Alive and Kicking

Eight ways the city that never sleeps is still thriving.
The pandemic has sparked innovation among entertainers, with many utilizing digital and hybrid media to share art. Photography: Kevin Lee

By Julia Szabo

The Show Must Go On

Without traditional stages to perform on, New York choreographers, dancers and theater stars are touching audiences via the digital platform—and loving it. Dancer-choreographer Lawrence Keigwin, founder of the acclaimed Keigwin+Company, says a telephone call from Juilliard School president Damian Woetzel brought “an opportunity in disguise” that led to the making of Bolero Juilliard, an uplifting Zoom-inspired ballet that celebrates “being a human and an artist in these uncertain times.”

With guest appearances by NYC culture superstars Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Bebe Neuwirth and Christine Baranski, among others, all moving to a sublimely jazzed (by Jon Batiste) version of Ravel’s immortal music, “it was my most invigorating creative experience in years,” Keigwin says. “One moment I was getting a call from Patti LuPone, and the next I was hopping on a Zoom with Laura Linney. Bolero Juilliard has had close to 700,000 hits on YouTube—and I’ve never had that.”

Keigwin predicts himself and his fellow dancer-choreographers embracing the digital platform with wild artistic abandon: “Nobody was leaning into the technology before the pandemic, and now I see the future as a hybrid of live theater and streaming theater, recorded and subscription theater that’s online. If you’re going to the Met Opera and there are 3,000 seats, there’s no reason that can’t be 13,000, with 3,000 live spectators plus 10,000 streaming in. This is an opportunity for the arts to increase our capacity beyond the walls of the theater. Access is sometimes a dirty word, but now it’s positive: We’re making the arts accessible to everybody, near and far.”

Wild at Heart

Speaking of dance, in the absence of iconic ballets Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, the pandemic has seen New Yorkers expressing greater-than-usual concern for wildlife, including real-life nutcrackers (squirrels) and graceful, white waterfowl, notably one famous swan named Bae, discovered with lead poisoning in Jamaica Bay and cared for at the Upper West Side’s Wild Bird Fund. Our city’s only wildlife rehabilitation resource—designated an essential service by both the city and the state—WBF reports a heartwarming surge in “New Yorkers being neighborly to their fellow wild New Yorkers,” says founder and veteran animal rescuer Rita McMahon, who’s been saving wildlife for 19 years. “People decided it was essential that they rescue the injured animals they’d found. There was an impulse to help wildlife greater than we’ve seen before.”

Wildlife is stealing thunder and hearts all over town: Rockefeller Center’s 2020 Christmas tree will forever be remembered as the temporary perch of a tiny, stowaway saw-whet owl named Rocky. Although Rocky the owl is not a WBF alum, the Fund has rescued literally dozens of her kind, including, memorably, a screech owl named Groucho, who now resides at The Bronx Zoo.

Can’t Stop the Music

Smalls was one of many jazz clubs forced to close during the pandemic—a fact that hit home with a famous fan of the West Village music venue, Billy Joel. In a beautiful gesture of harmonic camaraderie, the Piano Man’s foundation donated $25,000 to the SmallsLIVE Foundation for Jazz Art and Education, so we can expect hot syncopated sounds to be emanating from the club soon. Meanwhile, jazz saxophonist Steve Carrington, who has performed often at Smalls, was busy touring with Kool & the Gang up until the pandemic’s first wave; following that, he performed outdoors at various venues “until it got too cold,” he says. Now Carrington is gearing up for the February release of his new album, Friends R Family, featuring, among other treats, a turn by the saxophonist’s longtime friend and mentor, bandleader and composer Kenny Garrett. Until then, if you happen to be in the neighborhood of the Bronx Zoo and Botanical Garden at midday, keep walking until you reach the southern side of the Pelham Parkway, and you’ll hear the Jazz Healer practicing his sax—a beautiful noise indeed.,

Despite social distancing regulations, New York City feels more tight-knit than ever. Photography: Robert Bye

Food for Thought

New Yorkers like making noise for a good cause—remember “Clap Because We Care,” the evening ritual we faithfully observed during the height of the pandemic’s first wave? Now, it’s time to salute our restaurants with one simple gesture: ordering takeout meals directly from restaurants and refusing to patronize third-party delivery companies that take a large percentage of each order. Gratitude is the attitude of Eat.Bikky, a website designed to support the restaurant industry, and using the site is like saying grace for New York’s beleaguered food industry. “Put away the delivery app (seriously, delete it),” urges the site, which wants restaurateurs to know, “We owe you our daily sustenance, and hope this plays even a small part in helping you recover.”   

A Hunger for Expansion

While the pandemic has the majority of NYC food businesses struggling to keep from closing, two of them are feeling no pain, and each plans to open a new location. One is a sushi space reimagined as a vegan Valhalla; the other, a spot for decadent pizza. Beyond Sushi has sushi-holics hooked, and now brings its plant-based nori rolls and other delicacies to Chelsea. Upside Pizza serves savory pizzas for “a new-school take on an old-school slice joint.” (The popular Falcowitz features white wine-lemon cream sauce topped with fresh mozzarella and sauteed mushrooms, finished with fresh lemon zest, fresh parsley, cracked black pepper and Parmigiano Reggiano). Expect Upside soon at East 40th Street and Madison Avenue.,

For Art’s Sake

Spoiled by some of the world’s greatest art museums—many of which are now beginning to reopen, while also providing globally distant visitors with unprecedented digital access to their collections and curators’ insights—New Yorkers’ taste in fine art is definitely discerning. Reproduction, cookie-cutter “wall art” and posters from big-box stores don’t cut it here; we prefer to build our own collections of original artworks scored with typical New York savoir faire. This is especially evident with the pandemic focusing aesthetic city dwellers’ sights on interior design, and television interviews with stylish New Yorkers revealing killer collecting instincts. In the absence of the Affordable Art Fair (scheduled to return to the Metropolitan Pavilion in March 2021), select galleries are offering pop-up sales to satisfy our demand for fine, frame-worthy images. The Salmagundi Club—which bills itself as a center for American art since 1871—offers its Thumb Box Exhibition & Sale through January 2, 2021. More than 250 small and original works in all media, “priced to sell,” are exhibited in two galleries of the club’s splendid Fifth Avenue brownstone. It’s a rotating exhibition, meaning that with each work sold, another takes its place.

GrowNYC teaches New Yorkers valuable cultivation skills and serves those in need. Photo courtesy of GrowNYC

The Big Apple Grows

Here’s proof that our city is thriving down to its very roots: Not only are individual New Yorkers cultivating edible plants in indoor containers—even if their yield is nothing more than a bunch of fresh basil to sprinkle on pasta and pad Thai; we’re also home to a 1-acre Urban Farm on Governors Island, that pivoted from operating a Teaching Garden to planting for full-scale food production to help New York families in need. GrowNYC, which oversees the city’s greenmarkets as well as the Teaching Garden, saw a yield that topped 20,000 pounds of produce, including, says GrowNYC’s Shawn Connell, “an ungodly amount of strawberries, so many that we ran out of buckets to harvest them into and had to put the overflow berries in big trash bags.” The yield was donated to Chilis on Wheels and the Black Feminist Project, which received produce deliveries from the Teaching Garden. “We are adding additional bed capacity this winter,” Connell adds, “to increase our productivity next season.”

Comic Relief

Tiny Cupboard, a small event space in Bushwick, Brooklyn, is blessed with an impressively large rooftop—plenty big enough to accommodate audience members who safely social distance as they enjoy several “Comedy Experiences” a day, multiple days a week. Among the performers is Mad Love Comedy’s Malorie Bryant, who also presents performances by other comics. “The vibe is incredible, it happens right as the sun sets,” says Bryant. “It’s just magical…selfie heaven.” As the weather grows colder, owners Matt Rosenblum and Amy Wong help patrons stay warm by providing housemade hot chocolate (there’s no liquor license).