The dancer Chelsea Ainsworth stood before a small outdoor audience on Friday night, about to perform live for the first time in 25 weeks. Beneath her tap shoe-clad feet was a plywood stage that she and her husband, the visual artist Kyle Netzeband, had spent the past two days constructing by hand. The elevator in their East Village building was broken, so they had to lug materials up six flights of stairs. But that wasn’t going to stop them: They were determined to bring dance to a live audience, on the rooftop where the finished stage now stood.
“It’s time to put people in front of other people and really connect with one another, even if that means we’re six feet apart and wearing masks,” Ms. Ainsworth, 32, said in an interview earlier that evening. “That’s what we’re good at.” In just a few minutes, she would change into costume and begin welcoming guests — with an infrared thermometer, hand sanitizer, waiver forms and disinfected pens — to the first dance event of Arts on the Roof, a new performance series affording some of the few opportunities to watch live dance in New York this summer and fall.
Four years ago, Ms. Ainsworth and Mr. Netzeband, together with the singer Adrian Rosas, founded Arts on Site, a multidisciplinary arts center on St. Marks Place (in the same building that housed the once bustling, now permanently shuttered school Yoga to the People). Largely advertised through word of mouth, the space became home to frequent performance parties, during which audience members would crowd into one of the three studios, drinks in hand, around a small clearing for performers. (Since March, the parties have been held online twice a month.)
When the coronavirus pandemic brought in-person performance to a halt in New York, Ms. Ainsworth and Mr. Netzeband, who live in the Arts on Site building, migrated upstate, where they run a more rural arts residency and retreat center near New Paltz. While quarantining there with a group of artists, Ms. Ainsworth, a Juilliard School graduate, created a dance film with her friend and collaborator Jessica Smith. But she felt eager to get back in front of a live audience.
“I’m not trained to show my work on a screen, to reach through the screen,” she said. “I’m trained to perform on a stage.”
In looking for ways to safely present live dance, Ms. Ainsworth and Mr. Netzeband requested rooftop access from their landlord, thinking he would say no. “Normally it’s like, ‘Don’t ever go on the roof,’” Ms. Ainsworth said. But to her surprise, he agreed to their proposal for an outdoor performance series, provided they took certain precautions. They now have performances scheduled through September — a mix of music and dance — and permission to use the roof through November.
For the inaugural dance shows, Ms. Ainsworth chose the Bang Group, a percussive ensemble led by David Parker (with whom she has danced since 2010), and Dual Rivet, her collaborative duo with Ms. Smith. Mr. Parker, 61, whose troupe appeared on Friday in a serendipitous break between rain showers, hadn’t performed since January 2019 because of a knee replacement surgery, a hiatus that was supposed to have ended in April. He returned with a version of Merce Cunningham’s “50 Looks,” a collection of poses, mostly for the upper body, to which he added an undercurrent of tapping feet.
While the process of learning and adapting this solo kept him engaged through the isolation of spring and early summer, creating group dances remotely was more challenging.
“I realized I don’t like to make decisions in some sort of abstract mental space,” he said in an interview after the show, reflecting on “Sparkle Again,” a new piece he presented. “I like to be working things out with the dancers.” In tap shoes, point shoes and bare feet, the work’s cast of six follows a score by Pauline Kim Harris, written for shoes as rhythmic instruments. To create it, Mr. Parker met with the dancers in pairs, bringing the full group together for only two rehearsals.
While Dual Rivet, on Sunday, offered works full of daring physical contact — Ms. Smith and Ms. Ainsworth have been living together for five months, making them comfortable throwing, catching and climbing all over each other — the members of Bang Group didn’t touch. In their first moments onstage, several masked dancers stood silently in a circle and raised their arms, fingertips nearly meeting but not quite, an apt metaphor for the evening’s reconvening.