New York City is among the best places in the world to party. As its nightlife industry is plagued by a pandemic, photographer Gaia Squarci reflects on the alternative ways New Yorkers found to still explore the freedom that only dance can offer.
Music blasts from half-closed rolling shutters in an industrial area of Greenpoint. Acid green, yellow and orange lights flush the interior, coloring a number of whirling limbs. On the opposite side of the street my friends Ben and Aurelie arrive in a 1990s white Cadillac, the faithful, legendary vehicle of many nights spent roaming alien and familiar streets.
I lower my head to get into the space for the inauguration of Porter Studio, whose big limbo for photography and video quickly turns, through my lens and others, into a set for studio photos with a punk twist.
Later in the night a smaller group moves to the loft that Mihalis, a Greek journalist working for the UN, has turned into a home. Originally a dilapidated lumber warehouse, later a painters’ studio, the premises was restructured by Mihalis over twelve years and recently-inaugurated as Old Garage Gallery, a live-in exhibition space. The music shifts from the soft notes of Zelia Barbosa’s Funeral do Lavrador, to Abdel Kader, to a delirious piece of Ukrainian electro-folk.
The work hard play hard, DYI, grungy yet cultivated spirit of New York shines again in this early summer night. The city has recently announced that it vaccinated more than 70% of its residents against Covid-19, and the numbers are low compared to the resurgence of cases later in the summer.
I look at the faces and bodies that swing around me. My friends and I danced together so many times that I recognize most of their moves, their moods, their need to release everything they hold inside till they’re physically exhausted, and happy again. “We flow”, I tell myself, thinking of how profoundly different and slightly crazy we all are, and how much respect we have for each other’s idiosyncrasies, how quickly we notice someone’s need for space.
Many portray New York as a cruel city, exclusively populated by business-hungry professionals, where it’s impossible to make friends who are not interested, flaky and self-obsessed. In my experience, New York is a place where it’s simply impossible to survive without friends. This has been true especially lately, as it would be in any moment of crisis, uncertainty and change. Small gatherings like the one I described, surrounded by people that I chose and I trust, have become vital to keep my mental health in line.
Last year, when meeting people wasn’t possible at all, music has been my companion to fight the darkest moments of the lockdown. Whenever I discovered a new song I played it on repeat, sometimes for days at a time, till its rhythm became mine as well, familiar, comforting. Leifur James, Black Pumas, Stavroz, Feathered Sun are authors I now associate directly with those months when I often had to turn the volume up, alone in the living room, to dull my senses and cover the scream of the hundreds of ambulances haunting the streets, day and night. In fact, I caught myself thinking more than once during those months of solitude, without music we would all be dead.
A year later, last spring, I lived a few months with my friend Julien at his apartment. An impeccable photography printer by profession, Julien played the piano almost every day after coming back from work. He was hungry for new challenges, recorded on songs and learnt to play new instruments. On Fridays afternoons a couple of other friends often joined in to sing French melodies, then he and I would drag each other out for the night.
Spring has been colder than usual this year. On a Saturday afternoon, getting late for a shoot in the far north of Manhattan, I had to wait at home watching a killer electric thunderstorm fall over Prospect Park. When the rain calmed down and I finally managed to walk out I found the street blocked by a huge fallen tree, which had completely crushed a parked car. Summer had come, in perfect Brooklyn style.
A couple weeks later a New York Times assignment brought me to Trans-Pecos, a music venue in Queens owned by deejay Matt FX, who was throwing a party for the release of his new album A Love Beginning. The crowd was young, gender-fluid and explosive in its unshakeable good energy. Matt FX played sets with other two musicians, Melika and Granata. For the latter, that night marked his first show since before the pandemic. “This is my first performance in two years. I’m so stressed out that I’m not drinking until I perform. The lockdown really shook me. I love to be around people, that’s where I take most of my inspiration.”
The visions of that evening still fill my eyes. Most patrons were in their early 20s, about 10 years younger than me. Observing them shape the night’s energy was precious, and gave me hope. They were genuine and grateful, enthusiastic but thoughtful. The ladies glowed of their own beauty, not to please anyone else. Heels at home locked in a closet, because in New York we walk the subway, and dance till we have anything left to give.
The dance floor was a small one, but for the first time in a while I found myself dancing among strangers, and this was enough to bring back to my senses the long-gone, chaotic feeling of tens, hundreds of bodies moving as one, trespassed by the music. Dancing late at night, when the rational self gets lost in a sea of eyes, skin, sweat, smell and sound waves, would obviously be a critical situation for the spread of a pandemic. What I miss the most is the sense of freedom I used to find in the collective drive of a crowd. I miss being able to move side by side with people without the need to know their values, exchanging beats, glances, complicity, and not a single word.
A similar kind of longing was expressed in a short video piece called Strasbourg 1518, directed by British filmmaker Jonathan Glazer. A dancer moves alone in a bare room, her movements propelled by a spectral force. Wet hair spray water on the floor, the head hits the walls. Cut to another person, and then a third, a fourth, a fifth one. Different rooms, ages, genders, rhythms. What equates them is their loneliness, and the eerie madness of their drive. Paul Watt’s prodigious editing cuts between movements so that they start to create, separate yet together, a frighteningly beautiful, unmistakably sick but liberating choreography.
The video refers to our recent confinement, but it was inspired by a real life event far back in the centuries, a dance epidemic that spread in the streets of Strasbourg during the Holy Roman Empire. A single woman started dancing uncontrollably in the city streets and many others, ranging from 50 to 400 people according to sources of the time, joined her for days, infected by the dancing plague. Some believe the mania might have been triggered by a psychoactive fungus grown on grains, others opt for a stress-induced collective psychosis caused by the starvation and disease present in the region at the time. In case Covid-19 ends up confining us to a new wave of solitude, I’ve been trying to imagine this happening again today.
By Gaia Squarci
Gaia Squarci is a photographer and videographer who divides her time between Milan and New York, where she teaches multimedia at ICP (International Center of Photography). She's a contributor of Prospekt agency and Reuters. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Time Magazine, Vogue, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, among others.
To learn more about Gaia Squarci, visit her website.