Performing Arts Make a Cautious Return in New York

The days are getting longer. The sun is out. The number of vaccinated New Yorkers continues to grow every day.

And now, more than a year after the coronavirus pandemic suddenly brought down the curtain at theaters and concert halls across the city, darkening Broadway and comedy clubs alike, the performing arts are beginning to bounce back.

Like budding flowers awakening just in time for spring, music, dance, theater and comedy began a cautious return this week as venues were allowed 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 hot spot, with new cases holding stubbornly at around 25,000 a week. Alongside a rush to vaccinate, variants persist. And at least one set of performances have already been postponed because of positive tests.

All of which leaves arts institutions seeking to strike a delicate balance between persistent public health concerns and the desire to serve wearied New Yorkers eager for a sense of normalcy.

Reporters from The New York Times visited some of the first indoor performances, and spoke with the pioneering audience members and staff who took them in. Here is what they saw.

March 31

Isaac Alexander, 25, was walking to the Guggenheim Museum on a drizzly Wednesday evening with headphones in, dancing to the beat of Byrell the Great’s “Vogue Workout Pt. 5” and casually voguing as he passed apartment buildings on the Upper East Side.

He was on his way to support a friend in Masterz at Work Dance Family, a performance group led by Courtney ToPanga Washington, a trans-femme choreographer from the ballroom scene. Once Alexander reached the museum, he was directed into the Guggenheim’s rotunda and shown a spot to stand along its spiral ramp. Like other audience members he was masked, and was asked to leave immediately after the show as a safety measure.

“You can take any venue, put a stage in it, invite people, and you can make it 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 had inspected it and given the Works & Process series a special dispensation to hold socially distanced performances there. The cast of nine, along with Washington, had spent two weeks in a quarantine bubble together in upstate New York, their housing, meals and coronavirus testing paid for while they rehearsed.

With a pounding beat in the background, the dancers moved through intricate formations, some waiting on the outskirts as solos and duets took the spotlight. There was popping and locking, pirouetting, somersaulting, duck walking (a low, bouncing walk) and cat walking (a stylized walk with popped hips and dropped shoulders) in exacting synchronicity.

Looking down from his perch, Alexander cheered the dancers on through the 30-minute work. He said that he had not seen a show since January 2020, before the pandemic shutdown. As an artist who gets ideas from watching his peers, he felt joy at the sight of a live performance.

“Now that we’re opening back up, I feel my wings coming back,” he said. “The inspiration is coming back.” JULIA JACOBS

April 2

It was the middle of the afternoon on a Friday, an unusual time for a show but nonetheless the opening of “Blindness,” at the Daryl Roth Theater. Only about 60 people were allowed to attend. Bundled in the parkas, they lined up on the sidewalk along East 15th Street, standing on green dots.

Mayor Bill de Blasio arrived, adding an element of pomp to what was otherwise an Off Broadway sound show. Staff members at the theater donned emerald green jackets and matching green face coverings — “Green for go!” one employee said — that hid the smiles their eyes 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,” de Blasio said on the steps of the Daryl Roth’s entrance. “Theater returns to New York City. The curtain goes back up, and something amazing happens.”

He and the producer Daryl Roth, the theater’s namesake, greeted patrons waiting to be let inside. A few thanked the mayor for helping ensure that the performing arts return. Some asked for a selfie; others exchanged wrist and elbow bumps. There were theatergoers celebrating birthdays, people eager to post on social media, and one artistic director from San Francisco who had come to do some research on safety for whenever his playhouse reopens.

As members of the audience entered the theater, they held up 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 maze of fluorescent tubes. Once everyone was settled in, a welcome message sounded from speakers; it was greeted with a cheer.

The small crowd took out headphones, from sealed bags hanging on their chairs, and fitted them over their ears. One couple held hands. A man closed his eyes. And “Blindness,” an immersive audio adaptation of the dystopian novel by the Nobel Prize-winning novelist José Saramago, began.

For the next 75 minutes, the audience members heard of a city plagued by an epidemic of blindness. For long periods, the people in their seats were plunged into total darkness; but toward the end of the show, there were glimmers of light.

“It was bracingly familiar,” Dean Leslie, 58, said after the show. “One of the moments that really resonated with me is now — when I got back on the street.”

“It’s poetic,” he added. “It’s is something we’ve all lived. This is something we’ve shared now.” MATT STEVENS

April 2

“Make sure they’re practicing social distancing!” one security guard called to another as people descended into the Comedy Cellar’s dimly lit basement.

About 50 audience members — a crowd of mostly 20-somethings who were savvy enough to snap up tickets online — settled around their tables for the club’s first live show in over a year.

Outside, two 23-year-olds waited on the sidewalk hoping in through the waiting list; they had moved to New York City in the fall and had chosen to live together in the West Village because of the nearby music venues and comedy clubs, none of which they had been able to visit until Friday.

John Touhey, 27, who was lucky enough to snag tickets for this first show, said that his reason for coming was simple: “Just to feel something again.”

Down in the club, the show’s host, Jon Laster, hopped onstage with a triumphant yell, “Comedy Cellar, how you feelin’?” Some audience members had taken off their masks immediately when they reached their tables; others waited until their food and drinks arrived.

The pandemic was an inevitable theme of the night: It had dominated the lives of everyone in the room for the past year. Laster quizzed the mostly white crowd on where they had escaped to during the pandemic months (Kansas City, Mo., Savannah, Ga., Atlanta). As he introduced each comic onto the stage, he unplugged his mic, allowing the performers to insert their clean microphones, whose spherical tops had disposable covers that looked like miniature shower caps.

Only a third of the space’s capacity was allowed in, but the small crowd’s laughter filled the room. And the comedians talked to the audience members like they were old friends catching up after a year apart. 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 crowds; and Jackie Fabulous told stories about living with her mother again for the first time in 20 years.

Partway through her set, Fabulous paused and took a breath.

“I feel the adrenaline,” she said. “It’s finally calming down.” JULIA JACOBS

April 2

Toward the final third of a performance that had mixed ambient sound, classical cello, operatic vocals, pop music and more, Kelsey Lu emerged in a pink, floral costume and offered a proclamation: “Spring has sprung.”

The crowd of about 150 inside the Shed’s airy McCourt space chuckled. And when Lu’s performance was over, audience members did something they have not 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-outdoor venue, touts a cavernous size (17,000-square-feet) and a high-quality air filtration system. Attendees entered from doors that led directly into the space, and their temperatures were checked immediately. Digital programs were summoned on smartphones using a bar code on the arm of the seats, which were arranged in singles and pairs spaced roughly 12 feet from the stage, and six feet or more from one another.

Staff checked in the audience with tablets. Ticket holders were required to show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test; they scrolled through their phones to bring it up. Once cleared, they stepped into a timed-entry line: one for 7:40 p.m., and another for 10 minutes later.

“I’m an essential worker,” Roxxann Dobbs, a 37-year-old letter carrier, said as she waited to be let in. “I’ve been working this entire time, so it’s nice to be able to go out and have fun.”

Ian Plowman, her husband, added: “I feel like we’re on the edge of the next time in New York, the next period.”

Before and after the show, people caught the glances of old friends and stopped by their seats to chat. One woman congratulated another on getting a coronavirus vaccine. A person leaned over to a friend and remarked: “This is so nice!”

Alex Poots, the Shed’s artistic director and chief executive, said he got “quite emotional” as the evening came to a close and he thought about Lu’s description of a spring awakening.

“Very beautiful,” he said. “I missed this so much.” MATT STEVENS

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