By Nicola van Straaten
Beginnings are both the best and worst. Defined by the stretched out and unknown space ahead, beginnings are endlessly threatening and exciting in their potential. Starting anything (like a small publication about dance, for instance) comes with its own bundle of issues and quirks, but there is something very important that happens at the start of a choreographic performance that sets the tone for the rest of the piece.
The choreographer Jonathan Burrows says:
“One thing about the beginning is that this is your chance to give us some clues how to watch what you’ve made… Perhaps the most clues are in the moment when you walk onto the stage. What can you tell us in that moment? What principles or thoughts about performance might inhabit that moment? Can you reassure me that I’m sitting in the right way to watch your performance?”
He also says:
“The first things the audience sees when a performance begins form a contract. This contract teaches the audience how to read the performance, at the same time as the performance is unfolding.”
Sometimes, as a member of the audience, I have felt bewildered by the ambiguity of the contract created between myself the choreographer and the performers, too. It goes without saying that the performers form a vital part of that contract created by the choreographer and the way in which the contract is expressed. I have watched shows where I have felt as though the choreographer created the piece with the audience as an afterthought, when the piece is ‘ready’ to show. Other times, I have watched work that has made me feel that the person who created the work has always had the audience in mind, through the entire process and thus throughout the product. There is a certain generosity of spirit towards the viewer that some choreographers manage to create, although it manifests itself in a myriad of different ways…
I once watched a piece by French choreographer, Xavier Le Roy. It was called ‘Self-Unfinished’. It was a solo piece, performed by the choreographer and it was very amazing. I don’t remember how it started but I do remember seeing Xavier Le Roy standing outside the theatre sort of smiling and watching the audience walk in. He came into the theatre after us, once everyone was nicely settled in. I remember that very clearly. I think that was when the piece started – his just being there, not hidden away from us in the wings, preparing and warming up. His pre-performance presence was the start of the performance that included us. We were as much a part of the whole thing as he was.Just by allowing us into the performance space first and then coming in after, he immediately set up a contract expressing some sort of intimacy and frankness.
About two years ago, I watched a work called ‘19born76rebels’ by South African choreographer, Mamela Nyamza. It took place in a quad and there were cushions on the floor, low benches and some chairs. Two performers entered; they were wearing extravagant large dresses and walking very slowly on large ricoffy cans, like clumsy big high heels. Their height and stature and slow pace, coupled with the audience scattered about, staring up at the performers, immediately created a feeling of expectation and foreboding. The audience had no sense of safety in the mismatched seating arrangement. We weren’t tucked away in the dark but on display, as though the performers got the chance to scrutinize us. This immediately set up a very specific power dynamic. We were not invited to engage with what we were witnessing, we were instructed, like small schoolchildren. We were there to listen, they were in control, they commanded the space and energy. It was both exhausting, fascinating and an integral part of the work’s message.
And then, about a year later, I watched a work by Dutch choreographer, Jan Martens. This performance was called ‘The Dog Days Are Over’ and it took place in a kind of a school hall with a small stage right at the back of the hall. The dancers were on this small stage as the audience walked in, warming up and stretching, wearing silly and electric work out gear. We were able to watch their warm up (while they watched us back a little) and this made them both human and intriguing. This small aspect of connection set up a very strong feeling of vulnerability which only grew and grew as the piece developed into an incredibly complex and exhausting sequence of ceaseless jogging in various formations and systems. The audience watched as the dancers, concentrating deeply and counting constantly, became increasingly exhausted.
By allowing us to witness their preparation, not only did we get an insight into the extremity of the task that they were preparing themselves for, but it also added another layer of thoughtfulness around the concept of performativity and its incessant absurdity.
It is all very clever. Because with each of these pieces, what happened at the very beginning of the performance, long before the dancers started to dance, was that a certain structure and lens was created. The audience was then able to engage (in whatever way they chose) with the piece through and within the framework. This contract wasn’t always a big statement but, nontheless, it held an integral essence that was important to the overall work. A small and thoughtful feature that gestured towards the audience in acknowledgement that this was not just the beginning of a dance, but the beginning of an individual’s experience within a moment of time.
The next time you find yourself in an audience, playing the role of the spectator, maybe ask yourself – when does the actual choreography begin? What does the choreographer want to tell me? How should I sit? How do I feel?
The audience forms as much a part of performance as the performer on the stage. It is always an exchange, a dialogue of watcher and watched. Perhaps dance may take on a whole new meaning and feeling if you start looking for the contract and seeing how you would like, in that moment, to engage with it.