The best spectator
“In December 2018, I promised myself, as part of my New Year’s resolution, that I would become THE BEST…
audience member that I could ever possibly be. Le meilleur spectateur.”
So said Giuliana Majo as she staged a deft intervention in the middle of Springback Academy’s Critical Issues panel – which she turned into an entreaty to become, and an instruction manual for being, a better audience member.
With great charm, Majo taught the audience of critics, artists and programmers her dances for activating her exalted state as the ideal spectator – for mobilising the T5-T9 vertebrae that sit directly behind the heart, for activating the pelvis and the abdominals, thereby shaking off the petrification of a sedimentary lifestyle, for twisting the core to get the blood flowing to our dried up intervertebral discs… to make us more alert and engaged and curious.
Majo’s intervention brought into focus a lot of the ideas the Springback writers had been weighing throughout the weekend. In one of the group’s first discussions, mentor Kelly Apter said that she still feels excited every time she sits down in a theatre and the lights dim, and that she feels that if a critic doesn’t feel that excitement, then maybe they shouldn’t be doing the job any more.
That initial thrill of waiting to see a performance seems directly related to the openness and attentiveness that Majo was advocating. If we are going to write about an artist’s work, if we are going to scrutinise it and question the choices made, and give any kind of verdict on the quality of that work, then there must undoubtedly be a responsibility on critics to be the best audience members that we can be.
It’s hard to know exactly what form that should take. Majo’s intervention tasked us to be curious, alert, and open when engaging with dance, but she also reminded us that ‘it wouldn’t be the same without us’ and that the audience is effectively the other half of any given performance. The artist reaches out with ideas and emotions and expression, so we should meet them with an equal measure of receptive intent. We should reach for the ideas and offer our own interpretations, but without attempting to overwrite the former with the latter. We should strive to engage with each work as something new, without carrying in our preconceptions about an artist, or a company, or a dance style.
But doesn’t each audience member bring something unique to the audience-artist paradigm? If one critic loves tempo and drive and fury, and another savours structure more than movement, should we temper those preferences when reviewing work that pushes our buttons? Should the elements we enjoy be treated as carefully as the themes that irk us? Perhaps the goal should be the most generous audience member and to moderate both of those impulses in the artist’s favour.
Or maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe as critics, we need to interrogate our own impulses and biases as closely as the work we write about, and meet the art on its own terms. The critic is not by definition the best audience member, but Majo’s call to arms was that we should be the best spectators that we can possibly be. And that sounds like it’s going to take some work.
At the end of her intervention, Majo gave each of us a white card. It’s in my wallet now and it’s going to stay there.
Dance Audience Membership Appreciation Society: Lifelong Membership.
It’s a lot to live up to.