Remember the sound of an audience’s applause reverberating indoors?
On a recent Saturday evening, which also happened to be the first day of spring, a few dozen audience members filed into the Guggenheim on Fifth Avenue. They took designated, socially distanced spots along Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiraling rotunda, overlooking the performance space. This evening, the museum would serve as a venue for one of the city’s first major indoor performances.
After the pandemic-induced performance drought of 2020-21, many of us would have gladly attended an amateur musical production entirely set to “Baby Shark” on repeat. Instead, Caleb Teicher & Company premiered a dance piece set to “Rhapsody in Blue,” Gershwin’s paean to New York City, with pianist Conrad Tao on keys. Developed over two weeks upstate, it was the first performance in the Guggenheim’s Works and Process season of newly commissioned works, several of which will have a life outside the museum in the coming weeks too.
It was, of course, the perfect choice.
At the outset, it was a shock to merely be looking at a dancer’s exposed, unmasked face, hearing their incidental vocalisms unmuffled by polypropylene. Moments later, when two dancers rushed into each other’s arms as if after a long separation, with Gershwin’s proud theme ringing out, one could sense mirror neurons firing and hearts leaping all over that singular room. The sight of such unimpeded physicality was wondrous and shockingly sad at once. The display of interacting, intertwining bodies will have a new, thrilling voltage for some time yet.
Teicher’s “Rhapsody in Blue” offered a sentimental glimpse into the city’s not-too-distant (one hopes) future, much of it through the eyes of a backpack-toting traveler, rushing in and gazing upward in wonder. (Of course, what the dancer was really gazing at was the museum’s heavenly skylight, which worked perfectly too.) Here, again, was the excitement of the city in full swing, from a packed subway car to a Broadway show. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine that a nightclub scene, in which dancers easily and excitedly picked and traded dancing partners, worked on a metaphorical level too.
In another year, the piece might have felt like a needless tautological pile-up—a tribute to New York, for an audience of New Yorkers, set to a piece of music about New York and staged in one of New York’s iconic buildings. Instead, in this place and time, it felt, well, essential—a piece about what the city lost and what it stands to reclaim. By the end, with the swelling upsurge of Gershwin’s climax, the intensity of Tao’s playing, and the kaleidoscope of bodily movement, it would have been difficult to think of a better gift for that crowd, and a stronger evocation of the city’s unkillable spirit.
And, thanks to the configuration of that dazzling building, the audience’s applause literally came from all angles. A hopeful sound to be immersed in indeed.