Sebastian Matthias’ x / groove space @ Tanz im August Berlin
Sebastian Matthias’ x / groove space ran for five days in Berlin’s Tanz im August dance festival. It is a 70-minute piece with a very personable cast of movers. As we entered the space there was no seating, which encouraged us to wonder throughout the dark theatre space. Very slowly, accompanying the live electronic music, dancers in pedestrian clothing entered the space. They danced in the open spaces left randomly between meandering audience members. The movement vocabulary was contemporary in its use of loose and angular limbs. I noticed the gaze of the dancers was neither intrinsic nor outward. They were neither looking at nor ignoring us. It became a game to spot the next dancer among the audience.
To be sure, there were many dancers in the audience — dancers not performing in this particular piece and so serving as audience members. I was curious: had an audience member started to dance on their own, having easily learned up the score, how would it affect the piece? A dancer accustomed to structural improvisation could certainly catch on relatively quickly. Would their change of role from audience to performer be welcome?
At a few points of x / groove space, I became aware of the intention of audience participation. When each dancer had entered the space and we were able to identify the performers, they passed by and re-positioned themselves constantly. Audience members were individually asked to try out new perspectives; a performer would address a viewer with an invitation to move to a new location and continue watching the performer from that vantage point. Perspective is powerful, no doubt, but the purpose of these deliberate location changes felt difficult to grasp, perhaps because the adjustments did not reveal usually unseen views. The performer moved in a frontal dimension, as if the audience member represented the performer’s personal front. The dancers also only addressed their chosen audience members once, and then continued to improvise independently. We would stand in our instructed locations, obediently and politely, often looking over our shoulders to check out what else was going on in the room.
I became curious about audience desires. Do audience members appreciate assigned seats for the duration of a 70-minute performance? Do audience members actually want to participate?
At another moment, later in the work, black trash bags were placed in a large circle. They were full of shredded white paper. The performers distributed the shreds to the audience in handfuls, and someone threw their handful at someone else. The shreds flew through space and spiraled to the ground. Others began to follow suit, throwing their shreds into the air or at each other. The air and floor became speckled with white. It became clear that this was the climax of the piece, the music audibly stronger and the performers’ pace quickened. They danced full-bodied in the papers lying on the floor. It was a party atmosphere — a strong beat, a strobe light, people dancing, other people watching. Somehow the party didn’t catch.
Again, I wonder about audience desires. Do audience members want to party?
Something better than a party followed: a man walked in and began sweeping the floor with a push broom. This was the most spectacular moment. I believe he was the custodian of Sophiensaele. No performance, no dancing — he cut the space in half diagonally with the broom. This action was aesthetically pleasing, revealing the black of the floor under the white shreds, and served to signify the next phase of the piece. His demeanor was incredible. His gaze was both intrinsic and outward. He acknowledged the audience members as physical obstacles in the way of his work but continued to carry out his assignment. As we understood his practical and performative task, we moved out of his way and began to join him. Performers picked up brooms and began to help sweep. Audience members, too. Here there was, visually, at least, no distinction between performers and audience.
The audience did want to participate.
Sweeping completed, the custodian left the room the same way he entered. Brooms and cleaning supplies absent, the room became darker. We were back into the performance sphere. Music was again atmospheric and performers began dancing through the open spaces, resuming the same quality as before the interruption. Synchronization was found between the music and the set pieces that hung, previously static, from the ceiling. The engineered apparatuses teetered back and forth, and the performers found relaxed positions sitting or standing among the audience. A stillness settled in. No dancing. No music. No moving objects. No cleaning. The audience was invited to accompany the performers out of the theatre and into the hall. Here, a bird’s eye projection was playing on the floor. It was a recording of the party section of the performance, shreds of paper visible in the air. You could easily spot yourself if you had been standing in the middle of the room.
The performers of x / groove space were dedicated and talented, the concepts sound and investigatory. There was a professional polish to the work. What I missed was dimensionality, a sense of ideas shifting into a present reality. The performance existed in the performative sphere. I missed the sensation of an updated reality. A few of the tasks included in the piece involved interaction with the audience, and it is in these unsuccessful interactions I found the experience wanting. I wanted the audience to be seen, to really be taken into account as a presence in the room. Instead, I noticed our roles as performers and audience members contributing to an impersonal task-oriented piece, holding onto structure at the expense of content. An audience member is an audience member, personality aside.