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AUDIENCE REVIEW: Overcoming Isolation-Anna Sokolow’s 1955 Rooms re-envisioned--Rooms2020

Overcoming Isolation-Anna Sokolow’s 1955 Rooms re-envisioned--Rooms2020

Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble

Performance Date:
Rooms2020 video released June 25, 2020 / Celebrating 65 Years of Sokolow’s Rooms: A Virtual Symposium December 5, 2020

Freeform Review:

Overcoming Isolation

Anna Sokolow’s 1955 Rooms re-envisioned---Rooms2020 

Rooms. In 2020, as coronavirus measures forced us to reduce our daily movements, the role of the room(s) we live in expanded, with one room potentially morphing from dining room to office space to elementary school to gym to movie theater and dairy queen, all within the course of one day. And as social distancing measures forced us to limit our daily contacts, the importance of our inner worlds grew, whether the thoughts in our head or the people and pets who shared our four walls.  

None of the pandemic-era dance performances I’ve seen have commented on this modern moment more aptly than Rooms2020, the virtual re-invention of Anna Sokolow’s Rooms. Ground-breaking and controversial when it was first performed in 1955, Sokolow’s Rooms depicted the loneliness and alienation of eight characters, psychologically isolated within the walls of their small, New York City apartments. Living in the grandest metropolis, surrounded by people, yet entirely alone.

Rooms2020, by necessity, ups the ante, and psychological isolation becomes physical as well. Last spring, 65 years after Rooms was first performed, the Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble had been preparing to present Rooms and Magritte, Magritte (1970) as part of their ‘Real/Surreal’ season, with Rooms representing the ‘real’. Little did the company know just how real it would be. When the pandemic hit, forcing dancers and directors to literally isolate within their own homes, the company’s three directors—artistic director Samantha Géracht and associate artistic directors Eleanor Bunker and Lauren Naslund—re-envisioned the piece as a video performance, continuing to rehearse the dancers from afar over Zoom and tasking them with recording themselves, dancing their parts, within their own rooms, with their own lighting, with their own costumes. From these recordings, Ms. Naslund edited a 45-minute video version of the piece, Rooms2020. (It premiered on June 25, and it was presented a second time in December as part of the company’s virtual symposium “Celebrating 65 Years of Sokolow’s Rooms”, which is where I recently saw it.)

The result is remarkable. If ever there was a modern dance piece made for the pandemic, it is Sokolow’s Rooms. (I’ve had the exquisite opportunity to feel parts of Rooms from the inside as well, in repertory workshops under Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble founder and director Jim May.)  

In Rooms2020, a video montage drops us into New York City, in what resembles an ode to the city—Overture. We’re carried through the streets of New York, skyward along hi-rises, clouds sweeping by, we’re flying over rooftops, gazing down at cars, past brownstone stoops, mirrored coop windows, public housing units, over treetops, water towers, antennae, streetlights, traffic lights, cross walks, pedestrians, masks!  Percussive frenzy, wailing brass, faster, louder, brighter!—until we stop. We rest in an empty room. From outdoor cacophony to indoor silence. And solitude.

Overture is followed by nine additional scenes, each homing in on a distinct room, or set of rooms, and depicting a distinct way of responding to isolation—Alone, Dreams, Escape, Going, Desire, Panic, Daydream, The End?, Alone. In Alone, we’re taken into eight now-familiar Zoom boxes. In each zoom-box-room, one character sits solitary on a chair, facing somewhere and nowhere, gazing at something and nothing. One sits in a room full of books, another in a mansard. One gazes out a large windowfront to the sky, another sits before a sea-blue wall, a tiny lamp whispering something at his ear. A cabinet of antique-looking glassware in one room, floor-to-ceiling draperies in another.

In Rooms2020, we have instant character-creation through place, light and dress. A kimono in a mansard, light streaming through slanted-roof windows—misaligned white-brushed floorboards (Greenpoint?). Business-casual in a modern hi-rise, staring at pale blue sky, a modern co-op to the side (Long Island City?). Darkness in a mature living room, with polished floorboards, ornate mirror and long drapes (Upstate?). Brightness in a young room, with futon, radiator and plant (Brooklyn?).

As they sit, Kenyon Hopkins’s jazz noir music sets in, now languid (trombone?) with heavy pauses, weighted down like the characters, who sit, slow to move. What for? Whereto? One of them looks up, as though listening for someone, then slumps back, disappointed. Another jumps up and reaches, for whom? She collapses. One pivots slowly, tilts, lays on her side. Then another. A new perspective? One looks under her chair, searching for what she does not find. One leans back, chest arching to the sky, straining, seeking, seeing; feet gliding front and back, front and back, fast and faster, running. In place. Some movement fragments all characters share, but they are rarely phrased to be together, like ships in the night passing one another by. They tumble to the ground and end seated once more, now alert, expecting, something.

The scenes that follow zoom in on one or multiple characters, each scene edited by Naslund from footage made by the dancers themselves, thereby revealing something about individuals behind these characters as well.

In Dreams, Sam Humphreys sits in a room full of books, before tumbling to the carpet, rolling back and forth, rocking to and frow, reaching up and out into a sunny, joyous park. The scene cuts multiple times between room and park, making for an enchanting portrayal of this character’s dreams. He spins cartwheels outdoors, before crawling across the carpet indoors, getting nowhere in the end.

In Escape, Erin Gottwald seems stuck in a life that isn’t hers. Or not the one she wanted. Sitting on a plush sofa, a chandelier at her side. Her reaches are timid at first, as though uncertain whether letting her body move is the proper thing to do, but as Hopkins’s score becomes more sensual so does the body. Hips swiveling back and forth, arms reaching to the sky, and head hanging back in abandon. She runs to the door. Is someone coming? Then returns to her revery, alone.   

In Going, Gottwald Brad Orego slides into base on a slick condo floor, pent up energy coming out as constant percussive movement. Fingers snipping, clapping, cheering; shoulders shrugging, bouncing, running, boxing. Dashing from room to kitchen to bathroom and back. In Panic, Luis Gabriel Zaragoza sits surrounded by small, framed images of people (family?) who are not there and in so doing is even more alone. He panics, jolts out the door, to the hallway, institutional-looking and devoid of personhood. He darts back in, pursued by nothingness, crashes to the floor. We see him from below at times, looking up beyond him into the above, where it feels as though ancestors from times long gone are watching.

Daydream takes us literally outside, following different characters through the streets of New York. We follow one from behind; then he stops and turns abruptly, masked, pursued by no one. 

While each scene focuses on a different mental state brought forth by isolation, certain elements emerge in many of them, suggesting commonality—people seated in chairs, feet shifting, skating, grating front and back, propelling them nowhere; torses slowly leaning back as their hearts yearn towards the sky; arms reaching down and out and up towards freedom above.

Watching Rooms2020 after ten months of varying degrees of lockdown, made me marvel once more at the myriad ways in which movement artists have continued to train, create, and perform—together in isolation, united in solitude. It made me marvel, also, not only at the solitude depicted in Rooms2020 (which is starkly real), but at the uniting nature of dance. For as these characters struggled in solitude, I couldn’t help but also see the individuals behind these characters, who, by creating Rooms2020 and sharing it with us, had in essence managed to overcome that isolation.



Rooms2020: https://sokolowtheatredance.org/video-rooms2020/

Celebrating 65 Years of Sokolow’s Rooms: A Virtual Symposium—Sokolow Theatre Dance Ensemble: https://sokolowtheatredance.org/12-5-celebrating-65-years-of-rooms/



Mary Staub

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