While home in Minnesota this summer, I had the opportunity to see some very interesting and unique dance performances, all of which had a distinct approach to the performer-audience relationship. They questioned the ‘shoulds’ and ‘coulds’ in the relationship between the the performer and their audience.
'closer': challenging the pre-defined roles of performance and life
I first attended BodyCartography’s ‘closer’ project, a one-on-one dance performance that took place in public spaces around the twin cities—from the Stone Arch Bridge to Minneapolis City Hall and elsewhere. It was a performance which challenged the pre-defined roles within the very term ‘performance’.
As humans we are most familiar with the traditional performer-audience relationship that takes place in a theater-like setting. In such a space there is a clear line between where the performer’s space ends and where the audience’s space starts. And although there is undeniably a performer-audience relationship, it is often distant and not necessary for either to leave their 'safe-space' and cross the line into the other's role.
‘closer’ embodied a distinct approach, as they took these clearly defined roles and relationship (or interaction) and placed them in completely new settings—settings which we interact with everyday and do not typically think of as a space of performance. As a result, during this moment we, the audience, found ourselves asking anew: What is the definition of performance and where does it really take place?
This question is one that that has been addressed by many anthropologists and leads into many more questions:
Is culture is performed?
If so, would our everyday life then be considered a performance?
And if it is, then what is the difference between the performances we watch in theaters and the performance of everyday life?
These questions are an unending cycle. And although the artistic performance and the performances of life are different, perhaps they also reflect each other in a valuable way.
Erika Fischer-Lichte argues that performances are liminal experiences (an experience that takes place inbetween the stages or parts of a process or structure). However, whereas the performances that take place in our daily life are usually done with the intention of leading up to a particular goal, the goal of an artistic performance is the journey itself.
As a result, the artistic performance is the very act of sitting in-between the clear definitions we so frequently abide by. Consequently, although we might not consider artistic performances to be the interpretation of society itself, they very well could be the interpretation of the examining, questioning and/or challenging of society.
Deborah Newton states it nicely: “The emphasis on in-betweenness reveals that performances become particularly suitable sites for processes to take place between people within but also outside of the same milieu, religion, social status, gender, ethnic group, nation, or culture. Therefore, it seems particularly promising to examine processes of cultural exchange in performance.”
In the case of the performer-audience relationship, the roles are more established and pre-defined when a performance takes place in a traditional theatrical setting. These roles have been constructed over the years and have created a safety line between the audience and the performers which people are more hesitant to abandon.
By taking an artistic performance into a public space, as was done in ‘closer’, we find ourselves questioning not only the precepts about human interaction that are found in performance settings but also applying these questions to the social norms we abided by in our daily life. The performers are asking the audience to not just watch them enquire into said questions, but to actively react—a whole new territory and scary place for many people to be.
Judge me. Hate me. Love me.: inviting the audience into the unknown spaces of modern dance
The second performance that caught my attention this summer was "Judge me. Hate me. Love me." Again, it was a performance that raised the question of performer-audience relation with a specific curiosity to understand the apparent disconnect between the audience of modern dance and the dancers themselves.
Sadly (in my opinion), our society does not seem to interact with modern dance frequently. It is a territory that is far-away and foreign to many people. Although one can often appreciate its obvious physicality and the dedication of the dancers to training, when it comes to watching a more abstract dance form, such as modern dance, one can be left in great confusion. And this is completely normal!
The elements and topics that modern and contemporary dance explore are based so deeply inside a person’s body that if someone has never spent any time exploring their own body it is hard for them to recognize and/or appreciate this exploration in another person. Our bodies are so much deeper and more complex than we realize and as we investigate this through dance, yoga or any other embodied practice we begin to understand what this means.
What I appreciated about “Judge me. Hate me. Love me.” was that it questioned this divide we see between modern dancers and their audience and how can it be changed. In many ways it relates to what I was spoke about with the performance ‘closer’.
It is rare that an audience is fully encouraged to step into the performance—to question and explore alongside the performer. And although we could argue that the audience needs to take responsibility to participate, as artists it is also our responsibility to make sure our audience is actively engaged in dialogue with us and not just staring blindly, watching from the sideline.
As James Baldwin stated, “The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” As artists we need to help and encourage our spectators to not be afraid to enter into these more foreign, unknown topics, questions and ideas rather than expecting them to arrive there on their own.
“Judge me. Hate me. Love me.” was attempting to fulfill that duty by trying to figure out how they can encourage and help their audience better understand what they are doing and why. They approached the performance in a light-hearted way, acting as if they were scientists and we, the audience, were participants in their study. As a result, they broke down the performer-audience dichotomy by trying to change the perspective from a performer-audience interaction to an interaction that was simply happening between people.
Ananya's Dance Theatre: breaking down barriers and opening up room for change
The final performance I attend was Roktim: Nurture Incarnadine, and was not just a performance but also a workshop. It was put on by Ananya’s Dance Theatre (ADT) and just like the previous two performance, it asked the audience to take an active role in the performance.
Ananya's Dance Theatre puts this workshop on every year right before their big performance in September. I am personally a big fan of their work as it is based in the relationship between art and the world, focusing on how art can help us improve the world and the societies we live in. Their performance always explores a global issue or human-rights concern which they question and investigate as a group through different hands-on explorations. They then translate the knowledge they have gained into different choreographies and performances to share with the community.
Ananya Dance Theatre say they are “guided by Shawngram” (which in Bengali means resistance) and they are interested in creating dialogue with their community about the topics they are exploring by “conduct[ing] story sharing and movement circles, where the community is invited into the creative process”.
Their company and their work is a beautiful example of how art and performance can take an integral part in our societies and can be used as an active hand in improving our societal structures.
The workshop they hold every year is an opportunity to help talk through the performance and topics they are exploring with the audience and to help the community understand how they, as spectators, can become active participants.
I see their work to be a great example of what can emerge when the performer-audience dichotomy is broken down. In doing so the performers and the audience begin to understand each other and feel comfortable entering into each others conversations, the beginning to any strong movement or change.