by the excessive, abrasive washing. In all its different pieces, the sound underneath the whole performance makes you feel talked to and communicated with, not seduced.
The other facet of the show that helps set a more collaborative tone with the audience is the prep materials and support structure. All the resources, from the welcome packet to the texts to the phone call, are there to create transparency, not allure: transparency about what to expect, transparency about where you are, who you're with. They explicitly underline the importance of the dancer's privacy, and the fact that you are at their house. Think of that: this is not the character's house or the character's room: it's the dancers' homes. And they, just like you, live in homes, can't go outside, and are trying to deal. Gestures and precautions like these indicated to me that this performance was not made just for me. Instead of peeking in on something already happening, just by showing up and driving in my car I made this performance happen too. Both audience and dancer were in it for each other: we're taking part in this to insist that life is still vibrant and beautiful even when all the rules have changed.
And I think what is especially bold about Cooped-Up is that in this context its offering something equally profound to the audience and to the dancers: the piece insists — or better yet — proves that dance artists are still dance artists, even on their porches, in their windows, their doorways, or under the eaves of their garden shed. And it shows off performance for its most altruistic attributes: in the middle of a pandemic, when many of these dancers may be furloughed, unemployed, and facing immense precarity, they put hours of their past few weeks into making something to make sure we stay connected to each other. They showed up for us, so we showed up for them.
For all this artistry, Cooped Up would be a welcome foray into immersive performance even in the absence of a global pandemic. But it was an especially generous and needed creation in a moment of unprecedented uncertainty, and nigh unprecedented risk, fear, and loneliness. Part of the work's beauty is in how it closes that social distance through artistic risk and vulnerability, all while keeping everyone safe.
Shortly after leaving the orange house, our narrator's voice guided us back to our childhood: "Remember when you were six, and were scared of EVERYTHING?!...You'd turn of the light and jump onto your bed, making yourself as flat as possible underneath the sheets and covers. You'd sing the ABCs twice, because if you'd made it through two rounds of ABCs without being eaten by a monster, you were probably going to be ok."
Did I find that story a little twee? Sure. But this is not the moment for staying cool and aloof. I'll take these, and any reminders, that we are resilient, that all of us are going through this together even though we can't always be in the same room. And if that seems a little saccharine, I don’t really care. When it's this well-made, and so generously shared, I'm grateful.
*Note: I'm told Cooped-Up will likely be presented for another couple of rounds in the coming weeks. Make sure to follow LanDforms on Instagram (@landforms_dance) to stay up-to-date on upcoming opportunities to see this work.