4.9.2023, 23:20:00   |  Photo: Noro Knap  |   Category: Other

What has left to dance?

We visit museums, performances, installations and we are not allowed to touch them. Are we supposed only to look at it, admire it and think about it?

The rise of non-conventional and participatory formats in the performing arts opens the question of how artists think about the role of the public, as well as their own function to play a piece. In a process of reconsidering the traditional division between artist and audience, choreographers employ integration of specific structures and sets of rules that are especially developed in the gaming sector.  

But what are the motivations that lead choreographers to such an extent of thinking? Is this effort pure curiosity, emancipation, evolution, revolution or even counter-evolution of choreographers to develop creations now regularly considered as a ludic form – in particular when they supposedly designed to sustain the involvement and enthusiasm of the audience?

We can understand this phenomenon by observing the predominant place acquired by discourses on democratization and de-hierarchization, not only in the artistic environment, but also throughout the humanities and political sciences. The philosopher Jacques Rancière, who highlights the function of equality in participatory works, evidences this: “Art tries to react on the form of economical, constitutional and ideological domination, and deals with societal hierarchy.”[1]

 Choreographers have explored the potential field of this idea. In the performing arts, this means creating choreographic frames and opportunities for people to grasp their capability and challenge systems of power and domination, which prevent people from doing so.

However, we consider the social structure of theater as a performative act, when the transposition of social codes to the participatory performances creates tension. Both artists and audience are facing to decode the rules of participation in a theatrical environment. To deal with its complexity choreographers have been experimenting with different configuration of relationships, which can be modelled on three criteria: artist — audience distance, scale of engagement of the audience and type of guidance.

1. Configurations of relationship between artist and audience range from classical frontal performances, where the audience sits in an auditorium, to the performances where the audience shares the same space with artists, i.e., stage. Depending on the proximity of the audience, both its role and function as well as those of artists change. For example, in the piece The Palm of Your Hand (Vera Tussing, 2015), the audience is arranged in an ellipse, which itself forms the bounds of the theatrical space. In this way, dance takes place in the active, engaged, tactile negotiation between performer and audience - in their tacit agreement and understanding. However, by placing a spectator’s body into the game space, it loses distance — the perspective — a kind of overview which enables the spectator to make connections, match the experience, mirror reality, assume the whole. Rancière calls this an aesthetical distance: “The shift in distance between artist and audience causes a split of an experienced body of the viewer and brings them into the conflict with multiple modes of sensory responsiveness”[2]

2. The scale of engagement of the audience includes three levels: viewing - witnessing - experiencing. Viewing refers to the act of observing a performance as a “passive” audience member. They may connect with the performance emotionally, intellectually, kinesthetically but do not directly influence or shape it. In contrast, witnesses are active participants who contribute to the performance in some way – to share personal stories, provide input or engage in interactive activities. Experiencing encompasses a holistic engagement with the performance that involves the audience's senses, emotions, physicality and intellect. It means immersing oneself fully in the creative environment and actively shaping the performance, inherently featured by strategic attempt to enhance audience engagement and unites them on temporal relational affinity, supposedly to be perceive as one community. This type of performance indicates the audience as being participants. For example, MichaelDouglas Kollektiv and Dana Caspersen, in The Polarity party (2017), invite participants into the theatrical space, which is shaped by different arrangements of chairs. By using physical action such as walking, sitting, talking and observing, participants reflect on the theme of polarization. By the end of the show, participants view their own spoken and written thoughts projected on the wall. In a way, this process breaks the cathartic function of theater, and offer another way to create a community gathering. By following Rancières theory, emancipation of, until then, persistent traditional theatrical paradigm was caused by an aesthetic rupture – an “efficacy of disconnection”[3] — that allowed cancellation of relationship between products of artistic capabilities and predefined social objective.

3. The third factor concerns type of guidance given by the artists, which influence the role of the dancer. Guidance is often accompanied by sets of rules, and as such they serve as a compass throughout the performance. From highly structured guidance as in The Polarity party to the rules that were constantly broken or with no rules at all. E.g., the performance Soft spot (ME-SA, 2022) offered only one rule to the audience – to change place whenever we want. Thus, the choreographer must rely on the audience capable to read codes, use their own compass, intuition and/or willingness to play.

            Basically, the bigger the engagement of the audience, the more involvement of artists as guides. Artists become performers — guides who not only perform but keep structure and rules of the game during the performance. Pointed out by a new role and function of artists as guides require them stepping down from the position of being dancer. - Instead enhancing audience engagement, participation and interaction involves incorporating elements commonly found in games, such as rules, challenges and rewards.

Is this tendency on the rise as a form of opposition to some artistical practices, which are seen as sterilized? Did abundance of everything, including performing art productions desensitize us, numb us in such way that we have to continually stimulate the involvement and enthusiasm of an audience? And what are the perceptual, aesthetic, but also economic stakes of making dance an activity designed to capture and hold the attention of spectators?  As a choreographer and dancer, I ended up with a question: what has left to dance?

About the phenomenon of participation in performative context, we looked beyond the scope of how different hierarchical configurations in society influenced the way how we think and act in a choreographic piece. Participation – as an act in which roles of artists and spectators are intertwined – and gamification – as a feature inherently present in participation – quite radically influenced the way how choreographers think about the form, content and consequently how the mission of performing arts has been shifting. It is from this point of view that we can consider that art has been re-politicized; in any case, if we follow Plato's proposal, for whom “Politics begins where there is a turning point in the redistribution of spaces and competences - or incompetencies.”[4]. This article does not pontificate participative art works, nor classical art works. Instead serves as reflection of tendencies in performing arts.


[1] Jacques Rancière, Emancipated Spectator, La Fabrique éditions, 2008/LITA, 2015, p. 49.

[2] Ibidem, p. 54.

[3] Ibidem, p. 55.

[4] Ibidem, p. 57.

Author: Katarína Brestovanská

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