'Roof Piece' (Almost) in the Rain: A Narrowly Averted Dance Downpour

'Roof Piece,' 1971. Courtesy of the Trisha Brown Dance Company, photo by Babette Mangolte.
'Roof Piece,' 1971. Courtesy of the Trisha Brown Dance Company, photo by Babette Mangolte. Babette Mangolte, Courtesy of the Trisha Brown Dance Company

“I thought maybe they’d cancel it because it was 100 degrees,” Gale Albahae said while waiting for the commencement of Trisha Brown’s Roof Piece. She stood safely with her two friends under the southern end of the High Line as the sky darkened and rain began to pour.

“It’s really coming down,” her friend Maria said.

“Oh boy, yes it is,” chimed in a third friend, named Regina.

Finally, Gale again: “What a shame.”

But they would wait. Following an afternoon spent browsing galleries in Chelsea, the trio had arrived to see the improvisational show, which was first performed outdoors in 1971. Although the dance has been performed since—including a January show at MoMA—last night marked the first time it would be executed outside since 1973.

“We set Sunday aside as a rain day,” said Lauren Ross, curator and director of Arts Programs at Friends of the High Line. “But the company said they didn’t want to make the call until the last second.”

6:35: One raindrop.

Still, dancer Neal Beasley made his way up the stairs toward his stage along with another dancer, and a functionary from the dance company, one of the assistants assigned to each dancer. This assistant was equipped with a headset so that she could communicate with the dancers spread among the surrounding rooftops.

6:40: “Oh! It’s raining,” the functionary said.

“There we go!” Mr. Beasley laughed, then joking, “Let’s do the 10 minute performance!”

Spectators who had arrived early clustered in the park under the protection provided by the Standard Hotel, and on and under the stairs leading up to the park’s entrance. (Some of the hotel’s guests peered out the windows.)

“We think it’s going to pass,” said a hopeful viewer from the stairway hideout.

Meanwhile, Walkie-talkie Woman notified the dancers that a patch of clear air was coming; she’d been radioing with a person watching meteorological equipment. Sure enough, at 6:58, came the all-clear. So, wearing solid red clothing and grey Converses (traction!) they mounted their rooftops, which had been quickly mopped down with towels.

“It looks like it’s going to happen!” shouted a viewer, and the throngs moved up the stairs, grabbing programs from a High Line staff member passing them out.

Beginning with one dancer positioned at the southernmost building, they started to squirm, with each dancer mimicking the action of the dancer adjacent to him or her. Ms. Ross had called it “a visual game of telephone,” and we couldn’t disagree.

(All telephone games are imperfect, though: Mr. Beasley, the dancer, managed not to mimic when the dancer across from him pulled up, then rolled down his pants.)

The program advised audience members to wander during the show, and many did so. More or less everyone was preoccupied with the question of quantity—how many dancers were there? (The program said nine.) The question settled, or not, the crowd watched the distant arms swing, then chop, then point against the dark skies.

One family turned to change the baby’s diaper, lamenting aloud that they didn’t have a camera so that the scenic diaper-change could be included in child’s bar mitzvah video.

The dance had been proposed by Trisha Brown to the High Line about a year ago when the company began to schedule the celebration of its fortieth anniversary; Ms. Ross said the planning simply involved looking at what was available for performance space in the district, both in terms of good height and distance and permission from building owners.

“We just had to reassure them it would be safe,” she said. Hence, the towels.

The thirty minutes passed with all umbrellas down, and not a drop of rain.

“It’s actually way nicer to be doing it in cool, damp weather rather than 100 degree weather,” Nick Strafaccia, another dancer, said. “It was good. It was exciting.”

“I think it added to the ambience,” Mr. Beasley, the dancer, said, after his performance concluded. “This is how it was originally made!”

Before The Observer got to the A train, rain began to fall again.

efoxhall@observer.com 'Roof Piece' (Almost) in the Rain: A Narrowly Averted Dance Downpour