Anna Sokolow’s groundbreaking Rooms
premiered in 1955 as a wake-up call to the breakdown of wartime unity, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the 1952 polio epidemic and the second wave of the Red Scare following WWII. It depicted the isolation, loneliness and alienation of city dwellers in their cramped suffocating apartments, a stand-in for the pervasive angst of the nation. The Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble began rehearsing Rooms in pre-pandemic August 2019 to celebrate its 65th anniversary. It was slated to be performed live in April 2020 as part of a program entitled “Real+Surreal,” Sokolow’s 1970 Magritte, Magritte being the surreal half.
With the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, the three company heads—artistic director Samantha Geracht and associate artistic directors Eleanor Bunker and Lauren Naslund—changed direction and created a masterful full-length, 47:26-minute reimagined Rooms2020
, which premiered on June 25, 2020 on the Sokolow website. In some ways, the work feels even more authentic, given that the eight dancers, located around the U.S., were truly isolated from one another while performing the reality that Sokolow originally envisioned.
“We were six weeks away from the performance when rehearsals stopped,” said Naslund during the post-performance talk back, where viewers typed in their questions. “The dancers had already immersed themselves in their roles. But there was now a shift in everyone’s perception.”
Bunker added that the new process was long but exciting and included many hours meeting with each dancer. “We started with their ideas,” she said. “They shot themselves, and we looked at it. They were amazing to work with and willing to try different things.”
The three directors rehearsed the dancers and directed the camera angles over Zoom, but the responsibility of recording the video fell on the dancers themselves. They had to restage, light, record and choose their costumes from their own wardrobe. “Very little was just one take or angle,” said Bunker. “It was really creative. They knew what they had access to. We walked through everyone’s apartment with a camera and chose angles. They came up with ideas and we gave them ideas, too.” Rooms2020
was divided into ten separate sections, with the dancers “coming together,” that is, performing in eight separate frames, in a few sections. A lot of the dancers admitted it was very difficult to do the work alone. “It was isolating,” said Naslund, who directed and edited the video and controlled the POV. “They liked the rehearsal part but not the recording of it. Not having audience feedback was very hard for them.”
One felt like a voyeur, peering into the dancers’ psyches and spaces, each so uniquely furnished, as they danced to Kenyon Hopkins’s brilliant jazz score, which changed rhythms and moods for each section. The dancers all began on identical chairs in different positions: slumping, lying prone or supine, moving their legs as if splashing water at the edge of a pool, falling to the floor. Some used the chair during their solos, but all ended the piece back on those chairs.
The dancers used their décor: rugs and floors to slide on or roll across, armchairs to feel and slump on, furniture to navigate. Some solos took place briefly outdoors: the freedom of grass and sunshine; a dancer wearing a face mask walking along railroad tracks in the light, which turned dark; a wide shot of tall buildings but no people, segueing to a male dancer as he slid on his shiny wooden floor, later engaging other body parts as he grooved to the beat. A trio executed some contrasting slow movements. A sextet had sultry music to work with and a fade into a wonderful blurred overlay of bodies, so it seemed like two people were on top of each other.
Luis Gabriel Zaragoza’s “Panic” was especially affecting and powerful. “It took him a lot of time, and he recorded himself in sections,” said Naslund. He found himself in his nightmarish hallway, a long, narrow shot in grey tones. He runs back to his room, pedals with his legs, butt on the chair. He’s back in the hall, then in his room. There’s a close-up of his wild flying hair standing up, his face mirroring fear and confusion. He shakes his head, twists on the floor. He takes refuge under his desk.Rooms
is a remarkable work, which stands the test of time, with or without a pandemic. But it’s especially relevant in today’s current state of anxiety, frustration and uncertainty. Rooms2020
is available to view at sokolowtheatredance.org
Photo © & courtesy of Photographer Unknown
Anna Sokolow’s 1955 "Rooms".
Photo © & courtesy of Hans Van Den Busken