When it premiered 40 years ago, Trisha Brown’s Roof Piece was one of those simple yet radical dance ideas that came out of the ’60s. One of those why-hasn’t-someone-done-this-before notions. It was a children’s game, really, a session of Telephone played with movement instead of whispered words. The rooftops of Soho were the gritty playground. Brown improvised a movement, which another dancer on another building mimicked, and so on down the line through 12 dancers. After 15 minutes, the current switched direction. Fifteen more minutes and it was over.
As in Telephone, the idea was that the impulse wouldn’t—couldn’t—be reproduced exactly. Noise would enter the signal; bodies and distance would alter the message. That was the experiment. But because it was conducted publicly—or semi-publicly, up in the city’s aeries—there was also the possibility that bystanders would be surprised. What is that person doing? Wait, there’s another one.
The reprisal of Roof Piece at the High Line Thursday evening (to be repeated today and twice on Saturday), drew a sizeable crowd, despite the thunderstorms that flanked the performance. Trisha Brown is an icon now, and this is an iconic piece, not attempted outdoors since 1973. (The company staged a spiraling variation in MOMA’s atrium earlier this year.) The atmosphere in Chelsea was of a gallery opening, minus the wine and the walls.
Up on the elevated railway turned urban park, the initial fun is to play Find the Dancers, nine Waldos colored red to stand out. Their positions begin higher than the High Line, on a building behind it, then string along the structures on one side of it, cross over, double back along the other side, and finally curl underneath. Since no vantage point provides a view of all the dancers at once, locating them takes some walking, some peeking over ledges and through foliage. One dancer in the middle is perfectly framed in a hole cut out of a concrete pillar. Discovering him there, or his colleagues below, is a nice little surprise.
It’s also a great photo-op. Roof Piece is famous above all as a photograph: a defining image of the downtown art scene of the mythic ’70s. One of the many differences between that Roof Piece and this one has to be the number of photographers—not just the professionals, but everyone with a phone (i.e., everyone). The compositions are indeed lovely: that guy in the hole, the silhouettes against the sky. Ambling along, you encounter them from different angles and distances. You try to track a move, catch it eroding, time its passage. You eavesdrop on your fellow flaneurs. “Are they Communists?” (Much Trish Brown-ian motion does resemble Tai-Chi, though Red China Maoists might look askance on such freedom in the hips.) “Pretentious drivel.” (Or was that “drizzle”?)
It makes for a pleasant stroll. But I couldn’t help but wish I had come upon it by accident, that I had never heard of Roof Piece. At the same, I wished it were all in black and white, as in the famous photograph, the dancers (actually in red back then, too) blending in to their urban habitat, joining other shapes in the skyline like the water towers. We can’t retrieve that innocence, though. It isn’t even available to those of us who weren’t born yet in 1971. Someone has done Roof Piece before, and it no longer has the power to astonish. Not one of the hundreds of photographs taken will be iconic. The dance’s effect at the High Line is part redundant, part reinforcing: an invitation to pay attention to Manhattan and how it’s changed and how it hasn’t. Does every city have those funny water towers squatting on every roof?