Get Closer: thoughts on activating the audience in live performance

Dance Theater Workshop presented Yanira Castro/a canary torsi at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens last week in her beautiful and mysterious Paradis. The first site-specific dance project in the Garden’s 100-year history, Paradis made poetic use of the acclaimed Cherry Esplanade for an edenic nocturnal visit.

Peggy Cheng in "Paradis" Photo by Charles Houghton

It began with a group of dancers (in angelic white tunics and tennis shoes) slowly approaching from across a great expanse and ended with giddy audience members singing as they strolled back through the darkened garden, after being treated to luscious counter-balanced couplings. Inspired by the final section of Jean-Luc Godard’s 2004 film, Notre Musique, (the film’s final scene shares the same name as this performance work’s title and several key images), Paradis continues Castro’s examination of the boundaries of performance, as well as those between participant and observer. However, unlike the installations for Center of Sleep and Wilderness, not to mention the highly intimate bathroom performances Dark Horse/Black Forest, Paradis allows the epic natural grandeur of the Botanical Garden’s Esplanade to provide the audience with plenty of breathing room. The interactions with the dancers, who danced among us common folk, were fleeting and gentle, and the management of group (audience) movement was specifically crafted while sharing a kind of organic, spring-outing sense of wanderlust and after-hours mischief.

Castro mentions Philip Auslander’s book Liveness in her program notes (received after the performance) stating that his description of a generation coming of age “where live experience of any kind is undesirable and actually distressing” was exhilarating for her. As she writes:

Performance is distressing. Even it its most “traditional forms, people come together to experience a ritual that may or not play by the current cultural “rules”: whether you will have seat, whether there is space between you and the performer, whether you have to stand up, are asked to do something, suspend disbelief, throw a tomato, clap. You don’t know what will happen. The performers don’t really know either. This is the space ripe with tension: You (the audience) are here. We (the performers) are here. “Unnervingly organic.”

Paradis frames distance: intimacy. I am standing next to you. I don’t know you. I recognize myself. You are distant.

Peggy Cheng, Luke Miller, and Shayla Vie Jenkins Photo by Yi-Chun Wu

I include Castro’s notes because I think that what she is/has been playing with, and what Dean Moss recently offered so eloquently in his Nameless forest, at The Kitchen a couple weeks ago, reveal some of the key investigations for our form at this moment in history. This question of the audience vs performer isn’t new, but feels ripe again lately (and by lately, I do mean in the last several years). I recently included Auslander in my “Ruminations on the Body Madness Platform at Danspace Project” because that Platform also offered several examples of what is alive right now in Live art. But, the calculated chaos of that Madness, the calm arrangement of Castro’s work, and the considered sophistication of Moss’s works reveal how wide the field’s reach is in considering what the nature of live performance is today. There are many examples of how the resistance against familiar notions of concert dance are being used to unsettle some audience members by separating the work apart from the generally harmless spectacle that dance often offers while physically bridging the gap between viewer and participant. As some audience members become unsettled and agitated, the informality, closeness and disruption can increase the potential for sympathetic alignment with the dancers, or as in the case of Miguel Gutierrez’s DEEP Aerobics (part of the Body Madness platform) become part of the huge writhing mass that following a single guru’s guidance. In that work resides an actual, physical, sweaty, experience. In Moss’s Nameless forest several selected audience members become actively engaged in the works unfolding; they don’t necessarily change the direction of the work and are moved and placed by the company, but their presence becomes essential to the remaining (seated) audience’s experience of the work, and our witnessing of their experience becomes essential to our enjoyment of it as well. There is a sympathetic alignment that allows them to serve as our avatars in a very precarious, exploded landscape. That there are no bows at the end of these works speaks to how the artists are thinking about the value of internal process for the active participants over the produced effect, or resulting approval. They become part of a shared experience, and we sympathetically do as well.

Auslander challenges this notion of live performance’s value as one of shared experience as flawed. For him, live performance does not create community because “performance is founded on difference, on separation and fragmentation, not unity.” That while it “places us in the living presence of the performers, other human beings with whom we desire unity and can imagine achieving it, because they are there, in front of us,” our desire will inevitably be frustrated by the impenetrable breach between performer and spectator that live performance reinforces.

Castro and Moss both lengthen their reach into that breach by requiring audience members inside their work, especially Moss for whom substantial portions of his work would not exist without those from the audience who joined the dancers on the stage. For Castro however, the audience, though noted to have influenced the resulting piano score, played live by Michael Dauphinais, seemed no more integral to the work itself beyond providing it with witnesses, albeit very closely situated witnesses. I don’t fault her the intention for a deeper engagement, and found the site-specific nature of the work itself provided the audience with its corporeal experience, very different from the stasis of the theater, but the level of interactivity she seems in search of is hard to reach when several other agendas that require, primarily, passive viewership hold sway.

The Viewer completes the work of art. – Marcel Duchamp

Artist and scholar Ann Cooper Albright treats the contagious, visceral nature of watching dance as evidence for the argument that dance viewer-ship is an experiential process that elicits the sympathetic, physical response I mention above: “Perceiving dance means more than a flat visual gaze, it also means attending to kinesthetic, aural, somatic, and spatial sensations.” She draws from America’s first dance critic John Martin’s concept of “metakinesis”—wherein movement is the medium for transference of an aesthetic and emotional concept from the unconscious of one individual to that of another.” I could argue that metakinesis makes any dance viewing situation an interactive one and especially in Paradis, where our senses are being fed by the open air, the distant sounds of the city, the closer sounds of an amplified grand piano sitting among the cherry trees, the dancer who passes you in close proximity and looks directly in your eyes, etc.  In some way, there has been a transformative relationship, but this form of interaction is merely a mental act on my part.

Again, our presence did not necessarily change the direction of the work.  In his online 2003 essay “Dance and Interactivity,” Johannes Birringer defines interaction “as a spatial and architectural concept for performance”–wherein the emphasis gets transferred away from the dancer’s somatic awareness to their increased level of responsiveness to a shifting landscape. True responsiveness to a shifting landscape seems to beg for stronger improvisational foundation. These are not works that are truly ‘different each night based on the audience,’ they are not the kind of collective creations that Julian Beck and Judith Malina championed in their own version of paradise in the 60s. The Living Theatre’s Paradise Now, a  semi-improvisational theater work dependent on activating the audience that would run several hours beginning with “The Rite of Guerrilla Theatre” (with actors approaching the audience and speaking directly to them while building to a pitching scream with the phrases: “I am not allowed to travel without a passport”; “I don’t know how to stop the wars”; “You can’t live without money”; “I’m not allowed to smoke marijuana”; “I am not allowed to take my clothes off”) moving through “The Rite of Universal Intercourse” and ending in “The Rite of I and Thou,” with actors carrying audience to the streets in search of Paradise reciting, “The theatre is in the street. The street belongs to the people. Free the theatre. Free the street. Begin.” And then, generally, being promptly arrested for indecent exposure.

For Julian Beck, collective creation was a political act. It was “the secret weapon of the people…This play is a voyage from the many to the one and from the one to the many. It’s a spiritual voyage and a political voyage, a voyage for the actors and the spectators. The play is a vertical ascent toward permanent revolution, leading to revolutionary action here and now. The revolution of which the play speaks is the beautiful, non-violent, anarchist revolution. The purpose of the play is to lead to a state of being in which non-violent revolutionary action is possible.”

Clearly, that was then. A reach for interactivity and engagement of the audience with the purpose of activating political consciousness and tearing apart the structures of traditional theater was alive and vital. Gutierrez’s “Death Electric Emo Protest Aerobics” could be the Living Theatre of today (because unfortunately, the Living Theatre are not), but within the safer, contemporary confines of live performance. It activates the entire audience (unless you prefer to lurk at the wall) into behavior that is rigorous, ridiculous and repetitive, while asking you to consider some of the global disgraces and tragedies you are willingly complicit in. Many of today’s activations of the audience are fed less by the political and artistic urgencies of the past, and executed more as an aesthetic and intellectual tool. Moss and Castro have engaged interactivity not towards its own end, nor, finally, towards a closer meeting or actual union of humans, but instead as a means to an end. Though the different works provided certain audience members with particularly intimate relationships to the performers, and to the work, the varying amounts of audience activation utilized are parts of a more complex toolbox serving very specific aesthetic inquiries.

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