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BWW Review: SOCIAL! THE SOCIAL DISTANCE DANCE CLUB at Park Avenue Armory

David Byrne leads New Yorkers back to the dance floor through April 22nd

BWW Review: SOCIAL! THE SOCIAL DISTANCE DANCE CLUB at Park Avenue Armory

David Byrne is no stranger to creating theatre, quirky immersive experiences, or ushering people to the dance floor. So perhaps it's fitting that he's acting as a Pied Piper for a return to all three in SOCIAL! The Social Distance Dance Club at Park Avenue Armory.

Byrne teamed up with Armory Artists-in-Residence Christine Jones and Steven Hoggett (both recently contributed their talents to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) to envision a pandemic-proof discotheque.

SOCIAL! is a fully interactive, mandatory-participation immersive event where you aren't watching a performance unfold or playing a small part - you are the show.

The experimental movement piece's world premiere is part of a series of works commissioned by the Armory that utilize its massive 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall, redubbed the Social Distance Hall.

Following New York State Covid-19 regulations, the gargantuan space that can easily accommodate over a thousand attendees gets reduced to a maximum capacity of one hundred. Preparation for the hour-long experience begins days before your ticketed timeslot.

BWW Review: SOCIAL! THE SOCIAL DISTANCE DANCE CLUB at Park Avenue Armory
Patrons at SOCIAL! the social distance dance club, in Park AvenueArmory's Drill Hall.
Photo credit: Stephanie Berger. Photography/Park Avenue Armory.

First, there's the Covid-19 questionnaire and confirmation of obligatory compliances. Completing the task is rewarded with a video of Byrne in a blazer, kilt, and sandals with socks. He demonstrates the easy dance steps all participants are to perform together for the event's finale. With simple moves dubbed "puppet legs," "vibrating hands," and "hold the traffic," the choreography resembles what you might see at a wedding line dance.

Guests must arrive an hour and fifteen minutes before their ticketed time for a rapid nasal swab Covid test. The innards of the Armory are labyrinthine and have a clinical feel in stark contrast to the ornate splendor of the portions familiar to the public.

Groups of twenty are corralled into a waiting room where a flat-screen TV plays videos of social dancing on loop, interspersed with inspirational quotes about the significance of collective movement and its necessity to humankind. Watching people from Africa, India, and America move together in tiny studios, clubs, baseball fields, and public spaces was heart-stirring. It makes one reflect on the simple things we took for granted.

When everyone's tests came back negative for Covid-19, we were directed into the Hall by guides carrying light sticks evocative of air traffic controllers or fans at a Japanese pop concert. A hundred rainbow-hued dots of a six-foot circumference mark each attendee's private spotlight.

BWW Review: SOCIAL! THE SOCIAL DISTANCE DANCE CLUB at Park Avenue Armory
Karine Plantadit (DJ Mad Love) at SOCIAL! the social distance dance club at Park Avenue Armory.
Photo credit: Stephanie Berger. Photography/Park Avenue Armory.

Karine Plantadit (DJ Mad Love) stands on a platform in the center of the space and fills the room with New York City-based DJ Natasha Diggs' mix of an eclectic playlist curated by Byrne, Hoggett, and Jones.

Byrne narrates the experience like the voice of God booming above with movement suggestions choreographed by Yasmin Lee. Byrne's commentaries are often hilarious (particularly the New York streets and subway references), but they can also provoke a sincere emotional response. Rather than forced directives, his guidance feels freeing.

Because it is such a personal experience that will vary per participant, it's challenging to describe the merits of SOCIAL! meaningfully in a linear way. But for a brief, ephemeral time, all individual, national, and global concerns melt away. All that remains is a feeling of presence, purity, expression, and connection.

BWW Review: SOCIAL! THE SOCIAL DISTANCE DANCE CLUB at Park Avenue Armory
Patrons at SOCIAL! the social distance dance club, in Park Avenue Armory's Drill Hall.
Photo credit: Stephanie Berger. Photography/Park Avenue Armory.

When the event ended, everyone is ushered back to reality outside of the tiny, momentary haven. Much like the countless times I've exited a dance club, I was dripping sweat, desperately in need of water (along with a stronger beverage), and hungry for a hearty meal.

Even though you're confined to a small circle and dancing with yourself, the act of communal movement ignites a deep and powerful force that's lured human beings to drum circles and dance floors of all kinds since the dawn of civilization.

It's been over a year since I've danced with such rigor and abandon for an extended period. My body felt a bit broken down, but my soul felt broken open.

SOCIAL! The Social Distance Dance Club runs through April 22, 2021, at the Park Avenue Armory. For tickets and more information, visit armoryonpark.org.


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