It wouldn’t be the same without you
Another slow motion show? That was my repeatedly sinking feeling across far too many Spring Forward performances, as yet another promising tableau turned out to be yet another exploration of a little finger unfolding at snail’s pace. Apart from slow, many performances were navel gazing projects of analysing in detail the articulations of the human skeleton or repeating the same movement for a felt eternity. Not sharing with the audience but casting them as props, stuck in an auditorium, caged in the dark to witness somebody else’s internal experience with no part for them to play in it. Who do you make the work for? That is a question artists seriously need to sit down and contemplate. Where does the audience come in? And if they are not among your first thoughts when making work – why ever not?
One of the most charming performances was, as it happened, not even part of the festival. Giuliana Majo’s dance-cum-lecture during the Springback Critical issues presentation considered the role of the spectator, imagining an artist congratulating her after a show for her great spectatorship: “It wouldn’t have been the same without you.” The audience plays a crucial part in the theatrical process. Along with the artist, the audience enters the performance arena as a participant. As Keir Elam notes in The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama: “It is with the spectator, that theatrical communication begins and ends.”
Performance is by its very nature interactive. Art that doesn’t want to connect or communicate with the viewer is arbitrary. Can theatre even exist without an audience? Not according to theatre theorist Jerzy Grotowski: “One spectator is needed to make performance.” Think about that: the difference between a rehearsal, a training session, studio research and an actual performance is me watching you.
Bertolt Brecht, that wonderfully cantankerous revolutionary of the theatre, raged against passive spectatorship: “slumped bodies under cover of the darkness (…) mentally switching off (...)These people seem relieved of activity and like men to whom something is being done.” The same grouchy Brecht was also a huge defender of entertainment, under no illusion that his first duty as a theatre maker was “to do so with a view to entertain”.
Dance performances rarely set out to smash the fourth wall in a Brechtian way, and I am not advocating the trend for immersive experiences and audience participation that has flooded theatreland needs to be adopted for dance. But there are ways of including your audience. “The relative passivity as receiver,” notes Elam, “imposes certain obligations on the selected ‘sender’.” So this is a plea for artists: please engage me. The big advantage with the kind of audience at Spring Forward is we are the people who love dance. We are the people who champion your art form. Out there in the dark, we are the brains stuffed full of knowledge and passion and curiosity, ready and eager to engage with your work. Please engage with us.
Pointing out that you will depend economically on a willing audience is perhaps overstating the obvious; but it’s worth remembering that meaning and value in any performance is generated as spectators decode the signs available and encode by filling in the gaps with their own experience and imagination. The audience member is a co-producer of meaning. A co-producer in bringing your work to life.
I remember well from being a performer how amazing it feels to move in slow motion, to exercise that control over your body. To analyse tiny movements, to repeat them to perfection, to dance till exhaustion. I know and I understand you – this feels great. You are alive, you feel the sensation, your body is a miracle. You know what doesn’t feel great? Sitting in the dark, knees crammed up to the ears, watching you have your internal experience with no place for me in it.
So value your audience and put them at the heart of your work. It’s not about your experience of your movement, it’s about theirs. Share. Share your joy, share your pain, share your ideas, share your research but don’t treat me as an afterthought. It wouldn’t be the same without me.