On Not Bowing
On Thursday night Moriah Evans presented an incredibly strong work, Social Dance 9-12: Encounter at St. Marks Church as part of the 2015 Danspace Project season. At the end the dancers left the stage space but stayed in the room. There was no bow. The audience, clapping vigorously, sat looking directly at the performers as they sat and drank water. The dancers stopped accepting the objectifying gaze of the audience but the audience wasn’t done imposing it on them. A tension and awkwardness emerged. Are they going to bow? No, they’re not. They’re going to tensely wait until we are done clapping so this liminal purgatory between art and not art can be over. They’re going to endure this awkwardness.
But maybe it’s worth it.
I am against bowing at the end of dance performances as an unquestioned default. I’ve been to many shows that have ended with a bow that compromised the work. Something magical and specific is created in the time and space of the art. There’s a potential for that unique world to endure after the performance-proper is over and to have a life independent from its performers. The art can be a window into a reality that is less immediately perceptible but no less valid than our day-to-day environment. When the performers come out for a bow they may reduce something that had the potential to be greater than the sum of its parts down to being about the people who made it.
I support dance that is made with a rigorously considered relationship to other forms and traditions, including the theatrical curtain call. Western concert dance has historically been the stepchild of theater and musical performance but how nurturing are those familial ties? I believe that the potential of dance as an artform is most revealed when it transcends conventions of theater and implicates itself in a broader cultural conversation by incorporating codes from a wider array of artistic traditions. Sculptors don’t bow. And neither do sculptures. Painters and architects don’t bow. Poets sometimes bow. Landscape artists don’t bow. Dance can be in conversation with those forms as much as with its stepparents.
I respect that many choreographers and dancers actively and intentionally position their work in the canon of theater. In this case, a bow can function beautifully to anchor the work into that canon, directly serving the intentions of those artists. Same goes for dance shows whose primary concern is to entertain audiences. But for those who have a more ambivalent relationship to theater and entertainment, and for those examining what dance has to offer that theater does not, the question of bowing should be carefully considered.
I also appreciate that a bow can be a way of thanking audiences for witnessing the art. That said, not bowing can be its own sign of respect. If you believe in the potential for the work to have its own identity, not bowing can be a way of embodying your commitment to that belief. Work of art, I am going to respect that you are worth enough on your own. You don’t need a bow to complete you. Not bowing can raise the stakes by putting all the focus on what was created and trusting that that is enough, rather than shifting attention away from the work itself and toward the individual contributions of the collaborators who made it.
Leaving Moriah’s show, my belief in the potential of not bowing was wavering a bit. The tension between audience and performers in that fraught moment partially upstaged the beauty and specificity of the performance-proper, to its detriment. Did not bowing really serve the work? Had staying in the room without bowing seemed like an extension of the research proposed in the performance, I would give a resounding yes. But I’ll still say yes. Considering the namesake questions that the piece asked about dance as social experience and encounter between people and traditions, bowing would have compromised the integrity of the investigation in some of the ways mentioned above. While I think it might have been more effective to let the performers leave the space and skip the clapping purgatory, my belief in the potential of not bowing carries on.