dis/engage

The last few weeks have brought me to few quite disparate performances – different companies, forms and venues.  However, they have all got me thinking about audiences.  About my experience as an audience member –  what makes me think, engage, invest, enjoy (or not), feel, experience.  What follows me after the performance has long finished.  And, as a result, I have also been considering how I would like audiences to feel after viewing a piece that I have made.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Sadlers Wells I have oft called my ‘spiritual home’.  I love the red; the stairs (I have cultivated a deep love of the second circle, mainly out of poverty/necessity, but those stairs never fail to get me a little excited); all the glass at the front; spotting wizened ex-dancers, still elegant and long of neck; the teeny Lilian Baylis…the delicious interval ice-cream with the ballerinas pique-ing around the tub.  But I have not been to Sadlers for a while – the last show I saw there was New Adventures’ Play Without Words and before that, I can’t even remember as the programming just didn’t capture me enough to spend my money on.

Saturday night, I returned.  I saw Sasha Waltz’s Continu.  It was pretty beautiful.  The dancers were beautiful.  The costumes were beautiful.  The lines and leaps and lands were beautiful.  But I left feeling slightly ‘meh’ about the entire thing.  It was beautiful, but I just didn’t really care.  I could appreciate that the dancers were undoubtedly working hard, and that they were undoubtedly supremely talented.  The staging was grand, the configurations of bodies intricate, and at times momentarily breath-taking.  (When is a shoal of almost 30 bodies, seamlessly moving in and out of formation not breath-taking?)  But I didn’t feel anything.  Nothing. Nada. Niente.

Not once did I see any humanity in the dancers.  Over the course of several intricate duets, the dancers didn’t look at each other once.  And there was an overwhelming utilisation of the ‘contemporary dance 12-yard stare’.  I don’t know why I didn’t feel anything and I really wish I did.  Judith Mackrel suggests:

Waltz locks her dancers so rigidly into the architectural design of the piece that we’re never allowed a moment’s intimate connection with them, which makes the two hours feel very long.

(this from her review for the Guardian which can be found here.)

Maybe it was the design, maybe it was something else, but the superhuman uber dancers didn’t get me excited for a second in the same way that the percussionist from the first section did.  Man, was that lady GOING FOR IT. You could see that she was working, she was engaged, she was creating the rhythms like her life depended on it.  I was compelled to witness her toil and I was rewarded visually and aurally.  She was in it, so I was in it.

I had a similar experience at one of the Place Prize semi-finals a week or so previously.  Across the four pieces, I felt a distinct, well, lack of feeling. I didn’t really feel anything at all.

What is it about a piece of dance, art, theatre, music that captures us?   How is it that it may touch one person, but not the next?  Or even more mysteriously, how does work capture and captivate an entire audience or a broad spectrum its viewers?

Of course a sense of the popular, of what is fashionable and what the current zeitgeist dictates that we need or desire to see, believe or immerse ourselves in, is perhaps one approach.  But what makes work timeless?  I don’t think it’s a case of what makes work good or bad, or even the ever spiralling high-brow versus low-brow argument.  Do audiences look for something that they miss in their own real lives, or do they desire more of the same?

I know that I relate to the human (as I mentioned above).  I relate to the emotional, perhaps.  I relate to authenticity – even though I permanently question its existence.  I relate to history, to the personal.  But I can’t quite put a finger on what this means, or how I can relate this to my own enjoyment as a member of an audience.

Hmmm.  More questions than answers, as usual, I fear.

What makes good viewing for you?  What do you seek out?  Enjoy?  Detest? (Do you sometimes enjoy and detest simultaneously?!)  If you were an audience of one – what would you want to see?  What would you ask of the performer(s)?  What would you ask of yourself?

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