I’m standing where the loading dock meets the arena floor. I flick the back of my fingernails over and over across my itchy beard as I look to check the time. I want to scratch every bit of glue that smothers my skin. I take deeper breaths until the tingling subsides.
People from the crew, security and technical teams are swarming. At this intersection, hallways split in opposing directions. You can follow the signed posters like a trail map left by Whitney Houston, Frank Sinatra, Prince and other legends of the late 20th century.
I’m no stranger to backstage spaces — from the cafeteria stage of my grade school in Ohio to a 2,800 seat theater in Saudi Arabia. Circumstances change but the feeling of being backstage remains the same. It’s like we (performers) pass beyond an invisible threshold when we step through the curtains. With simultaneous coordination, the audience, performers, crew, lights and sound snap into place and the vibrancy of a live show lets loose. A transformation so exhilarating that people pay to participate. I stand in this cross way and imagine the legends that once stood here, too.
I need to ask for more tape to secure my vocal mic, but I can’t compete against the volume of the crowd. We have to turn phrases into signals with our eyes and hands. I look at the sound guy and point to my ear. When the tape is placed correctly I give him a thumbs up. He nods. Through my inner-ear piece, I hear the other performers and our conductress.
I’m Ali — a dancer and associate choreographer for this show. Truthfully, we’re elated we’ve made it to this moment. Within a week’s notice in November of 2019, we selected 40 performers, many of whom were just acquaintances on Day One. Hailing from different boroughs and niches of the performance industry, we prepared for 22 days straight in a windowless rehearsal studio in Astoria, Queens.
Now on December 31st, 2019 we reunite on 33rd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. Madison Square Garden. Just ten blocks south of Times Square. We breathe, stretch, hug and vocalize to organize our pre-show excitement. Our nerves are activating. The walls tremble and the ceiling pulses. Beneath us is Pennsylvania Station. And on the floors above us are 22,000 Phishheads (named the die-hard fans) dancing in their seats.
Livestream feeds around the world are coming online to watch the last set of this renowned four-day concert: Phish’s New Year’s Run at MSG.
When midnight turns, we’ll have just finished our first number and 10,000 balloons will be released from the ceiling. We’ll sing,
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne
It’s 11:40pm and Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Page McConnell and Jon Fishman — collectively Phish — walk down the loading dock and greet us in the crossway. The thrill spills into laughter as we stare at our kaleidoscope reflections. Trey is wearing the same kind of green jumpsuit as me and my bearded mustache is meant to match his natural facial hair. In recent years, Phish has hired a group to perform with them for their final set of the year. It’s always a surprise for the fans, as is the lifestyle and charm of being a Phishhead. This time however, they’ve committed to their biggest gag ever: 40 singing and dancing Phish look-a-likes. We are “TheGrit” led by choreographer, Jon Rua with music director, Carmel Dean.
Carmel gives the nod to Phish. With twelve minutes until midnight, we’re waved into action. It’s time for places.
If this is how we’re rolling into 2020, we say, it’s going to be an amazing year!
The lights dim and Phish take the stage. At center, they circle around a single microphone stand. A cappella, they sing to the tune of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” but they say, “Send in the Clones”. A clever hint to their big reveal.
The four band members are harnessed onto individual square platforms at the front of the stage and when the first drum kicks for the song “First Tube”, we go. We flood the stage in rows of blue, green, red and yellow — reflecting the suits of Paige, Trey, Jon and Mike. We multiply with grace and confidence as the music pulls us in files. As the Clones assemble, the band ascends. Their platforms make shapes in the air like a four part equalizer. They are controlled in real time, shifting diagonally, flat, up and down. The crowd sends waves of cheer through the loading dock and around the arena. In one ear I am connected to the band and in the other, the muffled sound of celebration.
The first few rows of the audience are so close that I can make eye contact. 360 degree visibility that at once is both intimate and vast. As an octopus’s brain is equally distributed through its body, a dancer’s nerve endings project focus. I send energy behind me through my back and to the balcony through my collar bones. From my peripheral vision I take in a person spilling beer as they bop around. Others sway to their own inner symphonies. I passively observe them knowing that they can’t really see me. I am one of 10 Trey Anastasio Clones; someone that to them is an irreplaceable beacon of life.
“10, 9, 8”… The stage feels like the eye of a tornado. We are purposeful and interconnected. Changing formations with precision and folding our flawless bodies to match Rua’s choreography to the intricate rhythms of Phish. Each step brings with it a new awareness. We make tear-filled eye contact as we count down “7, 6, 5”…
There are some experiences that words fall short to capture. A global lockdown. A crumbling democracy. A reckoning of morality and action. An ecosystem on the brink of rebirth and/or death — depending how you see it. Before we knew what 2020 would come to be, there was an exhilarating readiness to check off big life boxes. Mile markers. Quantifiable achievements that, once accomplished, will add value to our self-worth, our résumés, and arsenals of schmoozing repertoire.
“4, 3, 2”… We enter a new decade at the center of our universe. New York City. The entry point of modern day imagination, progress and possibility. The place my younger self couldn’t wait to call home. An explosion of balloons and streamers fall from the ceiling! The moment we’ve long anticipated arrives right on time, bringing with it a rush of adrenaline that pulls me back down to Earth. Myself and a few other chosen Clones have roughly 3 minutes to clear all of these balloons from the stage before our next number, “Sand”. I’ve been most anxious for this unrehearsed transition.
I’m running and laughing as nervous sweat drips from my wig cap. I whack giant balloons from the stage into the crowd. This feels familiar, like my 5th birthday party at Chuck-E-Cheese’s. I see people keep them airborne with the tips of their fingers and shout “Happy New Year”. The balloons are accumulating at a faster rate now, so I scurry to keep up. I send a red balloon to someone who makes eye contact with me from the third row. They volley it right back. N-N-N-Noooo! Keep it, this isn’t a game! I return it immediately. I shake my head “STOP” like when an action movie turns into slow motion before the train blows up. But it’s clear my signal failed when the guy volleys it back to me a second time. We’re having two very different experiences right now and I must press on.
I descend to the off-stage-right alcove where I continue corralling balloons. I must look like I’m drowning because the security team offers to help me. I quickly delegate my responsibilities as my gaze is taken to watching the concert. The band floats up and down like a magnified marionette show. As “Sand” fades, the Clones arrive in their final positions and the marionette-like cables extend so the platforms land on the stage. The lights shift to blue.
I peer out from under the alcove to see thousands of people. Casually shouting, sipping brews and repurposing streamers into scarves. No one seems alarmed. Balloons pop like gunshots and their echos distract me from knowing what’s happening. Why are we paused? The Clones haven’t moved.
Then I raise my eyes to realize Trey’s platform is dangling high above the others. Why is Trey not down? He’s really, really up there. Still no music plays. My stomach sinks a few inches lower. The crowd roars again, as if this were an intentional and dramatic pause.
Balloons fall like rain and I feel like I’m the one who’s stuck. I can’t do anything from here. One cable releases and causes the platform to slant. My breath is ripped out from my lungs. He quickly grips his guitar as gravity slices the air. It’s been 2 minutes and 30 seconds of utter silenc — POP! — goes another balloon. It feels like hours have passed. We’re stuck in the perpetual now moment, where two minutes feels like two years.
“Well I guess if I’m about to fall to my death, I might as well tell you all how much I love you. So much!” Trey says smiling.
On the drum kit below Fishman replies, “Don’t worry, death don’t hurt very long”. The Phishheads laugh, recognizing it as one of the band’s song titles. I don’t think it’s funny.
Thoughts of death pollute my mind and a sort of paralysis takes over. I watch someone climb a ladder high up into the rigs above the stage. More security technicians run around but nothing is actually happening from where I stand. The Clones haven’t moved. Trey’s platform swings ever so slightly. It holds two amps, a small TV monitor and a mic stand. He’s harnessed at the waist by a rope that attaches to the platform. My guts feel hollow and then I remember that his daughter and father are watching from the crowd; two very lovely people I conversed with earlier today.
In a matter of minutes, everything has changed. The image foreshadowing our future world hangs in midair. Disconnected from the events that create our familiar, everyday lives. The edge becomes every step you take in the confines of your studio apartment. The well worn path between your bedroom and kitchen. Connected to the cord of an electronic device for necessity and desperation. Scrolling for hope. Contemplating when you’ll have the courage to unplug from this unfavorable limbo. 2020 in summary.
At our first rehearsal in Astoria, they warned, “Be ready for the unexpected, that’s just the nature of a jam band”. Taking this advice with optimism, we prepared for the event of a longer guitar solo or a different song arrangement since Phish is commonly known to improvise and riff new versions of their own songs. But the automation was never a variable, so we didn’t plan for it. We didn’t have time to plan for it. We are learning at this very moment that anything is possible.
Looking at his band mates below, Trey adds, “At least this is gonna be one of the great rock n’ roll deaths that you’ll all be part of. Kinda always wanted to go out with a bang!” He offers laughter to a room full of people that adore him and have supported his 25+ year long career. However timid, laughter requires us to exhale.
Four more minutes pass with no information, no answers and no progress. Then, “Carmel?” Trey says. “I’m just gonna play it from up here. Fuck it. Just leave me up here”.
“2–3–4”… He counts in the next song of our set, “Drift While You’re Sleeping”. This song comes from “Ghosts of the Forest” an album that Trey wrote in the aftermath of tremendous loss. “Drift” begins with a slow tempo, setting a dreamy tone. Then a reggae instrumental break carries the song through to a gospel ending. These poignant lyrics pose as a powerful mantra. A precious dedication to grief and transformation.
We move through stormy weather
We know that our days are few
And we dream and we struggle together
And love will carry us through
An hour ago, we didn’t know this would be our reality. We were prepared only for what we’d expected. Now at this moment, we let our previous expectations dissolve and we communicate the changes as we go. Re-choreographing on the spot. (We’d planned for Trey to get unhooked during Mike Gordon’s bass solo in “You Enjoy Myself” and improvise a dance with his Clones. Since that was presently impossible, I lead the remaining 9 Trey Clones to copy my best interpretations of his infamous wiggles. What a pleasure!)
That’s the thing about dancers and movement; being intimately aware of your body allows for quick and expansive receptivity. Forty individual parts work together and adapt as a whole unit. Our limbs and voices are antennae. We attune to make a visual formation and a sonic pitch. Innate biotechnology responding to the ever changing moment, whether planned or otherwise. And Phish, they are the mothership of interconnectivity. Musicians impeccably tuned-in to their instruments with imaginations and courage to match. Their music and our movement together affect the audience that surrounds us. We play another 30 minutes into the morning of January 1, 2020 until the encore “Tweezer Reprise” bleeds into Trey’s “Rescue Squad”. Watch this. It’s proof that creativity is the only life jacket one needs to survive.
Recognizing all that we have previously done and seeing all that we possibly could do, twenty-twenty was the real threshold. The bridge between inner and outer life. One year ago, the world was different. If you’re reading this now, you’re our imagined future. You, too, have an innate physical intelligence that is connected to all living things. Tune in to the music that makes the ends of your lips turn upwards and the food that makes your mind clear and the people that support your true form. The space between us is filled in with our imaginations.
and now, again.
video: see what would’ve happened if The Rescue Squad hadn’t arrived
Marissa Palley Aron
Dan Castigliano (associate choreographer)
Melissa Rose Hirsch
Kelly Jean Hoagland
Jose Luis Lopez Jr
Alessandra Marconi (associate choreographer)
Mary Grace McNally
Brianna Mercado (associate choreographer)
Farley Free Rene
Amen Ra Valentine
Allan K. Washington
Jon Rua (The Grit)
Carmel Dean (director and arranger)
Matthew Dean Marsh (associate)
Jason Styres, CSA