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Thursdays are for Dancing

One of the reasons to see “Is it Thursday Yet?,” the new collaboration between choreographers Sonya Tayeh and Jenn Freeman inspired by Freeman’s diagnosis with Autism Spectrum Disorder, has little to do with the show itself. “Is it Thursday” is part of the inaugural season at the Perelman Arts Center (known as PAC NYC), a new arts complex designed by the architect Joshua Ramus at the World Trade Center. It is a chance to check out the center’s interior spaces and get a sense of how it fits into the larger NY theater scene. Upcoming performances include a one man show by Laurence Fishburne and an opera about a Chinese-American soldier who was killed in Afghanistan. Next summer the Perelman will host a reimagined version of the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical “Cats,” seen through the lens of a dance style that developed in New York in the 1980s, called Ballroom. It seems that there will be something for everyone.

Performance

“Is it Thursday Yet?” by Jenn Freeman and Sonya Tayeh

Place

Perelman Performing Arts Center, New York, NY, December 12, 2023

Words

Marina Harss

Jenn Freeman in “Is it Thursday Yet?” by Freeman and Sonya Tayeh. Photograph by Matthew Murphy via PAC NYC

Arriving at the center occasions its own drama: walking from the subway, you pass by the exoskeleton of the Calatrava-designed Oculus transportation hub, gorgeously illuminated so that its ribs appear to slice across the night sky. For a moment, you feel you are in an urban Jurassic Park. A few steps on, you become aware of a large cubic structure glowing quietly, like a giant space-ship resting on its launching pad. This is the PAC, whose paper-thin marble exterior is partly translucent. A giant staircase takes you into the surprisingly intimate lobby of the vessel, small-ish for a building this size. It houses a restaurant and a tiny seating area. There is no grand internal staircase or balcony from which to look over the proceedings below. As you take the elevator up to your show, the operator informs you that the theatre spaces within can be configured in sixty different ways.

Once you enter the space in which “Is it Thursday Yet?” is being performed, however, the theater looks more or less like a typical black-box with stadium seating, though I trust the technological specifications are of the utmost sophistication. The theater’s intimacy and lack of obvious bells and whistles are well suited to Tayeh and Freeman’s piece, which is really a solo show for Freeman—with extraordinary participation by the composer-vocalist-musician Holland Andrews. The idea behind it is relatively simple: an exploration and visualization of Freeman’s experience of Autism Spectrum Disorder, for which she (she uses both the pronouns she and they) received a diagnosis at the age of 33. Tayeh has choreographed for television, as well as for pop stars like Miley Cyrus and for Broadway, and more recently for the Martha Graham company. Freeman is her associate and resident choreographer. 

What follows is a dance-theater piece of about an hour and a half, in which, with the help of Andrews’s electronically-enhanced vocalizations and clarinet melodies, various props and home movies, and spoken voiceover by Freeman’s diagnostician Dr. Kimberly Gilbert, Freeman conveys her experiences and sensations through movement. 

Jenn Freeman in “Is it Thursday Yet?” by Freeman and Sonya Tayeh. Photograph by Matthew Murphy via PAC NYC

Like a well-organized lecture, the piece is divided into sections, each with a different theme. As it opens, Freeman illustrates the confusion and panic of being in the world without knowing precisely how to react to the needs of the people around her. She looks at her hands, spins, breathes deeply, and stretches her limbs. Andrews chants, “what do you feel?” in loops of sound. Then comes the diagnosis, revealed in a projected page from Freeman’s medical file. Freeman emerges in a red jacket, looking vulnerable and overwhelmed. Subsequent sections of the work deal with the need to create detailed scripts to make sense of social situations, the compulsion to put things away in a precise order, repetitive actions, gender reversal, and the solace offered by nature. Here, Freeman rolls out a patch of green Astroturf and tumbles on it joyfully, finally released from her anxiety, while Andrews magically replicates birdsong. In a lovely whimsical touch, Freeman pulls on a rope, only to reveal three beautiful clouds made of what looks like paper.  (The often imaginative stage designs are by Rachel Hauck, who designed “Hadestown” on Broadway.)

The most touching and effective sections come just after this. In one, the doctor describes how Freeman’s grandmother taught her how to skip, using tissues to illustrate the rhythmic pulse and bounce required. Freeman stands under a lampshade, onto which videos of her grandmother hugging and encouraging her are projected. Then we learn the reasons for the show’s title. Apparently, in order to channel Freeman’s energies and the repetitious physical habits known as “stimming”, her parents put her in a dance class early on. The ritual of learning, repeating, and rehearsing movement was a kind of salve. Dance classes were on Thursdays.

This realization inspires the evening’s most effective dance, in which movements that suggest “stimming” behavior like walking on tiptoe or with flexed toes, locking joints, playing with fingers, biting the lip, become ingredients in a dance. Gradually, as if in a time-lapse video, these movements become increasingly stylized, evolving into more recognizable dance steps, until Freeman is spinning in attitude, stretching one leg out in a gorgeous and forceful arabesque, and moving her arms with control and power. Her movements are luscious, muscular, expansive. She is clearly an impressive dancer.

Jenn Freeman in “Is it Thursday Yet?” by Freeman and Sonya Tayeh. Photograph by Matthew Murphy via PAC NYC

But, though “Is it Thursday Yet?” tells a story of redemption through self-knowledge, it resists a neat redemption formula. Near the end, she climbs into a cabinet and, for the first time, speaks. Her words are captured by a video camera and projected onto a screen. In answer to a question regarding what the diagnosis has given her, she says, again looking vulnerable, that she has learned to love and accept herself, and that this has been a gift, a portal into a new life. Still, she’s sitting in a cabinet. Things are never easy.

Like the rest of the show, this moment of concealed self-revelation is deeply sincere, open-hearted. Earlier, when Freeman dances inside of an object that looks like a luminous cocoon, a projected text invites the audience to dance with her. At the show I attended, the audience rose as one and happily danced, accompanied by Andrews’s voice and the percussionist Price McGuffey. It was a moment of unaffected, unforced joy. 

Everything about the show exudes this kind of honesty and sincerity. And for that reason, it suffers from a kind of literalness and even a certain predictability. Freeman and Tayeh have taken a very serious and personal topic and skillfully developed it into an informative, moving, sometimes imaginative theatrical work, in which movement and dance become Freeman’s voice, the medium through which she expresses feelings and sensations. There is an inevitable didacticism to this approach that keeps the material very closely tethered to its subject. It feels, a little, like the introduction to something bigger, wilder, less orderly. 

Clearly, though, this is not what Freeman and Tayeh were going for. And, if one sees “Is it Thursday Yet?” as a piece whose main intention is the illumination of a condition that affects over five million people in the United States, then it certainly succeeds—it is both affecting and informative. 

Marina Harss


Marina Harss is a dance writer in New York, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, as well as to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review. She is the author of a book about the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, The Boy from Kyiv, published by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.

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