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Running Live Dance Drills at the Armory

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A few days ago, I attended the premiere of an hourlong dance performance. In New York City. Indoors. With more than 100 other people.

Let me rephrase that. A few days ago, 98 volunteers, including me — all pretested for Covid-19, all masked, all following strict rules of social distancing — played the role of audience members for an indoor filming of an hourlong dance performance.

The Park Avenue Armory, where the filming took place, is part of a coalition of theaters that are lobbying New York State for special permission to present ticketed performances to reduced capacity, socially distanced audiences. Because of their open spaces and flexible designs, these theaters argue that they can safely return to business now or soon, before standard theaters do. At present, though, only rehearsals, gallery exhibitions and film shoots are allowed.

ImageDancing inside the lines: Ms. Opong in “Afterwardness.”
Credit…Sasha Arutyunova for The New York Times

So, officially, I was a participant in a filming. And while the Armory intends to broadcast the results, some day, in a yet-to-be-determined way, the filming was a bit of a fig leaf. The other volunteers and I weren’t merely pretending to be audience members at a live performance. The experience was real, a feast after famine — and a taste of what going to the theater in New York could be like in coming months.

Since August, the Armory has been the site of rehearsals and workshops, as several artists experiment with the building’s most distinct feature, its barrel-roofed Drill Hall. The room is like an airplane hanger, with 40,000 square feet of open space to spread out in and an enormous volume of air circulating above.

How to take advantage of such a space? What kind of performance suits it and the moment? What do audiences want now? How to make them feel safe?

Different projects have come up with very different answers to those questions. The one being filmed that day was “Afterwardness,” a new work by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company. The next closest to being ready is “Social!” — billed as “the social distance dance club” — which is not a performance but an experience featuring the voice and spirit of David Byrne.

Credit…Sasha Arutyunova for The New York Times
Credit…Sasha Arutyunova for The New York Times

At “Afterwardness,” you sit in a chair at least 11 feet away from any other viewer. Nine dancers, young and beautiful even with their faces partially obscured by masks, move all around you — in an empty center space and in wide, tape-demarcated lanes between the chairs. They are far away in the distance or as close as six feet. They don’t touch each other, not even when the choreography calls on them to do the patty-cake.

The music is live and largely elegiac, the dancing virtuosic and mostly abstract though flecked with gestures of vulnerability, pain and anger. From the start — through a journal-entry audio installation before you enter the Drill Hall — you confront the traumas of recent months: the pandemic, the protests. Throughout, voices periodically intone calendar dates in chronological order, starting with March.

In “Social!” — at least as experienced during a late-September workshop — instead of a chair, you have a circle on the floor, six feet in diameter, just for you. The music is a 55-minute D.J. set, a flow of dance tracks designed to be irresistible. There are no dancers, though. Or rather the dancers are you and another 100 or so masked people in their own individual circles, responding to movement suggestions from the recorded voice of Mr. Byrne.

Credit…Stephanie Berger, via Park Avenue Armory

And while Mr. Byrne’s instructions acknowledge the current situation and the strangeness of being inside with so many other people, the dominant tone is of reassurance and permission giving. It’s an invitation to let go, to find your groove, to move together with strangers and see how that feels.

Rebecca Robertson, the Armory’s president and executive director, said she hoped that both “Social!” and “Afterwardness” could open this year, perhaps as soon as November.

These projects, though, are “a march into the unknown,” Ms. Robertson said. “We could fall off a cliff, but going forward is better than sitting around with your hands in your mouth and no artists working and nothing to tell your donors. When I go into that room and see artists at full tilt, it makes me cry.”

Credit…Sasha Arutyunova for The New York Times
Credit…Sasha Arutyunova for The New York Times

Before the pandemic, Bill T. Jones had a show in mind for the Armory, but “Afterwardness” was not it. “Deep Blue Sea” — a big work for a big space, featuring 100 performers and lots of physical contact — was scheduled to premiere there on April 14.

When rehearsals were shut down, Mr. Jones was stunned. “I couldn’t believe it would go on for longer than a month or two,” he said in an interview. “But then the Armory told us they were going to have to postpone longer, and I thought, ‘There goes another gig.’”

“I was despairing, actually,” he continued. “I was thinking, ‘Is this the end of the company?’”

Janet Wong, the company’s associate artistic director, insisted on weekly virtual company meetings. She gave the isolated dancers an assignment to learn bits of old repertory from archival videos. And when the Armory invited Mr. Jones to create a new, socially distanced production, these choreographic fragments became the basis for that work.

Credit…Sasha Arutyunova for The New York Times

Rehearsals at the Armory began in mid-August, the first time in months that Mr. Jones had seen his dancers in person. “They were free,” he said, “and it was profound, and I thought, ‘This is what we do.’”

Still, when he learned exactly what the Armory meant by “socially distanced,” he was skeptical: “‘This is going to kill the theatrical experience,’ I thought.” Yet with every day of rehearsal, he became more convinced that it could work, he said — that intimacy was possible in the vast space, even with all the rules. He quoted Stravinsky: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself.”

The project’s music director, Pauline Kim Harris, created a score with the composer and vocalist Holland Andrews. It includes the folk song “Another Man Done Gone” and ethereal and cacophonous passages from Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” written and first performed in a World War II prisoner-of-war camp. Sounds of protest fade in and out. Ms. Kim Harris, on violin, plays her own “8:46,” a homage to George Floyd that sounds like a slow suffocation over that many minutes and seconds.

Credit…Sasha Arutyunova for The New York Times
Credit…Sasha Arutyunova for The New York Times

But the most potent sounds might be the calendar dates, steadily advancing. “Afterwardness” is a psychoanalytic term for a belated understanding of trauma. Mr. Jones intends it ironically. “We would like to believe that we’re putting this behind us, that we’ve earned the truth that comes with distance,” he said. “But it is not behind us. We’re going to have to behave as if we are in a state that is never going to end.”

Before the pandemic, when the scenic designer Christine Jones became an artist in residence at the Armory, she was already imagining using the Drill Hall for a communal dance event. She discussed the idea with another artist in residence, the choreographer Steven Hoggett.

Later, in the lockdown of March and April, as all of her other projects disappeared, she thought about it more. “We were hearing ‘social distance’ so much,” she recalled in an interview. “But ‘social’ is also a word for a dance party, and it occurred to me that social dancing is the antidote to social distancing.”

Credit…Stephanie Berger, via Park Avenue Armory

As Ms. Jones and Mr. Hoggett conceived the event, it would build to a moment of unison, with all the participants doing a simple bit of choreography they had learned from a video before arriving. And Mr. Hoggett knew who should do the demonstrating: Mr. Byrne.

“David is so in his body, and yet every rule of dance is crushed by him,” Mr. Hoggett said. Or, as Mr. Byrne put it: “You see a white guy of a certain age dancing around fearlessly and you don’t have to be intimidated. If I can do this, you can do this.”

At the Armory, Mr. Byrne would not appear in person or on video. He would draw too much of the participants’ focus. But the sense of permission comes through his voice, giving friendly prompts like a philosophical Zumba instructor, reminding New Yorkers how they used to move. Again and again, he tells you not to worry.

In its sincerity and hope and vision of civic engagement as a dance party, “Social!” shares an ethos with “American Utopia,” Mr. Byrne’s recent Broadway show (and the Spike Lee film of it now streaming on HBO).

“That is where I’m at,” Mr. Byrne said, “finding a way to be engaged with the wider world and have it be joyous. This seems to be a way to do that.”

During the September workshops, the three collaborators fine-tuned the playlist and script with volunteers who had been tested for Covid-19. What they learned above all is that people, of many ages and backgrounds, are ready for this. One participant, in tears, said, “This is what dance clubs should always be like.”

The New Drill

Credit…Sasha Arutyunova for The New York Times

Mr. Byrne said that his “touring brain” envisioned franchises: “Social!” in Seattle, Chicago, London. The Armory is the best chance, though, and it remains a maybe.

In the meantime, the filming of “Afterwardness” did happen, like a phase in a clinical trial. When the dancers were finished, they each thanked the audience for coming, and that taken-for-granted exchange was moving.

But it wasn’t the end, as we might have assumed in pre-pandemic days. The audience still had to be shepherded out of the building, one by one, like well-behaved children in a fire drill. That’s the kind of choreography that will be most crucial if such events are to become regular again.

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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